“Educating girls is one of the most powerful things we can do, not just for girls and their families, but for their communities and their countries,” First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama said to a Brookings audience today, referencing the “painstaking research” that the global girls’ education community has done on this issue. In her keynote address at the event—hosted by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings to discuss how local leadership and community-based solutions can help advance girls’ education across the world—First Lady Obama acknowledged the success of getting millions more girls into school, but also the challenge of keeping girls in school “through adolescence and then transition to the workforce.” Because, she said, “we all know that this critical period, when girls develop from children into women, [that] this issue truly gets hard.” Watch her full address here, introduced by Brookings President Strobe Talbott:
The first lady explained that:
[A]dolescence is often when a girl is first subject to the cultural values and practices that define what it means to be a woman in her society. And at that point, we really can’t take on the issue of girls’ education unless we are also willing to confront all of the complex issues that keep so many girls out of school. Issues like early and forced marriage, genital cutting, beliefs about women’s sexuality and their proper role in society and the very real economic disincentives that keep many parents from sending their daughters to school in the first place.
Mrs. Obama also spoke to other bars to girls’ education, including parents who weigh school fees against family food budgets, losing household help, and strongly-held traditions and values. Families, she said, “want to see real evidence that their daughter is learning real marketable skills, things like literacy, numeracy, vocational skills that will her provide for herself and ultimately her family.”
Addressing the theme of the day, the first lady noted that “we also need buy in from those families and communities.” We need community mobilization and local leadership, she explained. And, she said, “we need parents to actually believe that their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons and that sending girls to school is a good investment for their future.”
“Now isn’t the time to be hesitant or risk averse,” First Lady Obama said. “For as you know so many girls across the globe are counting on us to be bold and creative and to give them all of the opportunities they deserve to fulfill their promise.”
The first lady illustrated this point with the story of Mireille Muhigwa, a young woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who, as a child, watched rebel forces attack and kill her neighbors, leaving her determined to fight for human rights and girls’ education. She went on to graduate from college with honors and as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative she addressed spouses at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. “If Mireille could sustain her dreams amidst unspeakable violence,” Mrs. Obama said, “then surely we can sustain our focus on the fight for girls like her across the globe.” First Lady Obama continued that:
If girls like Mireille walk miles each day to reach their classrooms and stay up for hours each night studying like their lives depended on it, if they can risk their lives just to go to school, like Malala did, if they can stand strong against all the voices that tell them they are undeserving of an education, then surely we can find a way to provide that education. We must. Surely we can give them a future worthy of their promise. Because in the end when it’s all said and done, our challenges in doing that are nothing compared to the challenges these girls face. And if we can show just a fraction of their passion and courage and determination, then I’m confident that we can give all our girls the education they deserve.