Michelle Obama engaged in some “real talk” on the issue of female education at the Summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders July 30. “As an African American woman, this conversation is deeply personal to me,” Obama said. Citing her ancestry and her husband, President Barack Obama’s close ties to Kenya, where his father and other family are from, the first lady added, “The roots of my family tree are in Africa . . . . The blood of Africa runs through my veins, and I care deeply about Africa’s future.”
Obama referenced some “heartbreaking” statistics on the issue of girls’ education: 62 million girls worldwide are not in school, including nearly 30 million girls in Sub-Saharan Africa. And even for those girls who get the chance to attend school, they do so at their peril. This was made clear recently in Pakistan, where Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen, and in Nigeria where more than 300 girls were kidnapped from their school dormitory by Islamist terrorists. In fact, according to a 2014 report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, the desire to block girls from being educated is one of the leading reasons behind attacks on schools worldwide.
Obama said most of the solutions to this undermining of girls’ education have focused on resources – more schools, teachers, better infrastructure, etc. – but a key component has been overlooked. “I could give a perfectly fine speech today about increasing investments in girls’ education around the world,” the first lady said. “But I said I wanted to be honest. And if I do that, we all know that the problem here isn’t only about resources, it’s also about attitudes and beliefs. It’s about whether fathers and mothers think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons. It’s about whether societies cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women, or whether they view women as full citizens entitled to fundamental rights.”
Obama urged the young African leaders to advocate on behalf of women and to challenge practices such as female genital mutilation, forced child marriages, human trafficking, rape and domestic violence. “While I have great respect for cultural differences, I think we can all agree that [these] practices . . . are not legitimate cultural practices, they are serious human rights violations and have no place in any country on this Earth,” she said, eliciting applause. “These practices have no place in our shared future, because we all know that our future lies in our people – in their talent, their ambition, their drive. And no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.”
The Obama administration last month launched an initiative, Let Girls Learn; led by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), that committed $230 million for new programs to support education around the world. Several of Hollywood’s biggest actors, singers and athletes also got behind the project, appearing in an online PSA that offers examples of how girls’ education benefits society. “A threat to girls’ education anywhere is a threat to progress everywhere,” “Modern Family” star Julie Bowen said in the two-minute video.
Obama also used her life as an example of the things that are possible when women are treated as equals and supported by the males in society. “See, what I want you all to understand is that I am who I am today because of the people in my family – particularly the men in my family – who valued me and invested in me from the day I was born,” she said.
“My ancestors came here in chains. My parents and grandparents knew the sting of segregation and discrimination. Yet I attended some of the best universities in this country. I had career opportunities beyond my wildest dreams. And today, I live in the White House, a building . . . that was constructed by slaves,” Obama later added. “Today, I watch my daughters – two beautiful African-American girls – walking our dogs in the shadow of the Oval Office. And today, I have the privilege of serving and representing the United States of America across the globe.
“So my story and the story of my country is the story of the impossible getting done. And I know that can be your story and that can be Africa’s story too.”