President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama announced a government initiative Tuesday to support the education of girls around the globe. As part of “Let Girls Learn,” federal agencies will direct resources toward helping girls attend school.
The initiative was inspired by a joint Oval Office meeting the couple had in 2013 with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for speaking out in support of girls’ education. The Obamas said the cause will remain a focus of their work after the president leaves office.
“Sixty-two million girls around the world who should be in school are not, and that’s not by accident,” the president said before introducing the first lady at the East Room launch of the program. “It’s a direct result of barriers that stand in the way of girls who want to learn. Even today, in many parts of the world girls are valued more for their bodies than their minds. That’s not just antiquated . . . that’s just plain wrong.”
He added that his administration, at the urging of his wife, will try to enhance existing efforts to boost gender equality among adolescents by highlighting successful projects and starting some new ones, some of which will involve the first lady.
“As I’ve traveled the world over the past six years, I’ve seen time and again how our young people, particularly our girls, are so often pushed to the bottom of our society,” said Michelle Obama, who will visit Japan and Cambodia this month in support of the new initiatives. “These girls are our change-makers . . . I couldn’t walk away from them.”
Like other programs the Obama administration has launched, including “My Brother’s Keeper,” which focused on young black men in the United States, the new initiative hopes to attract private and nonprofit support. Resources from the United States Agency for International Development that already target adolescent girls will now be moved under the “Let Girls Learn” banner, and the Obama administration’s 2016 budget request includes an additional $250 million toward the effort.
Michelle Obama will promote a new Peace Corps training program that will teach its 7,000 volunteers in some 60 countries to address gender inequality and funnel volunteers to the task of building community programs that target the factors keeping girls out of school — sexual violence, unaffordable school fees and inadequate health care, among others. It will start in 11 countries, including Albania, Benin, Ghana and Cambodia, where the first lady will visit a Peace Corps program in Siem Reap later this month.
Both of the Obamas spoke of the program in personal and political terms, saying that they want other girls to have the opportunities that have been afforded to their teenage daughters, and that nations that treat girls equally are more stable and more prosperous.
“When girls are educated they are more likely to delay marriage, their future children are more likely to be healthy, their future wages increase,” the president said.
Administration officials said having the Obamas direct their energy toward the issue will put pressure on foreign governments to do more to promote gender equality among youths. Last year, Michelle Obama expressed her support for schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by joining in the #BringBackOurGirls online campaign and giving a radio address — typically the president’s turf — on the topic. She has also encouraged government and community leaders worldwide to invest in girls, rather than tolerating child marriage and preferences towards boys.
Gayle Smith, the National Security Council’s senior director for development and democracy, said the announcement means “you’ll see us doing much more to get other countries to step up.”
“It’s really critical, including for our national security,” Smith said. “We know that when girls are educated it has got a huge economic and stability impact, and then we widen the circle of potential leaders. On the other side, you have the girls kidnapped in Nigeria, incidences of rape in Darfur, huge numbers of girls as refugees in Syria.”