White House officials on Tuesday presented what they believe are the reasons for educating young women overseas and unveiled a number of new financial commitments to the effort totaling more than $5 million.
The move was part of a campaign to ensure that President and first lady Michelle Obama’s signature Let Girls Learn initiative lasts long after they leave office.
The new pledges from the private sector include $2.5 million from a program by the public health group Rise Up to enable girls in Malawi to finish school and delay marriage; a $1 million donation by Newman’s Own Foundation to support Peace Corps initiatives and the Kibera School for Girls in Kenya; $500,000 from the Central Asia Institute to provide services for girls in Afghanistan; and $400,000 from Endeavor Energy and $200,000 from Water Charity and the National Peace Corps Association to fund Peace Corps volunteers’ work.
Tuesday’s announcements mean that in a year and a half, Let Girls Learn has amassed more than $1 billion in support for federal programs to educate girls in 50 nations around the globe.
The initiative has been a special focus of Michelle Obama, who in the past 18 months has promoted it with intensity. She pointed out that she has no budget for programs or authority to pass laws, but by raising awareness she has been able to make global girls’ education a priority of the federal government, establish partnerships with corporations and work with other developed countries, including Japan, Canada and Mexico.
“This is personal for me,” Obama told a group of girls from around the world gathered for a conversation hosted by Glamour magazine at the Newseum. “I wouldn’t be here — not just in this chair, but in the life that I have — without my education.”
The first lady, joined by teenage actress Yara Shahidi, spoke for more than an hour with dozens of young women, some of whom were brought into the conversation via Skype from Jordan, Peru, Tanzania and Britain.
The conversation was part of a White House celebration of the International Day of the Girl, which boosted the program. Tina Tchen, who serves as assistant to the president and the first lady’s chief of staff, said in an interview that Let Girls Learn has developed into a “whole of government” operation led by the National Security Council that includes the Departments of State, Labor and Agriculture as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Peace Corps and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
The initiative has become one of the Obamas’ more prominent development programs, in the way that the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief helped define part of the legacy of George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. The program has been the impetus for Michelle Obama’s overseas trips in recent years, and while visiting East Asia last month President Obama announced that Let Girls Learn will start up in Laos and Nepal.
“They both have spent a lot of time with young people, both in the United States and around the world,” Tchen said. “They both obviously have a global presence and recognition as leaders that will position them however they choose to move forward on these issues in the post-presidency.”
The first lady has leveraged her office, as well as social media and the administration’s ties to a range of private groups, to boost public awareness of the program and the estimated 98 million adolescent girls who are denied educational opportunities worldwide.
In January, she spoke to a gathering of the Association of Magazine Media. After that appearance, the administration secured a commitment from 65 magazines to donate advertising space promoting Let Girls Learn. The magazine association said it was the largest donation of ad space in history.
CNN trailed Michelle Obama on a trip to Morocco, Liberia and Spain this summer. On Wednesday, the cable network is scheduled to air a documentary about the first lady’s trip that explores the stories of some of the girls she met there.
Forty-four of the young women Obama met while in Morocco and Liberia were flown to Washington to participate in activities coinciding with the International Day of the Girl on Tuesday, as well as a multi-day program arranged by the State Department.
The group includes Raphina Felee, a 20-year-old Liberian who met Obama during the first lady’s visit to Monrovia this summer to promote Let Girls Learn. Felee grew up in a refugee camp in Guinea and now lives with her uncle and his family in Kakata, a town surrounded by rubber plantations in southwestern Liberia. She juggles household chores with attending school.
A young woman from Tanzania told Obama about the barriers that girls in her country face, including being raped or attacked by thieves on the way to school, or being subject to female genital mutilation and early marriage. The first lady called such stories “heartbreaking” and said they inspired her to start Let Girls Learn.
To make the case for maintaining the program under the next administration, the White House has issued an eight-page fact sheet outlining the national security benefits of investing in adolescent girls’ education. Aspects of the initiative have attracted some new funding, including $25 million for USAID’s Let Girls Learn Challenge Fund and $30 million for the Peace Corps.
Obama said the Peace Corps is key because the program has “focused on attacking these barriers from the ground up — working with local leaders, parents themselves and working with the girls.”
She also shared with the young women participating in the conversation her own story of growing up in a working-class family in Chicago and told the girls that she, too, had been underestimated.
“You see me now as the first lady, but there are still doubts. There are people who questioned whether I would be a good first lady . . . people who questioned whether I was strategic enough or whether my initiatives would have an impact,” she said. “All throughout my life there are people who have underestimated me.”