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Placing Women and Girls at the Heart of the Global Development Agenda

First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to one of the Obama Administration’s major international priorities, and the focus of her international work. Learn more.

In an address today to the UN’s Global Education First Initiative – for which the United States is a proud champion country, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to one of the Obama Administration’s major international priorities, and the focus of her international work: promoting quality education for girls around the world.   Her remarks helped to anchor an important week at the United Nations which, in addition to Wednesday’s remarks by President Obama to the UN General Assembly, featured a number of events focused on the support and empowerment of women and girls around the world. 

Secretary of State John Kerry and I kicked off the week by hosting the 5th high-level meeting of the Equal Futures Partnership on Monday.  Secretary Kerry underscored America’s continued commitment to the Partnership, and its goals for promoting the full civic, political, and economic inclusion and empowerment of women around the world.  There was a fantastic panel featuring the Foreign Ministers of Croatia, Australia, Japan, and Finland, and the Minister for Social Development and Inclusion of Peru, on strategies for increasing women’s representation in leadership positions in the public and private sectors.  We received updates from the partner countries on their accomplishments and progress toward fulfilling their Equal Futures commitments.  On behalf of the United States, I provided an update on our domestic efforts to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, highlighting steps like the White House’s first ever Working Families Summit, and our It’s On Us campaign to end sexual assault on college campuses.  And we had the great pleasure of welcoming the three newest countries to the Equal Futures Partnership— Chile, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, bringing the total number of participating nations to 27!   

Also on Monday, Secretary Kerry convened a group of senior representatives from governments and international organizations at a high-level event for the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies, an initiative launched by the United Kingdom in 2013, and now led by the United States.  At Monday’s event, Secretary Kerry announced $12 million in additional funding for Safe from the Start, a U.S. initiative that helps nations prevent and respond to gender-based violence from the onset of humanitarian emergencies.  This new funding more than doubles the initial $10 million that was allocated for this initiative when it was launched a year ago. 

On Tuesday, the Administrator for USAID, Dr. Rajiv Shah, co-chaired a meeting to engage private sector, international, and inter-agency experts on the future of efforts to empower Afghan women.  This event recognized the vital importance of public and private sector partnership and investment to promote opportunities for Afghan women in government, education, and the economy.  Efforts like USAID’s largest-ever women-focused program, Promote, which aims to empower women and girls in Afghanistan in order to strengthen the political and economic future of Afghan women, families, communities, and the entire country.  The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Catherine Russell, joined the Afghanistan event to underscore the United States’ commitment to promoting women’s participation in building peace and preventing conflict around the world.   Throughout the week, she also spoke on the importance of investing in the rights and needs of adolescent girls. 

And on Wednesday, the First Lady addressed the 3rd annual UN Global Education First Initiative on the importance of providing quality education for adolescent girls around the world, while keeping them safe and fully supported.  It’s an issue that remains very personal to the First Lady, which she made clear in her address. 

“I know that I am standing here today,” she said, “because of the people in my life, particularly the men – men like my father, grandfathers and uncles – who valued me, and invested in me from the day I was born…pushing me to succeed in school…insisting that I have the same opportunities as my brother…urging me to find a husband who would treat me as an equal.” 

The First Lady issued a call to action to leaders around the world, underscoring the need for the global community to come together to ensure girls have opportunities to complete their secondary education, and to tackle harmful cultural norms that the world imposes on women: 

“Keeping girls safe on their way to school, teaching them relevant skills once they get there, and ensuring they graduate from secondary school - all of that needs to be on our agenda.  Addressing gender-based violence in all its forms – from domestic violence, to genital cutting, to early and forced marriage – that needs to be on our agenda too.  Because girls around the world deserve so much better – they are so eager to learn…and so many of them are sacrificing so much for the chance to get an education.” 

Since taking office, President Obama has been dedicated to ensuring that girls grow up in a country, and a world, where they can feel safe, supported, and encouraged to reach their full potential.  As we heard this week from President Obama, the First Lady, and Secretary Kerry, the U.S. will continue to look for ways to lead by example, and to partner with countries who are investing in, protecting, and empowering women in their countries and around the world. 

It’s safe to say, countries that are squarely focused on unlocking the full potential of women and girls, are positioning themselves to compete and succeed in the global economy for years to come.  As President Obama put it in his remarks today to the UN General Assembly:

“When young people have the tools to succeed -- good schools, education in math and science, an economy that nurtures creativity and entrepreneurship -- then societies will flourish…Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy,  societies are more likely to succeed.  And that’s why we support the participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and the economy.”   

The United States is pushing to ensure that quality education for every child and the empowerment of women and girls are dedicated goals on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.  This is an unprecedented opportunity for the global community to come together around a new set of global development priorities, and to recognize that ensuring women and girls can participate on an equal footing with men and boys in their societies, communities, and families, would be transformative.

When we do this work together, and capitalize on the full potential of women and girls to serve as leaders, elected officials, workers, parents, scholars and employers, we will watch the future and the world become more stable, more secure, and more promising for generations to come.

More detailed information on U.S. efforts to empower women and girls in the United States and around the world can be found here.

Valerie Jarrett is Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls