Remarks by the First Lady at United Nations Global Education First Initiative
New York, New York
3:37 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Good afternoon. It is truly a pleasure and an honor to join you today for the third annual Global Education First Initiative event.
Let me start by thanking Chernor for that just touching, very powerful, beautiful introduction. Let’s give him a round of applause. That was amazing. (Applause.) I do not feel worthy. But I’m very proud of you and all of the other youth advocates for the tremendous work that you all are doing. You make me proud.
I also want to recognize Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson; UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova; U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown; and, of course, the GEFI Champion Countries and Partners.
But most of all, I want to thank all of you for your visionary work on global education, particularly on the issue I want to discuss today –- an issue which is the focus of my international work as First Lady of the United States -– and that is providing quality education for girls around the world.
Now, we have made tremendous progress on this issue, particularly on primary education. Thanks to leaders like all of you, as of 2012, every developing region in the world had achieved, or was close to achieving, gender parity in primary education. And this is a stunning accomplishment, and we should all be proud of how far we’ve come.
But we shouldn’t be satisfied. Because while the benefits of primary education are real and meaningful, we know that if we truly want to transform girls’ lives, if we truly want to give them the tools to shape their own destinies, then primary education often just isn’t enough.
We know that if we want girls to marry later, raise healthier children, earn good wages, then we need to send them to school through adolescence. But we also know that adolescence marks the critical moment when a girl starts to develop from a child into a woman; when she is first subjected to the norms and prejudices that her society holds around gender. And that is precisely when the issue of quality education truly starts to get hard.
At that point in a girl’s life, it is no longer enough to simply talk about building schools and buying supplies, because when it comes to educating adolescent girls the real challenge isn’t just about resources, it’s 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 communities value young women for their minds, or only for the reproductive and labor capacities of their bodies. It’s also about whether all of us are willing to confront the complex, sensitive issues that keep so many adolescent girls out of school –- issues like early and forced marriage, and genital cutting; issues like domestic violence and human trafficking.
In other words, we cannot talk about quality education for adolescent girls or hope to make meaningful and lasting progress on this issue unless we’re willing to have a much bigger and bolder conversation about how women are viewed and treated in the world today.
Now, as Chernor said, this conversation is deeply personal for me as a woman. I know that I stand before you today because of the people in my life, particularly the men -– men like my father, grandfathers, uncles who valued me, who invested in me from the day I was born; men who pushed me to succeed in school, insisted that I have the same opportunities as my brother, urging me to find a husband who would treat me as an equal.
The issue of secondary education for girls is also personal to me as a mother. And I know that’s true for many of you here today as well. So many of us are parents and grandparents, and who among us would accept our daughters and granddaughters getting only a primary education? Who among us would accept our precious girls being married off to grown men at the age of 12, becoming pregnant at 13, being unable to support themselves financially, confined to a life of dependence, fear and abuse?
None of us in this room would ever dream of accepting that kind of life for our daughters or granddaughters. So why would we accept this for any girl in our country, or any girl on this planet?
To answer this question, all of us -– men and women here in this room and around the world –- we must do some serious self-reflection. We must look inside ourselves and ask, do we truly value women as equals, or do we see them as merely second-class citizens? We must look around at our societies and ask, are we clinging to laws and traditions that serve only to oppress and exclude, or are we working to become more equal, more free?
These are the very questions we are asking ourselves every day here in the United States. Because while we’ve made tremendous progress in areas like college graduation rates and workforce participation, women here are still woefully underrepresented in our government and in the senior ranks of our corporations.
We still struggle with violence against women and harmful cultural norms that tell women how they are expected to look and act. And we still have plenty of work to do here in America to provide a quality education and opportunity for girls and boys, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But as we consider all the challenges we face in our countries and in countries across the globe, we must also reflect on the tremendous progress we’ve made.
Just think about where we were just 15 years ago on this issue. Back then, if I had told you that in a little over a decade, we would see nearly 56 million more girls going to school, you would have told me I was dreaming. But that is precisely what has happened because of people like all of you. It’s happened because of your fierce devotion to those girls’ promise and your relentless efforts to transform their lives.
And if we truly believe that every girl in every corner of the globe is worthy of an education as our own daughters and granddaughters are, then we need to deepen our commitment to these efforts. We need to make even more commitments and investments like the ones we’re announcing this week –- programs to provide scholarships and hygiene facilities in schools; public awareness campaigns to change attitudes about our girls; efforts to collect data on how girls learn, and so much more.
We also need to fight even harder to ensure that quality education for every child and the empowerment of women and girls are dedicated goals on our Post-2015 Development Agenda -- yes, absolutely. (Applause.) Keeping our girls safe on their way to school, teaching them relevant skills once they’re there, and ensuring they graduate from secondary school -- all of these things must be a part of our agenda. Addressing gender-based violence in all of its forms –- from domestic violence, to genital cutting, to early and forced marriages –- all of that needs to be on the agenda too.
Because girls around the world deserve so much better. They do. They are so eager to learn. And so many of them are sacrificing so much just for the chance to get an education. I’m thinking about girls like Malala. I’m thinking about those brave girls in Nigeria. I’m thinking about all the girls who will never make the headlines who walk hours to school each day, who study late into the night because they are so hungry to fill every last bit of their God-given potential.
If we can show just a tiny fraction of their courage and their commitment, then I know we can give all of our girls an education worthy of their promise. And let me just say this -- in the years and decades ahead, I am so very eager to engage even more deeply with leaders in this room, across the United States and around the world on this issue until every young woman on our planet has the opportunity to learn and grow and thrive.
Thank you very much. God bless. (Applause.)
3:48 P.M. EDT