Remarks By The First Lady At Let Girls Learn Event Celebrating International Women’s Day
12:18 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Wow! (Applause.) Thank you so much. Hey. You guys good? All right, rest yourselves. We’ve got a lot to do.
Hi, everyone. It is a pleasure to be here with all of you on this International Women’s Day as we mark the first anniversary of Let Girls Learn. And today, we want to celebrate all of the wonderful progress we’ve made and the momentum we’re seeing around girls’ education across the globe.
But before we get started, I just wanted to briefly express my sadness over the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Mrs. Reagan was a woman of incredible strength and grace, and she was a passionate advocate for so many important issues. Through the example she set, both during her time in the White House and beyond, Mrs. Reagan reminded us of the importance of women’s leadership at every level of our society.
And on a personal note, Mrs. Reagan also understood the value of mentoring. She warmly and willingly offered advice and encouragement to me as I settled into my role as First Lady. And I am so grateful for her kindness and generosity to me and my family over the years, and I hope that our continued work to educate girls worldwide is a fitting tribute to her legacy. (Applause.)
So back to the business at hand. I have to start by thanking Ambassador Power –- another strong woman leader, as you heard -- for that wonderful, kind, generous introduction, but more importantly, for her extraordinary work to promote human dignity, human rights across the globe. We are lucky to have someone like her in this administration, and the President and I are very lucky to have her as a friend. (Applause.)
I also want to recognize our outstanding Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, Cathy Russell, and her -- yes -- (applause) -- and her entire team at the State Department for hosting this event and for their tremendous work on girls’ education and so many other critical issues. I’m thankful to have them as partners in this effort.
But most of all, I want to thank all of you for your tremendous leadership on behalf of girls around the world. Some of you have been with us since the day we launched Let Girls Learn, some of you have been working on girls’ education for decades, and some of you are students who will be leading the way on this issue in years to come. And I’m so proud that you all are here. Give yourselves a round of applause. Our young people! (Applause.)
And I know that each of us here today has a story like Samantha shared about how we first got engaged in this issue –- the moment our heart first broke or we felt that first flare of outrage when we realized that 62 million girls worldwide –- girls who are just as smart and hard-working as we are -– aren’t getting the opportunities that we sometimes take for granted.
For me, it was the drumbeat of horrifying stories: Malala Yousafzai shot in the head by terrorists just for speaking the simple truth that girls should to go school. More than 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped from their school dormitory by a terrorist group determined to keep them from getting an education –- grown men trying to snuff out the aspirations of young girls. Little girls being brutally assaulted on their way to school, being forced to marry and bear children when they’re barely even teenagers. Girls in every corner of the globe facing grave danger simply because they were full and equal human beings -- that’s what they decided -- worthy of developing their boundless potential.
And the more I traveled and met with girls and learned from experts about this issue, the more I realized that the barriers to girls’ education isn’t just resources. It’s not just about access to scholarships or transportation or school bathrooms. It’s also about attitudes and beliefs -– the belief that girls simply aren’t worthy of an education; that women should have no role outside the home; that their bodies aren’t their own, their minds don’t really matter, and their voices simply shouldn’t be heard.
And like many of you, as a woman, I take all of this personally. While I’m thankful that I’ve never faced anything like the horrors that many of these girls endure, like most women, I know how it feels to be overlooked, to be underestimated, to have someone only half listen to your ideas at a meeting -- to see them turn to the man next to you, the man you supervise, and assume he’s in charge -- or to experience those whistles and taunts as you walk down the street.
And I’ve seen how these issues play out not just on a personal level, but on a national level in our laws and policies. You see, in my lifetime -– and I’m not that old -– it was perfectly legal for employers to discriminate against women. In my lifetime, women were not legally allowed to make fundamental decisions about their bodies –- and practically speaking, many still can’t. In my lifetime, domestic violence was seen as a private matter between a man and his wife rather than as the horrific crime that it is.
And today, it is so easy to take for granted all the progress we’ve made on these kinds of issues. But the fact is that right now, today, so many of these rights are under threat from all sides, always at risk of being rolled back if we let our guard down for a single minute.
These issues aren’t settled. These freedoms that we take for granted aren’t guaranteed in stone. And they certainly didn’t just come down to us as a gift from the heavens. No, these rights were secured through long, hard battles waged by women and men who marched, and protested, and made their voices heard in courtrooms and boardrooms and voting booths and the halls of Congress.
And make no mistake about it, education was central to every last one of those efforts. The ability to read, write, and analyze; the confidence to stand up and demand justice and equality; the qualifications and connections to get your foot in that door and take your seat at that table -- all of that starts with education. And trust me, girls around the world, they understand this. They feel it in their bones, and they will do whatever it takes to get that education.
I’ve seen it time and time again –- girls in Senegal studying at rickety desks in bare concrete classrooms raising their hands so hard they’re almost falling out of their chairs. Girls in Cambodia who wake up hours before dawn, ride their bikes for miles just to get to school. Bangladeshi immigrant girls in the United Kingdom who study for hours every night and proudly wear their head scarves everywhere they go, resolutely ignoring those who would demean their religion.
These girls risk everything -– the rejection of their communities, the violation of their bodies -– everything, just to go to school each day. And then here I show up with a hoard of international reporters shoving microphones in their faces -- these girls don’t blink. They stand up. They look straight into those cameras and they proudly explain who they want to be –- doctors and teachers, forces for change in their countries.
You see, they know that education is their only path to self-sufficiency. It is their only chance to shape their own fate rather than having the limits of their lives dictated to them by others. And I’m passionate about this because I truly see myself in these girls -– in their hunger, in their burning determination to rise above their circumstances and reach for something more. And I know that many of you do, too.
And let’s be clear, this issue isn’t just personal to women. I have met countless men who learn about the plight of girls around the world, and they look into the eyes of their daughters and wives and mothers -– women they deeply respect and love -– and this issue becomes personal for them, too. So it’s not surprising that over the past year since we launched Let Girls Learn, we have been overwhelmed by the response we’ve received.
This issue is truly resonating as folks in every sector are stepping up to take action on behalf of these girls around the world. From day one, the U.S. government has been leading the way with State, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, investing hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re providing scholarships for girls in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They’re doing leadership training for girls in Afghanistan. They’re building school bathrooms for girls in El Salvador. They’re taking on female genital mutilation in Guinea, forced child marriage in Bangladesh.
Let Girls Learn also has a strong partner in the American Peace Corps. Volunteers are now running more than 100 girls’ education projects in 22 countries -– girls’ mentorship programs, girls’ leadership camps, and so much more.
And through Let Girls Learn, dozens of major companies and organizations have come forward to support this work, including Lyft, Jet Blue, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Starwood Hotels -- I could go on and on -- Alex and Ani. I’ve got my bracelets on. (Laughter.) They’re donating hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’re creating new products –- backpacks and charm bracelets and T-Shirts -– to raise money and awareness. They’re promoting Let Girls Learn in their advertisements, their in-flight magazines, their hotel room videos. They’re doing it all. The Girl Scouts are getting in on the action as well by creating a Global Action badge that girls can earn by learning about girls’ education.
And it’s not just corporations and organizations who are getting engaged on this issue. Folks of all ages and all walks of life are stepping up, as well. More than 1,600 people in nearly all 50 states have donated money to Let Girls Learn Peace Corps projects. Our #62MillionGirls hashtag was the number-one hashtag in the U.S., with people across the country talking about the power of education. And we’ll be launching the next phase of this social media campaign next week at South by Southwest.
And we haven’t just inspired folks here in the United States. Our hashtag was the number-three hashtag globally, with girls around the world tweeting their support for Let Girls Learn. And countries like Japan, the UK, South Korea have joined this effort as well, investing more than half a billion dollars in girls’ education. And at this year’s U.N. General Assembly, nearly 200 countries agreed to make adolescent girls’ education a top priority in the new Global Goals.
And today, just 12 months after we launched Let Girls Learn, we’re seeing the impact of these efforts all around the world. We see it in the story of a girl named Fiker from Ethiopia who, at the age of 13, found out that her parents were planning to marry her off to a man she’d never met. But Fiker had learned about the dangers of early marriage from a USAID program she was involved in, so she refused to go through with the marriage. She went on to graduate first in her entire sixth-grade class.
We see the impact of our work in the story of a young woman named Nourhan in Egypt. When Nourhan got accepted to a girls’ science and technology boarding school supported by USAID, of course she was hesitant to leave home. But she took the plunge, and today, she’s an avid coder. And when speaking about her plans for the future, she says, “I dream of being the youngest Nobel Prize winner for Nuclear Physics.”
And we’re seeing the impact of our efforts not just on girls worldwide, but on young people right here at home. Kids across the U.S. are learning about these girls and they’re embracing this issue as their own. Students at a middle school in California raised $1,500 for Let Girls Learn by selling popsicles and hot chocolate. At a school in Wisconsin, students raised $594 from their friends and families. As part of their campaign, they created signs to raise awareness, and one of these signs said that “33 million fewer girls than boys are in primary school worldwide.” They said, “We’re in this together. Together we [can] make a difference.”
See, even young kids get it. We’re in this together. Because these girls are our girls. They are us. They each have the spark of something extraordinary inside of them just like our daughters –- and our sons -– and their fate is very much our responsibility.
And in the coming months, we’re going to be expanding our call to action to support these girls. We are going to be engaging even more people -– moms and dads, faith and youth organizations, and young people like so many of you. Because there is so much that students like you can do to make a real difference on girls’ education.
You can study this issue and organize your classmates to take action. You can study or volunteer abroad and be on the front lines educating girls. After you graduate from college, you can even join the Peace Corps and run your own girls’ education project. Or if you get out there and get a job, like your parents may want you to -- (laughter) -- you can get your company involved in Let Girls Learn. That’s how Lyft got involved, from one of our fellow young people who worked in this administration and now works at Lyft. That kind of commitment that companies are announcing today, you can be a part of making it happen.
Every single one of us has a role to play on this issue. And you can start today by going to LetGirlsLearn.gov and find out how to get involved right now. No contribution is too small, as you can see, because in the end, that’s how we’re going to solve this problem –- one girl, one school, one village at a time, with folks like all of you -- particularly our young people -- leading the way.
And no, it will not be easy. And it will not be quick. But make no mistake about it, we can do this. If we can make this kind of project -- progress in just a year -- in just a year -- if we keep putting in this effort and this investment that these girls deserve, we can get this done. I know we are all up to the task. I know we are. I see it in your eyes. I know you feel that burning sensation, that sense of unfairness. Turn that into action. Turn that passion into something real. Those girls will be so grateful, because they are all of us. They are my daughters, and they are you.
So I want to close by thanking all of you once again for everything you have done in this year, and everything we will continue to do together. And I do look forward to continuing our work together in the months and years to come. And I cannot wait to see all the doors we will open, all the fortunes we -- and futures we transform for girls across the globe.
So you guys ready to get to work? (Applause.) You think we can get this done? (Applause.) All right. Thank you all so much. God bless. (Applause.)