Remarks by the First Lady on Let Girls Learn at the World Bank Spring Meeting
11:35 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Well, good morning, everyone. Hi. (Applause.) This is an impressive group. Well, good morning, everyone. It is truly a pleasure and an honor to be here today. And thank you so much for having me.
I want to start, of course, by thanking President Kim for that very kind introduction, but, more importantly, for his tremendous leadership and service here at the World Bank. I also want to recognize our outstanding Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew. And we’re thrilled that he could be with us today. Thank you, Jack. (Applause.)
And of course, I want to thank all of you for joining us as we celebrate this extraordinary investment by the World Bank in young women across the globe. Let’s just take a moment: $2.5 billion in support of adolescent girls’ education over the next five years. That is truly amazing. (Applause.)
And this isn’t just a breathtaking investment of resources, it’s also a powerful statement of mission. It’s an expression of our belief in the power of education to transform the lives and prospects of millions of girls worldwide, as well as the prospects of their families, their communities, and, of course, their countries. And it’s also an affirmation of these girls’ extraordinary promise.
So today, I want to honor President Kim and everyone at the World Bank for their vision and their leadership in making this investment possible. Absolutely. (Applause.)
But of course, I think we can all agree that while today’s announcement is tremendously exciting and has the potential to be truly transformational, it’s also, in many ways, obvious -- right, ladies? It’s obvious. Because, as President Kim noted, the research on the value of girls’ education is overwhelming and irrefutable. Countless studies show that when girls are educated, they earn higher salaries -- up to 20 percent more for each additional year of schooling. They raise healthier families, with lower infant mortality rates, higher vaccination rates. And by contributing more to the labor market, they can even boost their entire countries’ economies.
So the evidence is quite compelling. When we invest in girls’ education, when we embrace women in our workforce, that just doesn’t benefit them, it benefits all of us. And I know this not just from research on other countries, but from the experience of my own country.
Here in the United States, in my lifetime -- and I am not that old -- (laughter) -- it used to be perfectly legal for employers to discriminate against women in hiring. Back when I was young, girls were often discouraged from studying subjects like math and science. They were discouraged from pursuing professions like law, business or medicine. But because brave women -- and men -- fought hard to change laws and attitudes, today, nearly 60 percent of American university students are women. (Applause.)
And while we still have a long way to go to ensure that women are paid fairly for their work, and can balance the needs of their families with the demands of their jobs, women now make up nearly half of the American workforce. And since 1970, women’s increased labor force participation and hours’ work have accounted for $2 trillion in economic growth in this country -- that’s trillion with a “t.” (Applause.)
So the bottom line here is very simple: If we’re looking to promote development, then we need to educate and empower women. In fact, no matter what challenge we seek to address -- from eliminating hunger to eradicating disease to confronting climate change -- girls’ education will be vital for our success. Because in any country, if half the population cannot read, write or count; if half the population can’t lift themselves or their families out of poverty; if half the population is devalued, abused and oppressed -- it won’t matter how many water systems we build or how many agricultural or entrepreneurship programs we start. If half the population is unable to contribute fully to their society, then meaningful, sustainable development simply will not be possible. (Applause.)
So the data on the power of girls’ education is very clear. So in light of this indisputable truth, we have to ask ourselves, well, why in so many places do we still see such glaring disparities between the education of our boys and girls, particularly when it comes to adolescent girls? And why in so many places is closing those gaps still not one of the most urgent priorities?
I think these questions actually lead to another set of more disturbing questions: Why do girls in countless communities still face the daily threat of sexual assault simply by walking to school? Why do some people still believe that a girl who was raped was asking for it, or somehow damaged goods? Why are girls in some parts of the world still missing school because of their menstrual cycles, or made to feel that a woman’s menstruation and sexuality are unacceptable?
Why do we still too often value girls simply for their bodies instead of their minds? (Applause.) Why in many places is it still a better investment for families to marry off their teenage daughters rather than sending them to school? And finally, why would grown men storm a school bus, shoot a 15-year-old girl in the head just for speaking about girls’ education? Why, two years ago, would terrorists be so threatened by the prospect of girls going to school that they would break into a dormitory in the middle of the night and kidnap nearly 200 young girls?
I think we can all agree that the answers to these questions aren’t just about resources. Because our global failure to educate adolescent girls isn’t just about whether we have adequate funding or sufficient infrastructure. It’s also about whether we truly believe that girls are worth educating in the first place. And that’s where this issue becomes personal for me.
As both a woman and as a mother of two beautiful daughters -- because when I travel the world and I meet girls who are so bright, and so hungry to go to school, I see myself in these girls. I see my daughters in these girls. And none of us -- none of us -- not a single person in this room would ever dream of not educating our own daughters. None of us would dream of consigning our girls to a life of poverty, illiteracy or abuse. So why would we accept this fate for any girl on this planet? Why? (Applause.)
Ultimately, I think that how vigorously we address the issue of girls’ education worldwide speaks to whether we truly value women at all, and whether we have the moral vision to look into the eyes of any one of those girls who are not in school and see our own child. Because make no mistake about it, these girls are our girls -- every last one of them. These girls are our responsibility.
And that’s why, as President Kim said, last year, President Obama and I launched an initiative that we’ve called Let Girls Learn. Because we want to help adolescent girls worldwide get the quality education they need to fulfill their potential. And -- yes. (Applause.)
And the wonderful thing is that there are so many of you already leading the way on girls’ education in your own countries -- building schools, training teachers; taking on issues like forced child marriage, female genital cutting and mutilation, and domestic violence. And you’re getting real, measurable results every single day.
But we need to expand these efforts in countries across the globe. We need every single one of you to ask yourselves, what can my government or my business or my organization do to help girls go to school? Because the truth is, this investment by the World Bank can only have its intended impact if leaders like you push girls’ education to the top of your agenda -- to the very top.
So we need you to take advantage of this funding. We need you to work with the Bank to develop programs that will meet the needs of girls in your countries. And if your country has already reached gender parity in education, then we need you to step up and support countries where disparities still exist.
And I am thrilled that countries like Ghana and India and Rwanda are already doing such important work as part of this effort -- from scholarships and mentorship opportunities, to innovative programs to break down the cultural barriers that keep girls out of school.
See, when leaders like all of you make investments like these, your efforts will trickle down. Because you serve as powerful examples for officials in cities and provinces and villages in your countries, and when your communities see you prioritizing this issue, it becomes politically, economically and morally easier for them to do the same.
So I hope you will be part of this movement. Because so many girls are counting on you -- girls who are willing to wake up before dawn, walk hours each day to school. Girls who will study for hours each night. Girls who will use the education you give them to develop their potential, provide for their families, lift up your countries.
I could give countless examples to illustrate these points, but today, I will end with just one -- the story of a young woman named Faith, from Kenya. After watching so many of her sisters and friends undergo genital mutilation and be married off as teenagers, Faith ran away from home, determined to avoid that fate for herself. She managed to complete primary and secondary school, the only girl in her village to do so. And with the help of a USAID program called the Global Give Back Circle, Faith is now attending a technical training institute where she’s studying community health and community development. On the weekends, Faith volunteers at a local hospital. And once she gets her diploma, she hopes to attend university, because, as she puts it -- and these are her words -- Faith says, “I hope to proceed with my studies to degree level so as to encourage other girls in my community that it is possible for a lady to be educated.” (Applause.)
So that’s just one example, one small example. That’s how Faith will be using her education. Like so many, she will be reaching back and inspiring others to follow in her footsteps. That is the kind of return on investment that we get when we educate our girls.
So I hope that with the support of this extraordinary commitment from the World Bank, it is now your turn to do everything in your power to educate every child on this planet. I hope you will do everything you can to develop their talent and embrace their contributions to achieve the sustainable growth and development that we all seek. Because if we do, if we work together on this, I am confident that we can give all of our children, boys and girls, a future worthy of their promise and their dreams.
So congratulations again. I am so excited about this investment. I look forward to working with you in the years and decades to come. So let’s get to work.
Thank you all. Congratulations. (Applause.)
11:50 A.M. EDT