The US First Lady at a Spring Meeting of the World Bank for Let Girls Learn in which the Bank promised to disburse $2.5 billion for adolescent girls’ education in the next five years
By Jack Wright
Photos: White House/Amanda Lucidon unless stated otherwise
US First Lady Michelle Obama is leaving Madrid today 1 July, thus wrapping up her six-day three-nation tour which began in Liberia to promote her global girls’ education initiative. She arrived in Madrid’s Torrejon Airbase from Morocco on Wednesday accompanied by her daughters Sasha (who, they say, side-tripped to Marbella) and Malia amid great expectations.
On Thursday, Mrs. Obama gave an inspiring speech at the Matadero Madrid cultural center in her “Let Girls Learn” campaign. Special guests of the event were some 600 Madrileña girls and young women. Spain’s Queen Letizia, who also addressed the conference, said “we are all clear that the education of girls transforms, protects, is productive[and] inextricably linked to social justice and democracy, family welfare. . .”
Despite the tour’s sober theme, the fashionable attire of the First Lady didn’t go unnoticed. It has been widely reported in the media that she deplaned wearing a striped Proenza Schouler dress and Jimmy Choo Pacific 70 wedge sandals. It was noted that she was wearing “strappy silver sandals” at the Matadero.
Remarks by the First Lady at Let Girls Learn event in Madrid (Abridged)
Matadero cultural center
30 June 2016
Hello, everyone. Hola! And, unfortunately, that’s the extent of my Spanish. (Laughter.) It is truly a pleasure to be here, and thank you so much for having
.. .I want to start by thanking Claudia [a student in Madrid] for that very wonderful introduction and for her passionate commitment to her own education and the education of young people around the world. . . (Applause.)
And of course, I am so thrilled and honored to recognize Her Majesty, Queen Letizia. (Applause.) Like me, Queen Letizia is the mother of two beautiful daughters, and we’ve had the opportunity to bond over many issues, including the joys and the challenges of raising strong, smart, outspoken girls. . .
And finally, most of all, I want to thank all of you –- so many brilliant, ambitious, accomplished young women. I understand that you’re working hard. . . in your schools and your universities. You’re distinguishing yourself in all kinds of academic subjects. And you all are so fortunate to live in a country that gives you so many opportunities to learn and to follow your dreams for your lives and for your careers.
But unfortunately, many young women today aren’t so lucky. The fact is that right now, more than 62 million girls worldwide -– girls who are just as smart and talented as all of you -– can’t develop their full potential because they don’t have the chance to [have] . . . the basic schooling that we all take for granted here in Spain and the U.S. And that doesn’t just affect their life’s prospects, it affects the prospects of their families and their countries, and it affects all of you and your country as well.
See, . . . when girls don’t go to school, they earn lower salaries. They get married earlier. They have higher infant and maternal mortality rates. And they’re more likely to contract HIV, less likely to immunize their children. So when girls can’t go to school that affects their families’ health and the public health of their nations. It can even affect the strength of their economies and the security of their countries. And in today’s interconnected world, all of that can affect the health, prosperity and security of our countries too.
And that’s part of the reason why I’m here today in Spain after my visit this week to two countries in Africa, Liberia and Morocco, where many girls struggle every day to get an education. It is my hope that sharing their stories of struggle and triumph will inspire you and young women like you around the world to advocate for change.
So let me first give you a sense of the challenges these girls face. In Liberia, the average family lives on less than two euros a day, and the country is still recovering from the recent Ebola crisis. So often, parents just can’t afford to educate their daughters. . . it’s not even safe for girls to go to school in the first place. Some girls face dangerous commutes to and from school, and girls are sometimes even sexually harassed or assaulted at school. And these are just some of the challenges that girls in Liberia face to go to school.
The girls I met in Morocco face a whole different set of obstacles. . .These girls are doing everything they can.. . . They are bright. They’re passionate young people. They want so much more for themselves and their families, and they’re willing to work hard. They get up before dawn. They spend hours harvesting crops, cooking for their families, tending to their younger siblings. They work as maids. They work in factories. Then on top of all of that, they study for hours late into the night.
And so many of these girls have big plans for their lives. The girls I met this week dream of attending university, dream of becoming doctors and teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs. One of them even wants to open her own auto shop . . .
Now, Imagine if, at the age of 10 or 11 or 12, someone came to you and said, “Sorry, you’re a girl, you’re finished with your education. Forget about all your dreams. Instead you’ll marry a man twice your age and start having babies.” I mean, to most of us that would be unbearable. It’s hard to even imagine when we’ve grown up in countries like Spain and the U.S. where our material circumstances are so different from girls in other parts of the world.
. . . See, it’s not just about whether parents can afford school fees or countries can build enough schools. It’s also about whether families and communities think that girls are even worthy of an education in the first place. . . And it’s about whether women are viewed as second-class citizens, or as full human beings entitled to the same rights and opportunities as men.
. . . I believe that a society’s willingness to truly value women and girls is directly connected to its willingness to invest in them as full people. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we must recognize that these kinds of gender inequalities aren’t just limited to the developing world. In countries like the United States and Spain, men and women are often held to very different standards. . .
Now, it’s true that women have made remarkable progress in both of our countries. We’ve banned gender discrimination in our schools and workplaces, and women are now nearly half our countries’ workforces and more than half the students at our universities.
But despite all of this progress, we also know that changes in our laws haven’t always translated to changes in our cultures. And many of us still struggle with outdated norms and assumptions about the proper role for women, especially when it comes to our families and our workplaces. . . . issues that most men your age have probably never even thought about.
These are definitely the things that I was worried about back when I was your age. You see, my family didn’t have a lot of money, so I worked my heart out to get my degrees. But the minute I graduated, suddenly everyone was asking me, well, when are you going to get married and start having kids? And the truth is I had no idea how I would balance the expected role of wife and mother with a challenging career. . .
Maybe you know what I’m talking about –- how when a father gets home from a long day of work and changes a diaper, he’s practically considered a hero. (Laughter.) But when a woman changes a diaper, no one really notices because that’s what’s expected of her as a mother, even if she works outside of the home. When a father puts in long hours at work, he’s praised for being dedicated and ambitious. But when a mother stays late at the office, she’s sometimes accused of being selfish, neglecting her kids. And often, when men are assertive or argumentative at work, they’re viewed as strong and powerful. But women who act that way aren’t always viewed so positively. . .
So the question is, how do we begin to change these inequalities in our cultures –- to not just change laws and policies, but to change hearts and minds? And that’s where all of you can help. I think that some of that challenge falls on your generation. It’s up to all of you to start making those small but meaningful changes in your daily lives that can slowly start to change our norms.
One small example: You can start with how you raise your own children if you choose to have them. Maybe it means telling your sons that it’s okay to cry, and your daughters that it’s okay to be bossy. Maybe it means encouraging your daughters, not just your son, to study math and science and sign up for the football team. And if there isn’t a team for girls, maybe it means asking why not.
That’s how all of you will begin to break down those old stereotypes and biases. That’s how you’ll change the way that women and girls are seen. And that’s the kind of work that we need to be doing around the world –- the work of changing culture. The work of changing expectations and standards that we have for women and girls. That’s how we’ll begin to help those 62 million girls who aren’t in school. . .
. . . Today, I . . . want to be clear that it’s not just the responsibility of national governments to help these 62 million girls. Every single one of us has the power — and the obligation — to be a champion for girls around the world. . .We can’t just sit back and shake our heads and say oh, those poor girls in Africa, what a shame.
And we can’t pretend that we don’t have the capacity to make a difference. Because unlike those 62 million girls, we have a voice. Every single one of you has access to social media . . .
And even more important, you can take action to help these girls. If you need help, go to 62MillionGirls.com . . . and you’ll find all kinds of projects that you can support today -– things from building school bathrooms for girls to creating girls’ leadership and mentorship programs. So many girls are counting on you. They need you to step up and create an international movement of young women and men . . . who are finding ways to support their ambitions.
And if you think this challenge seems too big or too difficult, I just want you to think about the challenges that these girls are facing and overcoming every single day. I want you to think about girls like Ralphina, who I met this week in Liberia. Ralphina has to wake up before dawn every morning. She spends hours cooking, caring for her siblings, and working in a local market to pay her school fees –- that’s all before she even gets to school in the morning. But Ralphina, she still manages to attend her classes each day and study for hours each night, because she is determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. . .
And I can tell you, I have met so many girls like Ralphina . . . all across the globe . . . So what I tell myself is that if these girls can overcome the most overwhelming odds to get their education, and then reach back and help other girls get an education too, then I know that. . . we all can find a few hours to get on social media and tell the world their stories. I know that we all can support efforts to help them go to school. And I know that we all can change our cultures here in Spain and around the world to honor and respect women and girls, to see them as leaders worthy of an education, capable of achieving their dreams. I know we can do this, because I believe in the power of young women like all of you to truly change the world.
Thank you all so much. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Gracias. . .
Matadero by Tamorlan (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Tamorlan), CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped
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