U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has announced new multi-million dollar global programs to get more girls into education. On a visit to Britain, which is also taking part in the plan, Obama described the number of girls who do not go to school as a devastating loss for the whole world.
Students at the Mulberry School for Girls in east London Obama a raucous welcome Tuesday that included singing, dancing displays, and hugs from many of the girls. She may be their hero, but Obama insisted it was her privilege to meet the students.
“I am so proud of your passion, your diligence, your grit, your determination," the first lady said, "and I am beyond thrilled that you are working so hard to complete your education, it is so important.”
Working class origins
Obama compared the students’ east London neighborhood, one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse in the British capital, to her own working class childhood on the south side of Chicago.
Obama, in Britain to promote her "Let Girls Learn" initiative, spoke with passion about the challenges girls around the world face.
“I just think about how much we are losing when we don't tap into that energy. That there are 62 million girls out there who are just as bright, just as impactful potentially, just as passionate, but who have no voice, no opportunity, no resources to develop into the young women you all will be," she said.
Obama announced plans for $200 million in programs funded by the United States and Britain to promote girls’ education worldwide. The first projects will help 450,000 children in the Democratic Republic of Congo get a primary school education. Sierra Leone and Liberia will also benefit.
A statement from the White House said the program is expected to benefit more than 755,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 18 over the next five years. It is set to help enroll girls and boys who are currently not in school; motivate parents and communities to support girls staying in school; and improve materials and teaching methods.
Supporters of the program say helping girls get a quality education can improve the chances to earn a decent living, raise a healthy family, and improve quality of life for families and the community.
Girls’ education is key to tackling other challenges like poverty and maternal health, says Rocco Blume of the charity Plan International UK.
“Girls have incredible potential to be able to contribute to their economy, to contribute to the wealth of communities, but are often prevented from progressing because in many parts of the world there is gender inequality that prevents girls from being able to access school," Blume said.
The recent focus on girls’ education by global figures like Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai has driven the issue up the political agenda worldwide, Blume says.
“If you look back at previous years, education was supported regardless of gender. And that meant that despite there being far fewer girls in school, that was not really picked up by donors, by development organizations," Blume noted. "So the fact that we see an understanding internationally that girls really do face these additional challenges, and those challenges are being tackled, is a very positive thing.”
Campaigners say the battle to get more girls in school will require a change in attitudes as well as investment. Michelle Obama says she will spend the rest of her time as U.S. first lady fighting for that cause.