PHNOM PENH - U.S. first lady Michelle Obama arrived in Siem Reap province, Cambodia Friday, the next stop after her visit to Japan on her Asia tour to promote education for girls.
Cambodia is one of 11 countries to be targeted in the first year of Obama's "Let Girls Learn'' initiative, launched last summer through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
The initiative aims to reduce the number of girls - 62 million worldwide - who do not attend school.
Obama was greeted on Friday by Cambodia's first lady Bun Rany Hun Sen, who is set to join the her and Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet to meet with high school students participating in community-led programs supporting education for girls.
Training event, roundtable
Obama is then due to deliver remarks to Peace Corps volunteers participating in a girls' education training event and host a roundtable with local community leaders and civil society members, who are implementing projects to support girls' education in Cambodia.
Kim Dara heads the Cambodia office of World Education, a non-profit that works with the Ministry of Education to improve access to schooling.
Dara explained that girls in Cambodia face specific challenges. While most villages have primary schools close by, for example, secondary schools are often farther away. That can make travel to and from school dangerous for girls. Another important issue is the lack of latrines and washing facilities in many rural schools.
“[If] they need to go to the toilet they have to go home and then they don’t come back again. If this happens often, then it can be a way that makes them [not] feel comfortable at school and as a result they drop out. And so the project helps the school to identify the problems,” said Dara.
Cambodia has 2.9 million children in school; just under half are girls. The Let Girls Learn program, which the U.S. government recently launched, aims not only to break down the barriers that prevent 62 million girls worldwide from attending school, but also - by working at the community level - to keep millions more from dropping out.
Adolescent girls are particularly badly affected, and the cost of girls losing access to education is immense. Studies show a direct link between more education for girls and a healthier and wealthier population.
Dara said providing scholarships for girls is one way to improve the chance that they will study further. Financial pressures on impoverished rural families, he said, cause many girls to quit school early.
“In Cambodian culture they like to keep girls at home especially to take care of their younger siblings, rather than [keeping home] boys,” said Dara.
While in Siem Reap, Obama will also visit the ancient site of Angkor Wat and participate in a meet and greet with embassy employees.
Although the Cambodian government has welcomed Mrs. Obama's input on education, it is likely to be less enthusiastic about reports that she will speak about politics and human rights.
That she plans to raise those issues was made clear in a briefing given prior to her departure from the United States.
Evan Medeiros, the senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters that the first lady would meet with members of Cambodian civil society “to reinforce our view of the importance of having an open and inclusive political system to allow civil society to have a role in good governance”.
Medeiros said Michelle Obama would also speak publicly about areas of importance to the U.S., including equal access to economic opportunity.
That, in one of the world’s most corrupt nations, might well annoy Phnom Penh, although a Cambodian government spokesman told VOA Friday that the first lady would be welcome to raise any topic she liked.
The first lady’s main message, though, will be about improving learning for girls. Dara believes that will prove valuable.
“Her visit to Cambodia will be a message to Cambodian people, especially her encouraging girls to go to school and to show them that they have opportunity that’s the same as the opportunity as the boys. So I have a strong belief that this will be a positive result,” said Dara.
Michelle Obama’s visit to Cambodia marks the first time that the wife of a sitting U.S. president has visited the small Southeast Asian nation.
The American first lady is scheduled to leave Cambodia on Sunday.
Some material for this report came from Reuters