Michelle Obama Writes Op-Ed On How Educated Girls Become Empowered Women

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It should be a no-brainer by now that education is a key empowerment tool, especially in the developing world. With the United Nations’ recently announced Sustainable Development Goals which seek to alleviate poverty by the year 2050, it is clear that by empowering women economically, world leaders are starting to see how women play a crucial role in this mission.

But to get women to the place where they feel empowered to start businesses, help families and communities and be leaders, having access to education is at the foundation. US First Lady Michelle Obama is heading up the White House’s Let Girls Learn initiative which was launched in partnership with Peace Corps and targets a number of countries in the developing world to empower local teachers leaders and communities to help combat the barriers that prevent girls from gaining an education.

Girls education has certainly become a focus of international news headlines with the story of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 and has since gone on to speak at the United Nations and many other major platforms about the importance of education. With the news of the near-300 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in May 2014, and seeing many of them pregnant after they were rescued over a year later, the reaction to this outrageous crime gives us a glimpse as to how vital to empowerment education is, when terrorists view girls with books and pencils as a threat.

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In an op-ed for the Atlantic, Michelle Obama writes about some important issues that education can help girls fight against. She starts by sharing the statistic that 62 million girls around the world are not going to school today, and because they aren’t receiving basic skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics, they are already at a disadvantage in terms of providing for their future families and communities.

She then gets to the heart of the issue, saying aid and resources are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tackling the problem.

“Often, understandably, this issue is framed as a matter of resources—a failure to invest enough money in educating girls. We can solve this problem, the argument goes, if we provide more scholarships for girls so they can afford school fees, uniforms, and supplies; and if we provide safe transportation so their parents don’t have to worry that they’ll be sexually assaulted on their way to or from school; and if we build adequate school bathrooms for girls so they don’t have to stay home when they have their periods, and then fall behind and wind up dropping out,” she said.

While this is certainly a much-needed part of the solution, FLOTUS says it cannot be effective if specific cultural changes aren’t made also.

“Scholarships, bathrooms, and safe transportation will only go so far if societies still view menstruation as shameful and shun menstruating girls. Or if they fail to punish rapists and reject survivors of rape as “damaged goods.” Or if they provide few opportunities for women to join the workforce and support their families, so that it’s simply not financially viable for parents struggling with poverty to send their daughters to school,” she said.

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The next country on her list to travel to, which is also one of the target countries in the initiative, is Jordan, where many Syrian refugees now live due to the war in their home country.

“I’ll be urging countries around the world to both make new investments in girls’ education and challenge laws and practices that silence, demean, and brutalize women—from female genital mutilation and cutting, to forced child marriage, to laws that allow marital rape and disadvantage women in the workplace,” said the First Lady.

While it seems as if this is a big task and almost impossible to reverse in countries where culture and tradition are part of the everyday fabric of life, Michelle recalls a country closer to home which once experienced similar restraints for women.

“A century ago, women in America couldn’t even vote. Decades ago, it was perfectly legal for employers to refuse to hire women, and domestic violence was seen not as a crime, but as a private family matter. But in each generation, brave people—both men and women—stood up to change these practices. They did it through individual acts like taking their bosses to court, fighting to prosecute their rapists, and leaving their abusive husbands—and through national movements and legislation that brought changes like the 19th Amendment, Title IX, and the Violence Against Women Act,” she explained.

If there is any reluctance to investing in girls education, it is often more effective to put it into terms that speaks volumes, no matter what your age, gender, background etc: money.

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“Girls who are educated marry later, have lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and are more likely to immunize their children and less likely to contract HIV. Educated girls also earn higher salaries—15 to 25 percent more for each additional year of secondary school—and studies have shown that sending more girls to school can boost an entire country’s GDP,” said Michelle.

It seems that no matter which way you attack it, girls education benefits many people. Education of children, period, helps families, communities, and countries thrive.

At an event to promote Let Girls Learn in Doha, Qatar, Michelle spoke about the need to include girls education into the greater fight for women’s rights, and kept it real when talking about why this should be an important issue for everyone.

“If we truly want to get girls into our classrooms, then we need to have an honest conversation about how we view and treat women in our societies. And this conversation needs to happen in every country on this planet, including my own,” she said, alluding to the issues that affect American women such as the wage gap, the battle for autonomous reproductive rights and paid family leave, to name a few.

“It’s about whether parents think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons. It’s about whether our societies cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women, or whether their views of women are as full citizens entitled to equal rights,” she added.

According to a new Brookings Report, which emphasizes the importance of education for both girls and boys, “increasing the number of women completing secondary education by just 1 percent could increase a country’s economic growth by 0.3 percent.”

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But it’s not just the developing world that will benefit when women are afforded gender equality. Another report just released by the McKinsey Global Institute found that if women’s level of participation in the labor market was the same as men’s it would add up to $28 trillion to annual global GDP in 2025.

To ensure the world is left in better shape for future generations, we have to act now. When two thirds of the world’s illiterate are women, it means cultural stigma and gender barriers are winning the war against gender equality. It’s a message that we are proud to use our platform for. There are ways you can get involved in Let Girls Learn, find out by clicking here.

And as always, if you are using your skills, resources and energy to invest in the lives of young men and women who are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, you are already taking part in helping to shape a world that will be a more equal place for everyone.

At the end of her op-ed, Michelle Obama says we all have a moral obligation to raise awareness and take action where we can.

“We should never have to accept our girls having their bodies mutilated or being married off to grown men as teenagers, confined to lives of dependence and abuse. We should never have to raise them in societies that silence their voices and snuff out their dreams. None of us here in the U.S. would accept this for our own daughters and granddaughters, so why would we accept it for any girl on our planet? I believe that all of us—men and women, in every country on this planet—have a moral obligation to give all of these girls a future worthy of their promise and their dreams.”

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