On International Women’s Day, First Lady Michelle Obama joined in the celebration of the first anniversary of the Let Girls Learn initiative that was launched last year. “62 million girls worldwide,” Mrs. Obama said. “Girls who are just as smart and hard-working as we are — aren’t getting the opportunities that we sometimes take for granted.” Sixty-two million girls is the number of young women who are not in school for a variety of reasons. Some of it is due to money, some due to safety from cultural restrictions, in some places the girls are needed to help more at home, and the worst of the worst, in war-torn areas where people are just happy to be alive.
The First Lady said that the moment she was empowered to act on education for girls was when she began hearing “the drumbeat of horrifying stories.” Stories like Malala Yousafzai, the 200 Nigerian girls that were kidnapped and “grown men trying to snuff out the aspirations of young girls” were what inspired her to speak out. Today still, she cautions that little girls are being “brutally assaulted on their way to school, being forced to marry and bear children when they’re barely even teenagers.” Sadly too many girls all over the world face danger simply because they decided that they are “full and equal human beings … worthy of developing their boundless potential.”
Mrs. Obama outlined barriers that extend far beyond financial means for education. At times it’s about transportation or even not having school bathrooms. “It’s also about attitudes and beliefs,” she said. “The belief that girls simply aren’t worthy of an education; that women should have no role outside the home; that their bodies aren’t their own, their minds don’t really matter, and their voices simply shouldn’t be heard.”
Like many of us who fight for equality, for women’s safety and for women’s rights, Mrs. Obama said that she takes the issue very personally. “While I’m thankful that I’ve never faced anything like the horrors that many of these girls endure, like most women, I know how it feels to be overlooked, to be underestimated, to have someone only half listen to your ideas at a meeting — to see them turn to the man next to you, the man you supervise and assume he’s in charge —or to experience those whistles and taunts as you walk down the street,” Mrs. Obama revealed.
She went on to explain how these play out not merely on the personal level but in national policy and laws as well. “In my lifetime — and I’m not that old — it was perfectly legal for employers to discriminate against women. In my lifetime, women were not legally allowed to make fundamental decisions about their bodies — and practically speaking, many still can’t. In my lifetime, domestic violence was seen as a private matter between a man and his wife rather than as the horrific crime that it is.” She said that it is easy to take these strides in equality for granted but that even today these rights must still be fought for and protected.
“These freedoms that we take for granted aren’t guaranteed in stone,” she said. “And they certainly didn’t just come down to us as a gift from the heavens. No, these rights were secured through long, hard battles waged by women and men who marched, and protested, and made their voices heard in courtrooms and boardrooms and voting booths and the halls of Congress.” She went on to say that education was at the foundation of many of these issues because the ability to read, write and analyze gives women the confidence and strength to stand up.
Work like this does have an important impact that we see represented statistically in stronger economies because more businesses are started, stronger healthier families and brighter futures for their children.
Watch the full speech below and prepare to be inspired and moved:
Featured image via The UK Department for International Development/Flickr.