Focusing on the importance of having a substantive conversation about girls’ education in Africa Wednesday afternoon, First Lady Michelle Obama (pictured) spoke with an audience of 500 participants in President Barack Obama’s Mandela Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) summit before meeting with a select group during a roundtable.
Wearing a green and white dress, Mrs. Obama entered the Regency Ballroom to a standing ovation, after youth leader John Ilima of Uganda introduced her with a message that pushed the issue of girls’ education to the fore.
Just before picking up from where Ilima left off, the First Lady praised the attending group, saying, “Many of you are barely half my age, yet you have already founded businesses and NGOs. You’ve served as leaders in your government. You’ve earned countless degrees. You know dozens of languages, so you all represent the talent, energy, and diversity that is Africa’s life blood, and it is an honor to host you here.”
From the outset, the First Lady set the stage on the predicament of millions of girls around the world, “One of the issues I care deeply about is girls’ education, and across the globe, the statistics on this issue is heartbreaking. Right now, 62 million girls worldwide are not in school including 30 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa, and as we saw with Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban gunmen, and in Nigeria where more than 200 girls were kidnapped from their school dormitory by Boko Haram terrorists, even when girls do attend school, they often do so at great risk.”
To applause, Mrs. Obama honed in on the goal of her speech, emphasizing that rather than having a conversation that needlessly focuses on the lack of resources needed in Africa and throughout the world to facilitate better schooling, the only concrete dialogue to have is on the attitudes parents and societies have about girls and women.
“In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about how to address this issue, and how we need more schools and teachers, and how we need more money for uniforms, transportation, — and all of those things are critically important, and I could give you a perfectly fine speech today about increasing investments in girls’ education around the world, but I said I wanted to be honest.
“And if I do that, then we all know the problem isn’t only about resources. It’s also about attitudes and beliefs. It’s about whether Fathers and Mothers think their daughters are as worthy for education as their sons. It’s about whether society’s claim to outdated laws and traditions oppress and exclude women. Or whether they view women as real citizens with fundamental rights. So the truth is, I don’t think it’s really productive to talk about issues about girls’ education unless we are willing to have a much bigger, bolder conversation about how women are viewed and treated in the world.”
And while many are familiar with Mrs. Obama’s upbringing, she made a point to temporarily switch gears by explaining who shares much of the responsibility for the success in her life: the men, “I am who I am today because of the people in my family, particularly the men in my family. They told me I was smart and strong and beautiful. And as I grew up, set a high bar for the type of man I allowed in my life.”
Many agree that Africa’s time is now, and the First Lady made sure to underscore many of the positive developments that are occurring there; however, issues, such as child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), human trafficking, and domestic violence continue to persevere, causing Mrs. Obama to challenge the men in the room to elevate the girls and women in their lives up, “So to all the men, my brothers here to do, I have a simple message: We need you to shake these things up. Too often women are fighting these issues alone. I challenge the men here to do something. Men need to look in to their hearts and souls and ask the question, ‘Do you treat women like your equal.’”
As Mrs. Obama closed, YALI participants stood on their feet, clearly inspired by her message. Afterward, she had a closed meeting with 40 youth leaders at a roundtable.
The First Lady will deliver another presentation during next week’s U.S. Africa Summit.