The First Lady Delivers Remarks at the 2015 WISE Education Conference in Qatar


Mrs. Obama: Good morning, everyone. It is truly a pleasure and
an honor to be here today for this year’s World
Innovation Summit for Education. I want to start by
congratulating Dr. Yacoobi on winning the 2015 WISE
Prize for Education. That is such a
tremendous honor, and we are all incredibly
inspired by the work that you do and will
continue to do. Thank you. Thank you so much. And congratulations. (applause) I also want to recognize
Her Highness, Sheikha Moza, for her outstanding work on
behalf of women and children here in Qatar and
around the world. (applause) The fact that two-thirds of
university students in Qatar and nearly 40 percent of the
Qatari workforce are women is no accident — it is
due in large part to her leadership. And I had the pleasure
— absolutely. (applause) And I had the pleasure of
meeting with Her Highness yesterday, and I very much
look forward to working with her and her Education Above
All Foundation to help more children — particularly
adolescent girls — in communities across the
globe make that critical transition from primary
to secondary education. (applause) And most of all, I want
to thank all of you. Your governments and
organizations are improving education for
millions of children. Your research and advocacy
are transforming how we educate our next generation. And while you come to the
issue of education from so many different perspectives,
you’re all doing this work for one simple reason:
because like me, you believe that every child
on this planet deserves the chance to fulfill their
boundless potential. And that’s why I wanted to
be here at this important global summit, a gathering
focused on impact and inclusive growth. Because we all know
that right now, we are far from
achieving the goal. And that’s what I want to
talk with you about today, especially as it relates to
a topic that I care deeply about, and that is girls’
education around the world. Now, you all are familiar
with the statistics — how right now, 62 million girls
worldwide are not in school. And while every developing
region in the world has achieved or is close to
achieving gender parity in primary education, when
it comes to secondary education, girls
still lag far behind. And when girls do
attend secondary school, they often do so at great
risk — as we saw in Pakistan, where Malala
Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban
gunmen; and in Nigeria, where more than 200 girls
were kidnapped from their school dormitory by
Boko Haram terrorists; and in countries across the
globe where adolescent girls have been harassed,
sexually assaulted, or doused with acid on
their way to school. And even when girls do
manage to finish secondary school — even university
— in many countries, they graduate only to find
that there’s no place for them in the workforce,
nowhere for them to use the skills they’ve worked
so hard to develop. So I think we can all
agree that we need to make dramatic new investments
in girls’ education. We need to build
more schools, hire more teachers
for girls. We need to provide safe
transportation and bathroom facilities and hygiene
products for girls. We need to connect
them with technology, with training for
high-tech jobs. And I know that many of you
are already doing this kind of work, as am I. As First Lady of
the United States, I’ve been working with
leaders across the globe to spur new investments
in girls’ education. And these investments
are absolutely critical, but if we’re being
honest with ourselves, I think we have to admit
that these investments alone simply are not enough. See, I don’t think it’s an
accident that we’ve reached gender parity in primary
but not secondary education. Because when
girls are young, they’re often seen
simply as children. But when they hit
adolescence and start to develop into women, and are
suddenly subject to all of their societies’
biases around gender, that is precisely when they
start to fall behind in their education. So, yes, solving our
girls’ education crisis is definitely about resources,
but it is also about attitudes and beliefs. 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 view of
women are, as full citizens, entitled to equal rights. So today, I want to talk
with you not just as experts in your governments
and organizations, but as thought-leaders and
opinion-shapers in your countries. Because 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. You see, I say this as
someone whose country has undergone a long and
difficult struggle for women’s equality — a struggle that is still going on today. When my grandmother was
born, women couldn’t vote. When my mother
was a young wife, women couldn’t open credit
cards in their own name; they needed their
husband’s permission. And when it came
to education, their options
were very limited. Back then, girls were
discouraged from studying subjects like math and
science and from pursuing professions like law and
business and medicine. In fact, just 50 years ago,
there were so few women at Harvard University’s Law
School that some professors used to have what they
called “Ladies Day.” That was the one day a year
when they would actually call on the women
in their classes. So back when I was a girl,
even though I was bright and curious and I had plenty
of opinions of my own, people were often more
interested in hearing what my brother had to say. And my parents didn’t
have much money; neither of them had
a university degree. So when I got to school,
I sometimes encountered teachers who assumed that a
girl like me wouldn’t be a good student. I was even told that I
would never be admitted to a prestigious university, so
I shouldn’t even bother to apply. Like so many girls
across the globe, I got the message that I
shouldn’t take up too much space in this world. That I should speak
softly and rarely. That I should have modest
ambitions for my future. That I should do what I was
told and not ask too many questions. But I was lucky, because I
had parents who believed in me, who had big
dreams for me. They told me, don’t ever
listen to those who doubt you. They said, just work
harder to prove them wrong. And that’s what I did. I went to school. I worked hard. I got good grades. I got accepted to
top universities. I went on to
become a lawyer, a city government employee,
a hospital executive, and — the most important
job I’ve ever had — a mother to two
beautiful girls. (applause) And as I moved forward,
so did my country. In each generation, brave
women and men fought to end gender discrimination
in the workplace, to pass tougher laws against
rape and domestic abuse, to ensure equal access
to education for women. And while we still have
work to do to achieve full economic, political equality
for women in the U.S., today, nearly 60 percent of
American university students are women. And as for the law school at
Harvard University — which I actually got my law degree
— the Dean of the school is now a woman, as are
half the students. So I know from my
own experience, and that of my country, that
we cannot separate the issue of how we educate girls from
the issue of how we treat women more broadly
in our societies. So I would argue that the U.N. Sustainable Development
Goals that you all will be discussing — goals like
ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education”
and achieving “gender equality and empowering all
women and girls” — those goals cannot be
achieved separately. I would argue that we cannot
address our girls’ education crisis until we address the
cultural norms and practices that devalue women’s
intelligence, that silence their voices,
that limit their ambitions. So, yes, we need to
provide girls with safe transportation to school,
but we also need to confront the cultural norms that make
girls unsafe in the first place — the belief that
survivors of rape were somehow asking for it,
or that it’s perfectly acceptable for a man
to rape his wife, or that young girls who have
survived sexual assault are somehow damaged goods,
unfit for marriage, when — with few prospects
for their futures. Because if we truly
want to keep girls safe, we need to transform this
culture of impunity into a culture of consent. And we need to condemn
sexual assault for what it is: a violent crime that
has no place in this world. And, yes, we need to
provide school bathrooms and feminine hygiene
products for our girls, but we also need to
confront the taboos that say menstruation is
harmful or shameful. We need to confront
the myths about women’s sexuality that are used to
justify horrific practices like genital
mutilation and cutting. Because if we truly want
to empower girls to learn, then we need to ensure that
their bodies are a source of pride, not pain or shame. (applause) And, yes, we need to help
parents afford school fees and uniforms and supplies
for their daughters, but we also need to ensure
that once they’re educated, women can join the workforce
and support their families. Because that’s how we’ll
persuade parents that education is a better
investment than forcing their daughters into early
marriage or consigning them to household labor. And that’s how we’ll ensure
that girls are valued not just for their bodies,
but for their minds, for their talents
and skills and ideas. And make no
mistake about it, these changes need to
happen at every level of our societies — in
parliaments, and boardrooms, and courtrooms, but also in
homes and in schools in big cities and remote
villages across the globe. That’s why,
earlier this year, the United States government
launched Let Girls Learn. It’s a new initiative
to help adolescent girls worldwide go to school. Through Let Girls Learn,
we’re investing in girls’ education in conflict zones
because we know that girls in these areas are twice
as likely to be out of secondary school. We’re funding programs
that address poverty, HIV and other issues that
keep girls from being educated. And we’re supporting
hundreds of new, hyper-local girls’ education
projects — projects that are driven by
community leaders, parents and the girls
themselves — things like girls’ mentoring and
leadership camps that they help run, new school
bathrooms and libraries that they build. Because we know
that ultimately, that is the only way to
change hearts and minds — by empowering local leaders,
by training local educators, by inspiring new
conversations with families about the value of investing
in their daughters. And in my travels
around the world, I have seen firsthand
that when families and communities make those
investments, girls thrive. I’ve met so many girls
who wake up before dawn, who travel for hours to
attend a school — bare concrete classrooms with
nothing but a few rickety desks and some faded
posters on the wall. Let me tell you,
those girls, oh, they’re so hungry to learn. They’re reading every book
they can get their hands on. They’re studying for
hours every night. They’re raising their hands
so hard in class that they almost fall off
their chairs. And when we truly start
to value their minds and respect their bodies and
give them the education they need to fulfill
their potential, that doesn’t just
transform their lives, it transforms their families
and their countries too. The research is crystal
clear: girls who are educated marry later,
have lower rates of infant mortality. They’re more likely to
immunize their children; less likely to contract
malaria and HIV. Girls who are educated also
earn higher salaries — 15 to 25 percent for each
additional year of secondary school. And studies have shown that
sending more girls to school and into the workforce can
boost an entire country’s GDP. And I really want to
emphasize that last point about bringing women
into the workforce. This is critical for
countries around the world — including my own — that
seek to modernize their workforces for the
information age. Because let’s be clear: A
country cannot successfully make this transition if it
disregards the talent and potential of half
its citizens. And we cannot build a modern
workforce with outdated laws and attitudes that keep
women from entering and thriving in our workplaces. We’re actually dealing with
this issue in the U.S., where too many women still
struggle to balance the needs of their family
with the demands of their careers. We still struggle with
outdated beliefs that a woman cannot be both an
accomplished professional and a devoted mother; that
she has to choose between the two. But fortunately,
in recent years, more and more men have been
challenging this belief. Because the constraints we
put on women limit men too. It turns out that many men
want more time with their families. They want their wives to
be fulfilled at their jobs. They want their daughters
to have the same career opportunities as their sons. That is why we must embrace
the truth that issues like girls’ education and
workplace equality have never been and will never
be just women’s issues. So today, to all
of the men here, I want to be very
clear: We need you. Yes, we need you. (applause) As fathers, as husbands,
and simply as human beings, this is your struggle too. We need you to speak out
against laws and beliefs that harm women. We need you to ask hard
questions in your workplace, like where are the women? Why aren’t there more women
in leadership roles here? Why don’t we provide
more maternity leave, even paternity leave? We need you to push other
men to hold the same dreams for their daughters as
they do for their sons. And we need all of
you, men and women, to really think about the
needs of women and girls with every program
you create, with every policy you craft,
with every project you undertake. And you can start right now,
right here at this summit. For example, if you attend
the session on conflict zones, ask about issues like
sexual assault and forced child marriage. In the session on
teacher quality, ask whether we have enough
female teachers in our schools. If you’re in the sessions
on higher education or the skills gap, ask how we can
help girls actually use their education
in the workforce. And when you return
home after this summit, I hope you will keep on
asking those questions and seeking new answers
in your organizations. And I hope you’ll urge your
governments to increase investments in girls’
education and to change laws and policies that limit
women’s rights and freedoms. Through Let Girls Learn,
countries like Japan, the U.K. and South Korea have already
committed hundreds of millions of dollars to
send girls to school. And last month, we announced
major new investments in girls’ education
in Pakistan. And we need more countries
here in the Middle East and across the globe to join
us in these efforts. Because we know what’s
possible when we empower women and girls and give
them the opportunities to develop their promise. We see it in the story of
women like Farah Mallah from Jordan, who’s here as part
of this year’s Learners’ Voice Cohort. Farrah earned her degree
here in Qatar from Georgetown University, but
she wasn’t content just to get her own education; she
also spent countless hours recruiting classmates to
join her in teaching English to migrant workers on campus
and integrating them into their community. We see the power of
education in the story of Varsha Thebo, who’s also
here through the Learners’ Voice Cohort. Varsha grew up in a rural
area in Pakistan where the local schools were
often abandoned. But she studied hard. She earned a scholarship
to university. With that education, Varsha
founded a study circle for girls in her village. She’s helping girls in
Cambodia write their stories. She’s working on public
health issues across the globe. And she’s planning to
pursue a master’s degree in education policy. These stories
are everywhere. And that story about the
transformative power of education, that’s my story. It’s my family’s story. And I’m sure that for many
of you, it’s your story too. My education opened up
opportunities that I never could have dreamed of as
a young black girl from a working-class family
in a big American city. My university degrees
transported me to places I never could have imagined
— to boardrooms and courtrooms, to the White
House — where my mother now lives with our family — and
we’re raising our daughters just steps from
the Oval Office. (applause) This is such a long way from
the tiny apartment where I was raised. But that’s the thing about
education — it can carry our children such
great distances, and bring the most
impossible dreams within their reach. So I hope you all will keep
working as hard as you can to educate every
child on this planet. I hope you will keep
innovating to achieve the impact and sustainable
growth that we all seek. Because if we do, I am
confident that we can give all of our children
— boys and girls, kids from every background
— a future worthy of their talents and their dreams. Thank you all so much. (applause)

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