Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady and Julia Gillard, Former Prime Minister of Australia, at the Let Girls Learn Town Hall in London, United Kingdom

June 16, 2015

MS. OGDEN: Okay. So our first question is for Ms. Julia Gillard. Kawsara Chowdhury in year 13, where are you, please?

Q: Thank you. Hello, my name is Kawsara Chowdhury. I'm in year 13 here at Mulberry School for Girls. My question is for Ms. Gillard. What do you think communities can do on a local level to help girls' access to education? Thank you.

MS. GILLARD: Thank you so much for that question, and what a delight to be here and to listen to that fantastic speech. Thank you. And I've been energized by all the squealing and screaming as you got to greet the First Lady, so it really is a privilege for me to be here.

What can communities do? Well, we can inspire change the way that the First Lady has spoken of. You can do that individually, pairing up with girls around the world, exchanging your life stories with their life stories. And then you can use that energy to advocate for education globally, because we've got so much more to do.

On current trends, it will take 100 years for us to see the first generation of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa in the South Sudan who actually get to go to all of primary school and lower secondary school -- that every girl gets to go. Now, I don't want to wait 100 years. I'm not going to be here in 100 years. As young as you are, you're not going to be here in 100 years. So our challenge is how to change that timeframe so that it happens soon.

And that's going to take more advocacy to governments to do wonderful things like you've heard the government of the United States, the administration, and the government of the United Kingdom announce today. It's going to take that energy right around the world to get more resources into education. It's going to take the best of research. It's going to take partnership. And that's what we do at the Global Partnership for Education -- bring people to work together in developing countries, governments, donors, civil society, private philanthropy all working together for change.

So you're part of that change. Take the first step -- find someone to talk to whose life journey is different to yours but maybe has some of the same challenges. And then band together in groups to make sure your voice is heard. (Applause.)

MRS. OBAMA: Good advice.

MS. OGDEN: Thank you very much. So question two. This comes from a Peace Corps volunteer and a student in Thailand. And the question is: "Mrs. Obama, students in Thailand want to know, can this initiative benefit girls who don't speak English?"

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is a global initiative. And it is targeted to every girl in the world who wants an education and needs the support to get it.

So, as Julia said, we need to band together to find each other out there in the world. And we were talking during the panel earlier today that social media can be a powerful tool to make that happen. That is the key -- I think it's going to be the key to reaching out to girls all around the world. And there will be no bigger role models for those girls than you all.

I can give speeches and Julia can do amazing things, but so often, young girls need to see themselves in the people who are giving them advice. And right now, you're the closest generation to many of the girls that need that work. So I can't overemphasize how important it is for you all to find ways to do that outreach, to band together and to start having these conversations and find ways to mentor other girls who do not have the resources that you all have.

So get to work. (Applause.)

MS. OGDEN: Thank you very much. So the next question is from the floor. It's for the First Lady, and it is Aisha Samad in year 13. Where are you, Aisha?

Q: Hi. My question is, what is the inspiration behind the Let Girls Learn campaign?

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, it's you. Didn't you notice how I almost cried? I couldn't get through my speech. It's you. It's your soul, it's your passion. And there are -- I can't tell you how many times I interact with young girls like you in every part of the world. And I am always in awe of what you're able to do, what you're able to push through, and how hungry you are for your education; that when given the tools and the opportunity, you run with it.

And as I said in my remarks, I just think about how much we're losing when we don't tap into that energy; that there are 62 million girls out there who are just as bright, just as impactful potentially, just as passionate, but who have no voice, no opportunity, no resources to develop into the young women that you all will be.

And we just can't afford to lose out on that kind of talent. We have too much work to do on this planet -- from global change to creating peace around the world to ensuring that our children are healthy and thriving, physically and emotionally -- we have work to do. So we need every able body educated and ready to do that work.

And you all are the leaders of tomorrow. You will do this work. I can just tell in the way that you carry yourselves and your confidence, the way you look me in the eye and other people -- that you have what it takes inside of you. That inspires me. That makes me think, through these partnerships, we can figure this out. And if we have an army of other young women like you out there growing up and getting your education and joining the battle, we're going to conquer this. And we're not going to do it in 100 years. We can't afford to wait that long.

But we need other partners. We need other countries to step up, particularly the leadership in developing countries. We need them to prioritize this issue. And we're going to have to keep speaking out about it and creating that drumbeat for it, but this is a good window of opportunity -- when the world is focused on this issue, and in a way that I don't think they've ever been before.

So we've got to take advantage of it. And hopefully you all completing your educations and continuing them afterwards -- and that you're going to be ready to join the battle, okay? (Applause.)

MS. OGDEN: Thank you. And I think we certainly are ready to get behind you. Mrs. Obama, one of your @FLOTUS Twitter followers -- if I could just explain, FLOTUS means First Lady of the United States. (Laughter.) Which is something -- it took us a little while to work out.

So, Mrs. Obama, one of your @FLOTUS Twitter followers asked, "Let Girls Learn is a U.S. initiative, yet the lack of girls in education is a global issue. How can people worldwide help get girls in school?"

MRS. OBAMA: Well, I think Julia mentioned this, it's going to take all types of partnerships. It's going to take government stepping up, putting the resources, making a priority. It's going to take NGOs that are focused on the ground, coordinating, collaborating so that we're not duplicating efforts; that we're finding best practices and we're implementing those solutions on a larger scale. It's going to take good research, because we need to know that what we're doing is actually working.

And it's going to take young people like all of you doing the job of getting the education and sticking to it regardless of what voices you hear in your head, what doubts people put on your minds -- that you keep this up, that you know that this is your key to the life of your dreams; that education is first and foremost. But it's going to take that drumbeat.

And we've got to change cultural norms too. That's why the work on the ground is so important. We've got to send different messages about the importance of educating our girls. Our sons are important. We love men -- we all do. They're good. They're useful. (Laughter.) I have one in my life. I like him. (Laughter.) But we have to change the definition of what it means to invest in our young girls.

And we need young men out there supporting that as well. I think Prince Harry actually mentioned this -- he said it's important to have male voices at the table on this issue, because oftentimes it's going to be the brother or the father in a community speaking up that's going to change the way a community responds to the challenge of getting girls in school.

Julia, please. I know you have more to say on this.

MS. GILLARD: Thank you very much. I mean, I think a very practical thing to do in the months ahead -- and I agree very much with Mrs. Obama that there's a global moment now for girls' education. And it's being borne of tragedy, being borne of the shooting of Malala, and the world focused, and then the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls, and the world focused. And I think we all thought to ourselves, if these girls can show so much bravery to try and get an education, surely we can do more.

And in the United Nations in September this year, global leaders will come together, and it seems quite likely that they will endorse an ambitious new vision for education to try and achieve by 2030 -- that every child, girls and boys around the world, get to go to pre-primary school and primary school, and on into secondary school.

I think we should be saying to global leaders, we share that vision but we also want to make sure that you're stepping up for the resources and the partnerships and the advocacy that will make those words, that new Sustainable Development Goal come true.

And I know what it's like to be a government leader. I was Prime Minister in Australia. What you hear from your citizens, what they galvanize around, what they mobilize around, it does matter. So if you're loud, your political leaders will hear it. If girls around the world are loud, then the world's leaders will hear it. And we need that energy to propel what I think will be a good vision into a reality. (Applause.)

MS. OGDEN: Thank you. Okay, so I hear there -- about the importance of community and on-the-ground involvement. So the next question, perhaps for both of you, perhaps the First Lady first -- Farha Uddin, year 11. Where are you, Farhar?

Q: I'm here. Morning. I'd just like to ask both of you, what difference do you think it would make in the world if all girls had an education? Thank you.

MRS. OBAMA: Well, we know from the research that girls who are educated turn into women who raise healthier children. Infant mortality rates drop. Wages go up. Communities are stronger. Villages are stronger. Nations are stronger. It has a direct economic impact on our global economy. That's another reason why this issue is so important. We know those numbers.

So it's hard to argue with the facts. But, Julia, I know you know more of those facts as well.

MS. GILLARD: The First Lady is absolutely right. We know from the research that if we enable girls to become literate, that they would lead healthier lives. Their children would be more likely to survive from infanthood into adulthood. We know that economic development is correlated with girls' education; that nations become more prosperous if they educate their girls.

And there's also good evidence that educated communities, including educated girls, are more likely to be communities that become peaceful and stable -- and don't we need that so much in our world as well.

So the research is there. But I think you just know in your heart that if you believe, as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes, why would we not want to have the best of the world's talent available to participate in building the world's future? And if we hold any girls back, then we are denying our world the talent it needs. So this is morally right as well provable economically that it's a great investment for the future of the world. (Applause.)

MS. OGDEN: Absolutely. There's a question now that's a bit more personal. And Sujina Khatun in year 13, where are you, please?

Q: Hi. I'm Sujina Khatun. I'm in year 13. And I'd just like to start off by thanking you both for being here today. It means so much to not just the girls who are standing here, but for our whole community. So my question is, I aspire to be a lawyer -- what advice would you give to me and other young women who are pursuing this career? Thank you.

MS. GILLARD: Well, first and foremost, study hard, because it's so competitive to get into law today. One of the things I've done post-politics is I've become an honorary professor at the university where I started my law degree. And honestly, I look at the scores that kids need to get into law school and I think, if I was a student today I wouldn't make it. (Laughter.) I'm so glad I'm from an earlier generation. So really, study hard.

But when you get there -- and I'm very confident you will -- when you get there, law is really a name for many subjects and many skills and many different pathways. And I would say explore it all. I graduated as a lawyer, but my career has taken my in different directions -- into politics, into parliament, into the place that laws are made. I met so many people around the world who studied law degrees but then went on to other things. So it's a great mind-expanding and enabling qualification. So absolutely go for it.

MRS. OBAMA: I completely agree. I mean, I practiced law for two years after law school and immediately sort of launched off into other things. I worked in city government. I was an assistant to the mayor. I was the assistant to the head of economic development and planning. I ran a non-profit organization working with young adults who were pursuing careers in public service. I was a vice president of a hospital -- on and on and on.

And I can say that my ability to transition so seamlessly into these different careers was really because of the foundation that I got in law school. I mean, in law -- anywhere you go, whatever you study -- because there are many careers and many degrees to get -- but the foundation that you want to have -- you want to have a foundation, a strong foundation in writing, being able to communicate your thoughts and feelings analytically, neatly, in writing. So you can't overestimate the importance.

So if your teachers here are drilling you and they're making you write papers again and again and again and you can't stand it -- (laughter) -- I'm sorry, but it's good for you. (Laughter.) You will thank them later. And being comfortable communicating orally, just standing up and being able to make your case -- I mean, that's what a law training provides for you. And you'll find that you'll use those skills in anything that you want to do.

But as Julia said, it's hard work. And that's not anything that's foreign to any of you, hard work. And it can be expensive. I know in the United States a law degree is an expensive degree to get if you don't get a scholarship. So I encourage students in the U.S. to make sure they understand that financial commitment, and what they want to do with it, so that in the end of school they're not riddled with debt, that they're not overburdened by debt and then they can't afford to do the good work that they want to do.

So you have to be an informed consumer when it comes to investing in an expensive degree like that. But it's well worth it. But I encourage you all, again, that there are so many -- we need so -- we need scientists. We need teachers. We need social workers. We need astronauts. We need it all.

And that's the beauty of the world we live in today -- there are so many opportunities out there, and that's why we can't afford to have half of our population not have the education they need to step into these careers. And government, I -- public service, I can't overestimate how important that is -- that no matter what you do, I hope that all of you remember that giving back is really our reason for breathing.

As Marian Wright Edelman, one of my heroes, has said, service is the rent we pay for living. And at the core of whatever you do, I hope that you find an opportunity to give back to your communities and to your families as you rise professionally. (Applause.)

MS. OGDEN: Thank you very much. And we only have time for one more question, so Thasneem Zaman in year 13.

Q: Hi. So my name is Thasneem Zaman and I'm from Mulberry School for Girls. And my question is, what do you think makes a good education for a girl growing up today? Thank you.

MS. GILLARD: I feel like we're in the presence of the world's best expert, so I'm worried. (Applause.) I'm worried we're going to offer our views and then get a score out of 10 and maybe it's not so hot.

But I think the First Lady is absolutely right. The foundation stones, as you know -- literacy, numeracy, being able to express yourself -- having all those tools at your fingertips -- important for the rest of your life. But beyond that, I think it's giving you the self-confidence to know that you can try and succeed; that you can sometimes try and fail, and learn from that failure.

Life is full of ups and downs; some of them we self-create because we make a mistake, sometimes life just deals you a more difficult hand. I would like to think that girls coming from this school -- and really, you can feel it in the energy in the room -- you're coming out not only with a set of practical skills, but with a resilience and a predisposition to be able to make the most of life's chances to define your own options and choices -- but also to be able to overcome the setbacks; to have that inside you that still centers you when things aren't going your way. So you pick yourself up and keep going forward.

I think that is the sort of hallmark of a great education, because it carries you through the rest of life's journey.

MRS. OBAMA: And you can't underestimate the importance of resilience. One of the messages that I tell to young people in the United States is the trials and tribulations that you have in life may be great, but when you -- getting through them is the real, ultimate challenge. That's what life is.

I mean, I tell my kids this all the time -- it's easy to get A's. You don't have to figure that out. You don't have to get used to that. My question is what happens when you fail? When you get that grade -- when you work as hard as you can and you don't reach your goal, what do you do? Do you fall apart? Do you quit? Do you beat yourself up? Or do you get up and keep working a little bit harder?

That's what success is. That is the ultimate quality of a successful person -- it's resilience. It's the ability to overcome obstacles. So take those challenges that you're facing and own them, and embrace them, and understand that with everything you overcome, you're becoming stronger and better and more ready for the world.

The other thing I would urge you to do as part of your education is don't just be book smart, be smart about the world. Know your community. Understand your politics. Read your papers. Know what's happening in the world. I say this to students in the U.S. all the time -- you have to know how your government works. And you have to vote and be actively engaged at all times -- that's part of an education. Because it's not enough to want change if you don't know how to effect change where you live. And that's understanding the power structure that you live in and how it works.

What does parliament decide? What does the President of the United States do versus the Congress? What happens at the state level in the United States? How is that different from what happens at the local level? What does it matter who your school district head is? It all matters. And you have to understand why it matters, because it's that understanding and respect for power that really does make change.

And I think that too many young people think, oh, politics, government, oh, that's them -- it's us. It's how the world works. So you have to be informed and engaged all the time -- not once in a while, not just when it interests you or when it feels cool, or you like the person who's running, or it speaks to you. You have to be involved all the time.

And young women, we have to be involved in politics. We do. We can't shy away from that piece of it. So I think that that's a crucial part of thinking about your education and thinking about your development as a whole person. (Applause.)

MS. OGDEN: Just fantastic, thank you. Well, thank you for all your questions from the floor. And I know we've had a lot of Twitter feed, and I'm sure that will continue, so thank you to those that have been sending that in.

And I would just like to thank you both. I'd like to thank you, First Lady, and Ms. Gillard, for an inspiring conversation here this morning. But I also want to say this -- a very personal thanks to you for the things that you said. I know that our students and our community feel enormously valued and privileged with your visit here today.

But you've also issued us with a challenge -- and we like challenges at Mulberry -- one that has a compelling social and economic case for the universal education of girls. And for me, there is also a moral imperative with this.

So our deep thanks here at Mulberry for drawing the world's attention to this issue, and for coming to us today to launch your campaign here in the United Kingdom, and for your remarks to us. So, Mulberry School -- and I'd like to hear this from the Sports Hall as well -- and our guests -- this is my challenge -- please join me in showing our heartfelt appreciation to the First Lady. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady and Julia Gillard, Former Prime Minister of Australia, at the Let Girls Learn Town Hall in London, United Kingdom Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321810

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