Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at a Let Girls Learn Event in Madrid, Spain

June 30, 2016

MRS. OBAMA: Hello, everyone. Hola! And unfortunately, that's the extent of my Spanish. (Laughter.) It is truly a pleasure to be here, and thank you so much for having me.

Before we get started, though, I just want to express the heartbreak I know that we all are feeling after the horrific attack in Turkey earlier this week. Our thoughts and our prayers are very much with the loved ones of the victims and all of the people of Turkey.

And with that, I want to start by thanking Claudia for that very wonderful introduction and for her passionate commitment to her own education and the education of young people around the world. So let's give Claudia a round of applause. (Applause.)

And of course, I am so thrilled and honored to recognize Her Majesty, Queen Letizia. (Applause.) Like me, Queen Letizia is the mother of two beautiful daughters, and we've had the opportunity to bond over many issues, including the joys and the challenges of raising strong, smart, outspoken girls. And I think that our warm friendship very much reflects the close relationship between our two nations. And I am so happy that you're with us today.

And finally, most of all, I want to thank all of you –- so many brilliant, ambitious, accomplished young women. I understand that you're working hard. You're working hard in your schools and your universities. You're distinguishing yourself in all kinds of academic subjects. And you all are so fortunate to live in a country that gives you so many opportunities to learn and to follow your dreams for your lives and for your careers.

But unfortunately, many young women today aren't so lucky. The fact is that right now, more than 62 million girls worldwide -– girls who are just as smart and talented as all of you -– can't develop their full potential because they don't have the chance to attend school. They're getting no formal education whatsoever -– no math, no reading, no writing, none of the basic schooling that we all take for granted here in Spain and the U.S. And that doesn't just affect their life's prospects, it affects the prospects of their families and their countries, and it affects all of you and your country as well.

See, what we know is that when girls don't go to school, they earn lower salaries. They get married earlier. They have higher infant and maternal mortality rates. And they're more likely to contract HIV, less likely to immunize their children. So when girls can't go to school that affects their families' health and the public health of their nations. It can even affect the strength of their economies and the security of their countries. And in today's interconnected world, all of that can affect the health, prosperity and security of our countries too.

And that's part of the reason why I'm here today in Spain after my visit this week to two countries in Africa, Liberia and Morocco, where many girls struggle every day to get an education. It is my hope that sharing their stories of struggle and triumph will inspire you and young women like you around the world to advocate for change.

So let me first give you a sense of the challenges these girls face. In Liberia, the average family lives on less than two euros a day, and the country is still recovering from the recent Ebola crisis. So often, parents just can't afford to educate their daughters. Teen pregnancy is common, and pregnant girls are often shamed and pressured to drop out of school. And sometimes it's not even safe for girls to go to school in the first place. Some girls face dangerous commutes to and from school, and girls are sometimes even sexually harassed or assaulted at school. And these are just some of the challenges that girls in Liberia face to go to school.

The girls I met in Morocco face a whole different set of obstacles. Nearly all Moroccan girls attend school until they're about 12, but for girls in rural areas, that's often when their education ends since the nearest secondary schools are often hours away from their homes. In fact, just 14 percent of girls in rural Morocco attend high school. Instead, girls are often kept home to do household labor; many get married when they're just barely teenagers and start having children of their own.

Now, these girls are doing everything they can, everything right. They are bright. They're passionate young people. They want so much more for themselves and their families, and they're willing to work hard. They get up before dawn. They spend hours harvesting crops, cooking for their families, tending to their younger siblings. They work as maids. They work in factories. Then on top of all of that, they study for hours late into the night.

And so many of these girls, they have big plans for their lives. The girls I met this week dream of attending university, dream of becoming doctors and teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs. One of them even wants to open her own auto shop to teach women about cars so they can be more independent. But so often, all of their effort, all of their ambition just isn't enough simply because of their gender.

Now, just imagine how that must feel. Imagine if, at the age of 10 or 11 or 12, someone came to you and said, "Sorry, you're a girl, you're finished with your education. Forget about all your dreams. Instead you'll marry a man twice your age and start having babies." I mean, to most of us, that would be unbearable. It's hard to even imagine when we've grown up in countries like Spain and the U.S. where our material circumstances are so different from girls in other parts of the world.

But if we hope to effectively address this global girls' education crisis, it's important to understand that lack of resources or material wealth is not the sole cause. See, it's not just about whether parents can afford school fees or countries can build enough schools. It's also about whether families and communities think that girls are even worthy of an education in the first place. It's about whether girls are valued only for their bodies –- for their labor, for their reproductive capacities -– or are they valued for their minds as well. And it's about whether women are viewed as second-class citizens, or as full human beings entitled to the same rights and opportunities as men.

Because I believe that a society's willingness to truly value women and girls is directly connected to its willingness to invest in them as full people. And if we're being honest with ourselves, we must recognize that these kinds of gender inequalities aren't just limited to the developing world. In countries like the United States and Spain, men and women are often held to very different standards.

Now, it's true that women have made remarkable progress in both of our countries. We've banned gender discrimination in our schools and workplaces, and women are now nearly half our countries' workforces and more than half the students at our universities. Today, nearly 40 percent of your Congress is women. That's more than double what we have in the U.S. Congress, though I'm proud to say that this year, for the first time in history, we just might elect a President -- a female President of the United States.

But despite all of this progress, we also know that changes in our laws haven't always translated to changes in our cultures. And many of us still struggle with outdated norms and assumptions about the proper role for women, especially when it comes to our families and our workplaces. Perhaps some of you are starting to think about these issues as you're completing your education, starting your careers. Maybe you're anxious about finding a job, or about getting a graduate degree that will allow you -- be more competitive in the job market. Maybe you're wondering how you'll be able to succeed at work and also one day have a family of your own –- issues that most men your age have probably never even thought about.

These are definitely the things that I was worried about back when I was your age. You see, my family didn't have a lot of money, so I worked my heart out to get my degrees. But the minute I graduated, suddenly everyone was asking me, well, when are you going to get married and start having kids? And the truth is I had no idea how I would balance the expected role of wife and mother with a challenging career.

Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I had jobs that I loved. I worked in city government. I ran a youth organization. I served as an associate dean at a university. And I couldn't imagine how a baby would fit into all of that. Because while the laws prohibited discrimination against women, the cultural messages I was receiving seemed to hold men and women to very different standards.

Maybe you know what I'm talking about –- how when a father gets home from a long day of work and changes a diaper, he's practically considered a hero. (Laughter.) But when a woman changes a diaper, no one really notices because that's what's expected of her as a mother, even if she works outside of the home. When a father puts in long hours at work, he's praised for being dedicated and ambitious. But when a mother stays late at the office, she's sometimes accused of being selfish, neglecting her kids. And often, when men are assertive or argumentative at work, they're viewed as strong and powerful. But women who act that way aren't always viewed so positively.

And these inequalities aren't just bad for women, they're bad for men too. Because so many men want to be good fathers. They want to spend more time with their kids. They want their daughters to have the same opportunities as their son. But they often find themselves powerless to shift these expectations.

And this is just one of the many ways that outdated norms and cultures can negatively impact the overall health of a society even in developed nations like ours. Because women can't -- when they can't succeed in their careers because of unfair expectations about how we're supposed to act, or when women are still paid less than men for the same work -- which happens in both of our countries -- that hurts their partners and their families too.

So the question is, how do we begin to change these inequalities in our cultures –- to not just change laws and policies, but to change hearts and minds? And that's where all of you can help. I think that some of that challenge falls on your generation. It's up to all of you to start making those small but meaningful changes in your daily lives that can slowly start to change our norms.

One small example: You can start with how you raise your own children if you choose to have them. Maybe it means telling your sons that it's okay to cry, and your daughters that it's okay to be bossy. Maybe it means encouraging your daughters, not just your son, to study math and science and sign up for the football team. And if there isn't a team for girls, maybe it means asking why not.

That's how all of you will begin to break down those old stereotypes and biases. That's how you'll change the way that women and girls are seen. And that's the kind of work that we need to be doing around the world –- the work of changing culture. The work of changing expectations and standards that we have for women and girls. That's how we'll begin to help those 62 million girls who aren't in school.

And that's why, last year, my husband and I launched an initiative called Let Girls Learn, an effort that isn't just about investing more money in girls' education but also about changing how women and girls are viewed and valued around the world. And I am thrilled that as part of Let Girls Learn, this week, we announced a series of new U.S. government initiatives to help break down barriers for girls all across Liberia and Morocco.

In Liberia, we're running leadership camps and working to end gender violence in school, because we want girls to be seen as powerful and deserving of respect. And we're supporting new, second-chance schools for girls who were forced to drop out because of pregnancy or rape, because we don't want these girls to be viewed as shameful or as failures. We want them to be seen as proud scholars and achievers.

And in Morocco, we're working closely with the government to invest the equivalent of nearly 100 million euros to transform the secondary education system, particularly for girls. We're supporting new school dormitories for girls from rural areas so they can attend schools far from their homes. We're doing this because we want girls from all backgrounds to be seen as worthy of an education.

These are major new commitments that will make a real difference for countless girls in Africa. But today, I also want to be clear that it's not just the responsibility of national governments to help these 62 million girls. Every single one of us has the power -- and the obligation -- to be a champion for girls around the world. Women in countries like the U.S. and here in Spain, we can't just sit back and shake our heads and say oh, those poor girls in Africa, what a shame.

And we can't pretend that we don't have the capacity to make a difference. Because unlike those 62 million girls, we have a voice. Every single one of you has access to social media –- I know my daughters have it -- and I know that most of you have your smartphones with you here today, so you can reach hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of people right now, right from where you're sitting today. You can get on Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter -- and I'm sure there's other stuff out there that I don't even know exists -- (laughter) -- and every one of you can start educating people about the challenges girls face as they try to go to school.

And even more important, you can take action to help these girls. If you need help, go to 62MillionGirls.com, which is a site that's available in both English and Spanish, and you'll find all kinds of projects that you can support today -– things from building school bathrooms for girls to creating girls' leadership and mentorship programs. So many girls are counting on you. They need you to step up and create an international movement of young women and men who are telling their stories, who are finding ways to support their ambitions.

And if you think this challenge seems too big or too difficult, I just want you to think about the challenges that these girls are facing and overcoming every single day. I want you to think about girls like Ralphina, who I met this week in Liberia. Ralphina has to wake up before dawn every morning. She spends hours cooking, caring for her siblings, and working in a local market to pay her school fees –- that's all before she even gets to school in the morning. But Ralphina, she still manages to attend her classes each day and study for hours each night, because she is determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.

I also want you to think about girls like Rihab, who lives in a remote town near the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Girls in her community are expected to get married as teenagers and drop out of school. But Rihab proudly describes herself as a feminist. She's determined to become an entrepreneur and run a major company. And she recently appeared on Moroccan television urging girls to work hard and follow their dreams.

And I can tell you, I have met so many girls like Ralphina and Rihab all across the globe –- girls who are working day and night to defy expectations and pursue their ambitions, but who somehow still find time to tutor their younger sister, to mentor girls in their communities, to even start their own organizations to give other young women a chance to succeed.

So what I tell myself is that if these girls can overcome the most overwhelming odds to get their education, and then reach back and help other girls get an education too, then I know that I -- I know that we all can find a few hours to get on social media and tell the world their stories. I know that we all can support efforts to help them go to school. And I know that we all can change our cultures here in Spain and around the world to honor and respect women and girls, to see them as leaders worthy of an education, capable of achieving their dreams. I know we can do this, because I believe in the power of young women like all of you to truly change the world.

And I want to end today by letting you know just how impressed I am by all of you. I have heard about you and read your stories, and I know what you have to offer this world. And let me tell you, I can't wait to see everything you all will accomplish in the years ahead. So stay strong, work hard, and keep pushing forward. Is that a deal? (Applause.)

Thank you all so much. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Gracias.

I now have the pleasure to introduce someone who very much shares my commitment to empowering our young people, someone who's been a passionate advocate for early child education and vocational training here in Spain. And she's a powerful voice to combat hunger and malnutrition all around the world. She's a role model for so many of you and someone I consider to be a friend, a dear friend. Ladies and the few gentlemen that are here -- (laughter) -- it is now my pleasure to introduce your Queen, Her Majesty Queen Letizia. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at a Let Girls Learn Event in Madrid, Spain Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320867

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