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Remarks by the First Lady on Let Girls Learn to High School Students in Buenos Aires, Argentina

March 23, 2016

MRS. OBAMA: Hello, everyone. Hola! You have your earphones on, right? Well, it is such a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you at this amazing place which is the center for so much creativity and innovation.

And I want to start by thanking your beautiful and fabulous First Lady for that very kind introduction and for taking the time to be here with me today. I know that she shares my passion for inspiring and empowering our young people, and I am so excited to get to know her and her family during our time together here in Argentina.

I also want to thank your Minister of Education, Esteban Bullrich, for being with us today. And of course, I want to thank all of you –- so many smart, talented, wonderful young women from here in Barracas. I am so thrilled to join my husband and our daughters for this visit as our nations come together to deepen our friendship and promote a new spirit of cooperation around so many important issues.

And I have to say that while I might be far away from my country today, being here with all of you in Barracas, I truly feel at home. Because I actually grew up in a neighborhood just like this one. It was on the South Side of Chicago –- a place where people worked hard to support their families, and where families were close and loving and had strong values.

I was very fortunate to be raised by hardworking and devoted parents. Neither of them had a university degree, and they didn't make a lot of money. My father worked as a pump operator at the city water plant, and my mom stayed home to take care of me and my older brother. The four of us lived in a very small apartment in the city. It was so small that my brother and I shared a bedroom that was divided in half with a wooden partition to create two even smaller rooms. My room was so small that when I held out my arms, I could almost touch both walls at the same time.

So we didn't have a lot of space, but we filled our little home with a whole lot of love. Most of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived nearby, and we were always visiting each other's houses where we would spend hours talking and laughing and eating -- sometimes driving each other crazy, but always enjoying each other's company. It was sort of like your assados here in Argentina. So while my family wasn't rich, we were always -- at least we always felt rich because we had each other.

My modest upbringing, however, did not prevent me from having very big dreams for myself. My parents taught us that we could achieve anything through hard work and a good education. I dreamed of attending the best universities and becoming a lawyer, and getting an important job where I could be a leader in my community and help families like mine have a better life.

But by the time I started school, I began encountering people outside of my home who had less faith in my ability to reach my goals: Teachers who didn't think that I was smart enough, and would call on the boys in class instead of the girls, even though the girls had better grades. People who thought a girl shouldn't have ambition, and they would ask my brother what career he planned to have, but would ask me what kind of man I wanted to marry.

As I got older, I found that men would whistle at me or make comments about how I looked as I walked down the street as if my body were their property, as if I were an object to be commented on instead of a full human being with thoughts and feelings of my own. I began to realize that the hopes I had for myself were in conflict with the messages I was receiving from people around me –- messages that said that, as a girl, my voice was somehow less important; that how my body looked was more important than how my mind worked; that being strong and powerful and outspoken just wasn't appropriate or attractive for a girl.

And soon enough, I started to question myself: Was I too loud, too much? Was I too bossy? Was I dreaming too big? And for years, I would lie awake at night and those doubts would eat away at my heart. But eventually, I just got tired of always worrying about what everyone else thought of me. So I decided not to listen to the voices of those who doubted or dismissed me. Instead, I decided to listen to my own voice, and to rely on the support of the people in my life who believed in my ability to achieve my own dreams. And to do that, I listened to my parents, and devoted all of my energy to doing well in school.

I would wake up at 4:00 every morning to study, because that was the only time that my little apartment was ever really quiet, and then I would come home and study until late at night. I made sure that I was one of the most well-prepared students in my classes. I would just keep raising my hand until the teacher called on me. When the boys made fun of me, I ignored them. And while some people doubted that a girl like me could attend a top university, I went ahead and I applied anyway. And I got accepted, and eventually got a law degree from Harvard University.

And I want to tell you that education was everything for me. At university, I learned how to think critically, how to write well, how to present myself with confidence and authority so that people would listen to what I had to say. And I used those skills to get myself a job at a prestigious law firm, and then as the director of a non-profit organization, and a university dean, and eventually, a vice president at a hospital.

So because of my education, I had opportunities that my parents never could have dreamed of for themselves. I'm standing here today because I want the same thing for all of you. And that's why no matter what challenges or obstacles you might face, I want to urge you to get the education you need to make your voice heard in the world. And you need to do that not just for yourselves, but for all of us. Because you all bring such an important perspective to so many of the issues we face, not just here in Argentina, but around the world.

You know what it's like not to have every advantage, and to really work to make ends meet. As young women, you know how it feels to be overlooked or underestimated just because of who you are. And we desperately need your help as we take on our most urgent challenges, particularly the challenges that we face as women, both in your country and in mine.

You see, women here in Argentina and in the U.S. face so many of the same struggles. We struggle to be paid equally for our work. We struggle to balance the needs of our family with the demands of our jobs. We struggle to stop domestic violence and abuse, terrible crimes that have no place in any country on this planet.

So we need young women like all of you to get your education and to rise up as leaders at every level of your society. We need you to be leaders in your families, raising your daughters to believe in themselves -– and raising your sons to honor and respect women. We need you to be leaders in our workplaces, ensuring that more women are hired in companies. And we need you to go out there and start companies of your own.

We need you to be leaders in our laboratories and universities, making new discoveries and defying the myth that science and math are only for men. And we need you to be leaders in the National Congress and Casa Rosada, working to help struggling families and protect women's rights.

And make no mistake about it, we need you to be leaders not just here in Argentina, but around the world. Because your country is an increasingly important player on the world stage, with more engagement in the global economy and a greater voice in global affairs. So we need all of you to step up and be part of that conversation. We need you to use the opportunity you have here in Argentina to become global change agents, especially when it comes to the plight of young women just like you around the world.

Because right now, women and girls worldwide are facing threats and challenges that most of us in Argentina and in the United States can't even imagine. For example, today, 62 million girls across the globe are not in school –- girls whose parents just can't afford the school fees. Girls who live in tiny villages where the nearest school is hours away, or the school in their village doesn't have adequate bathrooms for girls. Girls whose families just don't think they're worthy of an education, and instead marry them off young, when they're barely even teenagers.

Now I want you to just imagine for a minute what it's like to be one of those girls. I mean, think back to when you were 10, or 12, or 14 years old, and you were bright, and curious, and had all kinds of ideas about what you wanted to be when you grow up. Imagine how you would have felt if one day, someone told you, "Sorry, you're a girl, your dreams stop here. You have to drop out of school, you have to marry a man 20 years older than you whom you've never met and start having babies of your own."

It's unthinkable. None of us would want that fate for ourselves. So why would we accept it for any girl on this planet? These girls are just as smart and hard-working as we are, and they are so hungry to learn. And as I've traveled the world, I've seen that they will do anything to get an education.

I've met girls who walk for hours each day to get to school, risking kidnapping and assault, and the rejection of their families and communities. I've met girls who study at rickety desks in concrete classrooms, but they're so eager to learn, they're raising their hands so hard they're almost falling out of their chairs.

I know that if you met these girls, you would see yourselves in them, just as I do. And these girls deserve the same kind of chances that you and I have had to develop their minds and find their voices and become leaders in their families and societies.

And that's why last year, President Obama and I started a new initiative that we called Let Girls Learn, to help adolescent girls worldwide go to school. It started with the U.S. coming together with other countries, and with NGOs and companies, to start investing in girls' education programs. And then we got celebrities involved -- people like Beyonce and Leonardo DiCaprio and Bono started getting involved. Zendaya, Kelly Clarkson, and other amazing artists even recorded a song that they called "This is for My Girls," and they're donating the proceeds to Let Girls Learn.

And soon, our campaign started to go viral. The #62MillionGirls hashtag was number one in the U.S. and number three globally, with people around the world tweeting their support for these girls. Young people have started raising money to send these girls to school. At one school in the U.S., they raised the equivalent of more than 20,000 pesos just by selling chocolate and popsicles.

And we want young people across the globe to join this movement, including all of you here in Argentina, because every single one of you has the power and the responsibility to help these girls. You all have access to the Internet and social media -- I know you do. You're just like my daughters. And you can all get online today and start tweeting and Instagramming and posting about these girls to raise awareness about their plight.

So I want you to go to 62MillionGirls.com and you'll find everything you need to share these girls' stories and support efforts to help them attend school -– school bathrooms for girls, school leadership and mentorship programs, and so much more.

And you can also support girls' education right here in Argentina. I'll bet that every single one of you knows a girl in your school or your family who's struggling -– a girl who doesn't feel good about herself or isn't taking her education seriously. Well, you can reach out to that girl and encourage her, serve as a role model and a mentor for her. Every single one of you can be a leader in this movement to empower each other and inspire each other.

Now, of course, as you take on big challenges like girls' education, you might hear those little voices of doubt in your head that say, "Who are you to think that you can solve some big national or global problem? Who are you to think that you can be a leader?" But I want to remind you that here in Argentina, where your parliament has one of the highest percentages of women in the world, and where you've had a woman President and now have a woman Vice President -- milestones that my own country has yet to achieve -- you have a long history of women whose lives are a powerful answer to those questions.

Take the example of Maria Eugenia Vidal. She had years of experience in politics, with jobs in national and city government. But when she decided that she wanted to lead Buenos Aires Province, some of her critics made sexist comments about her, said that she was too young for such a serious position. In response, she simply said, "I know who I am," and she just kept on campaigning. And today, she is Governor Vidal, the first woman governor of Buenos Aires Province.

And then there's the story of Margarita Barrientos. Margarita grew up in poverty, and at the age of 11, after her mother passed away and her father abandoned her family, she came to Buenos Aires all by herself. Years later, when she and her husband had 10 children and were struggling to support their own family by recycling trash, she discovered that kids in their neighborhood were going hungry. And despite her own family's challenges, she immediately invited those kids into her home for a meal.

As word of her generosity spread, more and more people came to her for help. And today, she leads an organization that feeds 1,800 people a day and runs a kindergarten, a library, a bakery, and a medical clinic for struggling families. She does these things because she believes –- and these are her words –- she says that "no matter how little you have, you can always give something."

And of course, you don't have to run for office or start your own organization to make a difference in your country. Just think back to what happened here last year when a journalist named Marcela Ojeda became enraged by the horrific femicides she was reporting on, and she sent out a tweet saying, "They are killing us" and asking, "Aren't we going to raise our voice?"

Within days, other women journalists came forward to join her. They started tweeting and posting on Facebook to organize a protest. They thought they might get just a few hundred, maybe a few thousand people to join them. But, as you all know, on June 3rd of last year, 200,000 people –- women of all ages, and plenty of men, too -– packed the streets outside of Congress to declare in one voice, "Ni Una Menos" -– "Not one less." Within days the government responded, pledging to collect data on femicides. And within months, the Congress passed a bill to provide free legal assistance to survivors of gender-based violence.

All of this happened because one brave woman decided to stand up and make her voice heard. And I want to ask all of you, what cause will you take up? What injustice will you fix? How will you be a change agent for your country and our world? And decades from now, who will be standing in front of a group of young women talking about you, telling the story of your courage and your daring, and the change you made?

I know that all of you have so much to offer. And today, I urge you to follow the example of the many strong women in this country who have come before you. I urge you to know who you are, to raise your voices about issues you care about, and to build a better world for yourselves and for young women just like you all across the globe. I know you can do this. And believe me, I can't wait to see everything you all will achieve in the years ahead.

Thank you all so much. Muchas gracias. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady on Let Girls Learn to High School Students in Buenos Aires, Argentina Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320846

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