Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Girl Up Leadership Summit

July 14, 2015

MRS. OBAMA: Hey! (Applause.) Look at you all! Are you excited? (Applause.) Well, rest yourselves.


MRS. OBAMA: I love you. I'm so proud. I'm so thrilled to be here today for this year's Girl Up Leadership Summit! Look at you all! (Applause.) Wow! You all look amazing.

Let me start by thanking Rocio for that wonderful introduction and for all of her work. She's doing outstanding work, as I hear all of you are. I also want to thank Melissa Hillebrenner for her outstanding leadership of Girl Up, as well as Rich Parnell and the other senior leaders from the U.N. Foundation who are here today. Thank you all. Thank you for being here. Thank you for making this day possible.

But most of all, I want to recognize all of you. I mean, you all are brilliant and passionate and powerful young women who are leading the Girl Up movement across the globe. Together, you guys have started, I understand, 1,000 clubs in more than 60 countries. That's amazing. (Applause.) You've raised millions of dollars to empower tens of thousands of girls all across the world. And you've even gotten Congress to pass legislation on issues like child marriage and birth registration, and that's a phenomenal feat.

So really, that's why I'm here today. I'm here because I want you all to know just how proud I am of everything you've achieved. It is amazing, and you all should just feel good inside. You're just getting started, and look at all that you've accomplished.

But I'm also here today because you all have decided to focus on an issue that I care deeply about; an issue that's one of my top priorities as First Lad. And, as Rocio mentioned, that is adolescent girls' education across the globe.

Now, as you heard, right now there are more than 62 million girls who are not in school. And many of them simply can't afford tuition, because unlike here in America, in many countries, parents have to pay to send their kids to school. And sometimes, the nearest school might be miles away, and it's simply not safe for girls to walk to and from each day. Or even if there is a school nearby, it might not have adequate bathroom facilities, so when girls have their periods, they have to stay home. And then they fall behind and wind up dropping out. And then in some communities, girls are forced to get married and have children at a very young age -– sometimes before they're even teenagers -– so they never have a chance to finish their education.

And I want you all to just think about that for a minute. Just think about that. Think about what it would be like to see your brothers, your male cousins all going off every day to school while you were stuck at home. Imagine having to drop out of school at the age of 12 or 13 and marry some man in his forties or fifties, and then have your first baby by the time you're 14 or 15. So any chance you had to study the subjects that you love –- math, English, art, science –- all that would be gone. And all those dreams you had for your career, all those ambitions? Those are gone too. And if you're unhappy, if your husband abuses you, there's absolutely nothing you can do. You are trapped, totally dependent, with no way to provide for yourself and your children.

Now, just take all of those emotions and multiply that by 62 million, and just think about the kind of suffering that represents. Think about how many of those 62 million girls might have the potential to discover a cure for cancer, or to run a company, or to write one of the great novels of our time and right now, all of that talent is just going to waste -- 62 million girls.

And then I want you to think about how does that reality make you feel? Heartbroken? Angry? Overwhelmed? Well, when you're trying to pick an issue that you want to tackle, that's a pretty good place to start -- with your emotion. In fact, I think you should always start with whatever issue moves you -- moves you right here. That's the best way to know how to invest your time.

And I want to just tell you, I am passionate about these 62 million girls. Whenever I have a chance to meet any of them around the world -– in Africa, Southeast Asia and so many other places I've had the chance to travel -– I just think about how, growing up, I wasn't any smarter or harder-working than those girls are. That's the first thing I think. But I realize, I had opportunities that they could never imagine. And so do all of you.

You all are here today because someone believed in you, because someone gave you the chance to be everything you were meant to be. That's what a good education does. And when we give girls around the world that kind of opportunity, it doesn't just transform their lives, it transforms their families, their communities, and their entire countries. In fact, studies show that girls who are educated get married later in life, they have healthier families, they earn higher salaries. And when more girls go to school, that can improve their country's economy.

So we know that we need to address our girls' education crisis right now. But the question is, how? How do we do it? I know that numbers like 62 million -- that seems just overwhelming, daunting. And it's easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you can't really make a difference when you're thinking those kinds of numbers.

But here's what I want you to remember, the good news: When you're tackling a big problem like that, you don't have to solve it all at once. Instead, we can approach this issue one school, one village, one girl at a time. And that's exactly what the U.S. government is doing through our new program called Let Girls Learn.

And, as Rocio told you, as part of this effort, we've got Peace Corps volunteers all over the country who are young people just like you who are working in developing countries around the world, and they will be starting all of these amazing new projects throughout the world to help girls go to school and stay in school.

Now, these volunteers are special on this issue because they live right on the ground -- they live right alongside the people that they're serving. So they know about the struggles folks are facing. They know these communities. But more importantly, they know not just about the struggles but about the strengths of these communities, which is also where you start. Whenever you're working on an issue, you start with the strengths.

Our Peace Corps volunteers know which parents in their communities are willing to come together and build a school of their own with their own hands for their daughters to learn. Peace Corps volunteers know which village leaders think that girls should be educated, and can persuade, perhaps, a reluctant father to send his daughter to school. And our Peace Corps volunteers are going to be working to empower these local leaders and help them develop solutions that work best for their communities. Because there's no one-size-fits-all to any issue like this.

These volunteers are going to be starting girls' leadership camps. They're going to be building school bathrooms for girls, and so much more. And that's really where all of you come in -- this amazing room of powerful, young women.

You see, these volunteers and leaders need your help. Because these projects are not free. Things like books and building supplies, as you know, cost money. But fortunately, you all know how to raise a little money, I understand. And I am thrilled to hear that Girl Up has pledged to raise $50,000 for Let Girls Learn -- really. Yes. (Applause.)

That's a big deal. That is a serious commitment. And you're stepping up in ways -- and you can encourage other people to step up. And, as you all know, to help you achieve that goal, we've created a wonderful, new online toolkit with all kinds of information about hosting Let Girls Learn events. So I want you to be sure to use that new toolkit, and pass it along to everyone you know.

And of course, Let Girls Learn is just one of many programs that are helping girls go to school, and they all need wonderfully imaginative leaders like you. So I want you all to keep on standing up and speaking up and rising up in your schools and your communities, and, yes, in the halls of Congress.

And I know that this isn't always easy. The work that you do, the goals that you have, they are not easy. There will be times when you get tired or frustrated and wonder if you're really making a difference in the face of a number like 62 million.

But in those challenging moments, I want you to think about another set of numbers. I just want you think about how, if all of you here today and watching by video went out and inspired just 10 girls -– and boys –- to join this cause, that would be 15,000 new advocates for girls worldwide. And then if each of those advocates inspired 10 more people to get involved, that would be 150,000 advocates. And if each of them got 10 people involved, we're now up to 1.5 million new people. That's the power that you have right in this room.

And when you've got that many people coming together to help girls across the globe, then suddenly 62 million doesn't seem like such a big number, right? Step by step, village by village, school by school, girl by girl -- that's how you make change in this world. It's not always sweeping, big policies. It's the work that you all are doing on the ground. What you do when you share your passion. What happens when you share your knowledge with others, and you inspire them to join in on the causes that you care about. That's change. It's as simple as that.

And that's what I'm going to be doing on this issue of girls' education for my remaining time as First Lady and beyond. I'm going to be traveling to other developed countries and urging them to join the United States in investing more in girls' education. And I'll also be traveling to developing countries and highlighting how those investments are actually transforming girls' lives on the ground. And I'm going to be using every tool that I can -- media, social media, whatever it takes -- to get the word out. And I'm going to need all of you to join me. Are you on my team? (Applause.)

So I want you guys to get started right this very minute. I'm testing out my social media skills on you guys. Let's all get on Twitter or Instagram. I'm going to be doing the same -- somebody is going to be doing it -- (laughter) -- right now. And I want you to tell people why it's so important for girls to get an education. Let's just start there. Let's start ginning up. Let's just make this trend -- is that what happens? (Laughter.) We can start getting this thing trending.

Let's share some facts about why girls aren't in school. Let's tell people what they can do to help. Let's ask them to learn more about global girls' education, and then spread the word to others, start that buzz. And be sure to use the hashtag #LetGirls Learn. You guys got it? And I'm going to do it as soon as I get off stage, so I'll be right there with you.

Together, I know that we can give these girls the opportunities they deserve. When I look into the eyes of girls like you -- and around the world, I say this all the time -- I see myself in you. I see my daughters in you. And when you become an old mother like me, you'll see what I mean. I know we can do this with all of you working on this cause. You all are an inspiration to me in ways you will never imagine, and to so many young people in your communities.

So thank you for everything you do. And I can't wait to see what you guys are going to do in the future. You're going to be amazing -- you already are. You're going to do so much for education. You're going to be able to change this issue across the globe. So why don't we get to work, okay?

Thank you guys so much. God bless you. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Girl Up Leadership Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321755

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