Michelle Obama: Why Global Girls' Education Is So Personal for Me

The First Lady on how you can get involved in helping girls learn.

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So often when people talk about the issue of global girls' education, they dive right into the policy weeds.  

They talk about the numbers — how 62 million girls worldwide aren't in school right now. They talk about the barriers girls face to getting an education — how their families can't afford the school fees; or the nearest school is miles away, and walking there each day means risking assault and kidnapping; or there is a school nearby, but it doesn't have adequate bathrooms for girls, so they have to stay home when they have their periods, and they sometimes fall behind and wind up dropping out.   

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And all of this is true — but it also misses the fundamental point that this issue isn't just about access to resources like scholarships, transportation, and school bathrooms. It's also very much about attitudes and beliefs: the belief that girls should be valued for their bodies, not their minds; the belief that girls simply aren't worthy of an education, and their best chance in life is to be married off when they're barely even teenagers and start having children of their own. 

For me, that's where this issue gets personal, because as I've traveled the world as First Lady, I have met these girls, and they are so smart and hardworking, and so hungry for an education. I've met girls who make long, dangerous journeys each day to school and then come home and study for hours each night. I've met girls studying at rickety desks in bare concrete classrooms who are raising their hands so hard they're almost falling out of their chairs.  

I see myself in these girls — in their ambition and their determination to rise above their circumstances. And I believe that because you're Lenny Letter readers — women who are talented, passionate, and ambitious — you'd see yourselves in these girls too.

I see myself in these girls — in their ambition and their determination to rise above their circumstances.

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Just imagine for a moment what it's like to be in their shoes. Imagine being a bright, curious young girl with all kinds of ideas about what you want to be when you grow up. And then one day, someone taps you on the shoulder and says, "Sorry, not you. You're a girl. Your dreams stop here. You have to drop out of school, marry a man 20 years older than you whom you've never met, and start having babies of your own."

Think about who — and what — you would be today if your formal education had ended after middle school and you knew only what you'd learned through eighth grade.

It's inconceivable, right? We wouldn't dream of accepting this fate for ourselves — or for our friends, sisters, or daughters. So why would we accept it for any girl on this planet — especially when we've got piles of research telling us that girls who go to school marry later, have healthier families, and earn higher salaries?

These girls deserve the same kind of chances we all had to learn and grow and contribute to their families and societies. That's why President Obama and I started Let Girls Learn, an initiative to help girls around the world go to school. Through Let Girls Learn, the U.S. government is coming together with governments in countries like the U.K., Japan, and South Korea and with businesses, nonprofit organizations, and concerned individuals to invest in adolescent girls' education across the globe.   

These girls deserve the same kind of chances we all had to learn and grow and contribute to their families and societies.

And we need your help. That's why we launched the #62MillionGirls social-media campaign to get people engaged in this issue. Since then, #62MillionGirls has become a community of people who are passionate about girls' education.  

And today, at South by Southwest, I'm launching the next phase of this campaign — the action phase — and calling on people not just to care about this issue, but to do something about it.

As part of this effort, Girl Rising is gathering together the #62MillionGirls community on Change.org as the central place for organizing further action. You can now go to 62MillionGirls.com and pledge to take action to help girls worldwide go to school. You'll find the information you need to educate yourselves and others about this issue, as well as all kinds of ideas for how to use your talents and skills to have an impact.  

For example, a group of amazing artists (including Zendaya, Missy Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, and Janelle Monae) came together to record a song written by Diane Warren called "This Is for My Girls." The song just had its world radio premiere on iHeartRadio, and today it's set to make its iTunes debut and be performed live at South by Southwest. The proceeds from this song will benefit Let Girls Learn.  

But you don't have to have a Grammy to make a difference here (I can't even carry a tune). You can organize a fun run, a battle of the bands, a trivia contest, a cocktail party — anything you can dream up and execute is fair game (within limits, of course). You absolutely have the power to make a difference on this issue, and girls around the world are counting on you to step up and act. 

I want to end this letter with the story of just one of these girls — a young woman I met in Cambodia. She wakes up at four every morning to cook for her family, water their crops, and tend to their cows. Then she gets on her bicycle and pedals for an hour to get to school, where she studies as hard as she can to fulfill her dream of becoming a math teacher.

She told me, "I have been through a lot of hardships. I know that I need to overcome them. I've never thought that they are the barrier to stop me. I've never thought of giving up … I never lose hope in myself."

Against the most heartbreaking odds, these girls never lose hope in themselves. The least we can do is give them a chance to go to school, fulfill that hope, and become who and what they are meant to be.  

Michelle Obama is the First Lady of the United States.

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