You don’t need us here at Refinery29 to remind you that this past year has been simultaneously challenging and revolutionary for women. Between the steady stream of messages we’ve received from our public officials and the even harsher realities (finally) exposed by the #MeToo movement, we’ve spent much of the past year fixing problems of prejudice and inequity.
But as we’re looking inward, International Women’s Day is also an opportunity for us all to look outward. And while we still often treat the education of girls worldwide as some far-flung impossible dream — a pursuit for people exclusively in faraway lands to worry about — the power of young women should be a top priority for both the United States and the rest of the world. According to the United Nations, countries lose more than 1 billion dollars a year by failing to educate girls at the same level as boys. And studies from the Brookings Institution report that just one extra year of secondary school can increase a girl's future income by 10 to 20%.
It’s simple: A truly healthy and prosperous country is one where girls can learn. That’s been the issue at the core of Michelle Obama’s legacy as First Lady, and she’s not stopping now. For International Women's Day, Michelle Obama and the Obama Foundation teamed up with Refinery29 to shine a light on the importance and urgency of empowering girls around the world — to ensure they can reach their full potential through education and, in turn, support their families, communities, and countries. The result is a Q&A between Mrs. Obama and four young women from Nepal, Ghana, Guatemala, and Chicago, a critical dialogue she hopes will remind us that this is our issue to face, as much as anyone else’s.
“To celebrate International Women’s Day, I wanted to reach out and connect with girls around the world — including in Chicago — to hear their stories and to share some of mine,” Mrs. Obama tells Refinery29. “Working to empower girls across the globe is my passion, and through the Obama Foundation, it will be something I work on for the rest of my life. I hope readers everywhere will be inspired to join me in this effort.”
Want to learn more about how you can help educate girls around the world? Visit go.obama.org/iwd and follow @obamafoundation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get updates on the work the Foundation will be doing in the weeks and months to come.
MEET PEARL NIKI QUARMYNE, 20, FROM MFANTSIMAN, GHANA
Pearl was raised in a small village by her grandmother and grew up selling pastries and toffee to provide for herself and her two brothers. She was able to attend high school with the help of Camfed, a nonprofit that helps girls go to school in sub-Saharan Africa. Now a college student, she works with girls in her community, funding their needs with the proceeds from her business selling ice blocks to local fishermen.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Pearl, what barriers did you have to overcome in order to achieve an education? What made you decide you would do whatever it took to overcome those obstacles?
PQ: “My barrier was financial. I’m the only girl in my family and was raised by my grandmother, who never went to school, and aunties, who were never able to finish school. I helped make ends meet by fetching and selling water; washing clothes for other families; and selling sugarcane, pastries, and toffee. Many girls I knew dropped out due to pregnancy or because they couldn’t afford the materials. I couldn’t afford books myself, so I would ask teachers and friends to borrow them. I was determined, because I loved school and wanted to be a teacher; I would often read ahead and help teachers with their lesson plans.”
PEARL: Mrs. Obama, how do you define success?
MO: “On your own terms! Success isn’t about how your life looks to others — it’s about how it feels to you. I also think a key measure of success is how you handle adversity. It’s not just about how you act when you’re healthy and happy and everything is going according to plan, but also what you do when life knocks you to the ground and all your plans go right out the window. In those darkest moments, you have a choice: Do you dwell on everything you’ve lost, or do you focus on what you still have and find a way to move forward with passion, determination, and joy?”
MEET ALEJANDRA TELEGUARIO SANTIZO, 17, FROM QUETZALTENANGO, GUATEMALA
Last year, at just 16 years old, Alejandra began to speak out against sexual violence and acoso callejero — or street harassment — in her community through local radio programs, with the help of Rise Up’s Let Girls Lead initiative.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Alejandra, why is an education so important to you and to other girls in Guatemala?
AS: “Schools in my community in Guatemala are missing many basic infrastructures, like computers, desks, and materials, as well as curriculums that promote both the personal and social development of young girls, particularly indigenous girls. Recently, an indigenous friend of mine was forced by her family to drop out and marry because she got pregnant. It’s still a common cultural practice for indigenous girls and girls in rural areas to live in informal unions when they’re very young, which is something my network of girl leaders is advocating against.”
ALEJANDRA: So, Mrs. Obama, many girls like myself look up to you as a role model. What advice do you have for girl leaders like me?
MO: “My best advice to girls, including my own daughters, is do not be afraid to fail. So often, our own fear of failure is the thing that keeps us back. We think we have to be perfect, that if we make even the tiniest mistake, it’s a catastrophe. That’s simply not true! In fact, the only way you succeed in life is by failing and failing well. And by that I mean you cannot let your failures eat you up or make you want to quit. You have to learn from them, let them challenge and inspire you to do more — to take some risks and to step outside of your comfort zone.”
MEET EVA LEWIS, 19, FROM CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
Eva is an activist and artist who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. She’s now the founder of The I Project, a nonprofit focusing on intersectionality that promotes activism through art, and is studying at the University of Pennsylvania.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Why is an education so important to you and to other girls in Chicago?
EL: “My mother’s parents, who migrated from Mississippi and Alabama to Chicago during the second Great Migration, raised her to know their history and reap the benefits of education so that she could emancipate herself. She instilled those same values in me. Education gives us the tools to advocate for ourselves — and write narratives counter to the ones that have been written for us.
“Education also grants us a fighting chance. We are constantly being beaten down by the multiple layers of systems that oppress us. We live in a world that sexualizes us for being women and ostracizes us for being Black. So education is a Black girl’s weapon. Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Kimberlé Crenshaw couldn’t create terms like Black feminism, womanism, and intersectionality to spread the word about our struggle without that knowledge.”
EVA: Similar to me, Mrs. Obama, you grew up on the South Side, attended a selective-enrollment high school outside of your community, and went on to an Ivy League institution. What did that academic journey teach you?
MO: “Yes, I'm a product of the Chicago public school system. I went to the neighborhood elementary school around the corner from my house, and my parents were very clear from the time my brother and I were little that school was our number one priority. So I always put 120% into it. I always wanted to be the top student; I wanted to talk, and I wanted to raise my hand.
“And then I got the chance to go to a magnet high school called Whitney Young, which was a new college prep school that you had to test into. I absolutely knew it was the place for me. I wanted so desperately to be at a school where you weren't treated like you were strange because you liked to read, study, and strive to succeed.
“So much like you, I would wake up before dawn every day, get on a bus, and ride for an hour and a half to get to school and then ride for another hour and a half to get home at the end of the day. I spent three hours a day commuting because I was determined that this high school was going to be my stepping stone to college. I learned a lot about discipline, perseverance, and time management, and it was absolutely worth it. Because of the education I got at Whitney Young, I was able to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School and pursue the career of my dreams.”
MEET NIRUPA KATUWAL, 21, FROM KATHMANDU, NEPAL
Nirupa grew up with a single mother who pushed her to get the education she never could. When Room to Read, a global education nonprofit that promotes literacy and gender equality in Asia and Africa, arrived at her school, Nirupa was given the opportunity to excel. She recently graduated from college with a degree in business and now serves as a mentor for Room to Read.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Nirupa, what barriers have you had to overcome in order to achieve an education? What made you decide you would do whatever it took to overcome those obstacles?
NK: “My father left us when I was just nine months old, leaving my mother to fend for herself and a baby. Uneducated, she took a job in a garment factory making paltry wages, and she had no option but to leave me in the small room where we lived. I often skipped meals and struggled to attend school; I can still remember my friends asking about my father, and I had no answer. I personally know how life can treat you when you don’t have an education — I’ve seen the cost my mother paid for being illiterate. But she never complained, and even when she was sick or needed help with chores, she always said, ‘Focus on your studies.’ She knew the value of education.”
NIRUPA: What are your future plans to enhance women's empowerment and girls’ education worldwide?
MO: “Back when I was First Lady, we launched Let Girls Learn, an effort to help girls worldwide attend school. And we saw that whether it's a head of state, a corporate CEO, or a teenage girl, when people hear the stories of girls who are not in school, they're moved, and they're outraged. And better yet, they want to help.
“That was certainly true for me. As I’ve said, I plan to continue this work for the rest of my life, and I’m proud that my husband and I are creating a global adolescent girls' education program through the Obama Foundation. I want every girl on the planet to have the same kind of opportunities that I've had, and that my daughters are having, to fulfill their potential and pursue their dreams. I look forward to sharing more about our work with you soon, and I hope all of you will join us.”