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.
Meet 21-year-old Nirupa Katuwal, who grew up in Nepal 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.”
MO: Why is an education so important to you and to other girls in Nepal?
NK: “In Nepal, girls are often seen as financial burdens to be tasked with household chores or to supplement the family’s income, which greatly limits their access to quality education. Many girls are married off before they hit puberty and treated as untouchable when they are menstruating. Gender-based violence is also still rampant. I hope to help eradicate cultural practices like dowry and Kamlari that undermine women’s worth. Education is not only about getting a degree or a decent job, it’s about initiating systemic change. Being educated helps me speak up for my rights and the rights of others. If I were not educated, I would be working in someone’s house. But now, I know my worth and the contributions I can make to my community and the world.”
MO: What do you plan to do — or have you done — with your education? How will you champion and support others who are working to achieve an education?
NK: “When Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program came to my school, it changed my life. I finished secondary school and went on to graduate college with a degree in business. In college, I worked as a third grade teacher to support my family, and I now manage my mother’s fabric inventory and finances. After graduation, I accepted a job as a social mobiliser with Room to Read, and I’m extremely proud to work with girls who are just like me, helping them chart their own chosen paths. And I plan to start a master’s degree program soon!”
NIRUPA: Mrs. Obama, I wonder: Have you always felt that educating girls was important? Can you tell me about any incident in your life that inspired you to support girls' education?
MO: “As I traveled the world during my time as First Lady, I saw time and again how our young people — particularly girls — are so often pushed to the bottom of their societies. Everywhere I went, I met these girls, and they were so fiercely intelligent, so eager to make something of themselves. But too often their spark was being snuffed out by the circumstances of their birth or the norms of their communities. And that’s where this issue becomes personal for me, because I see myself in these girls. I see my daughters in these girls. I knew that I couldn’t just sit back and accept the barriers that keep them from realizing their promise. I had to do something.
“I also want to make sure that more students here in the U.S. learn about the sacrifices girls worldwide are making to get their education. I want our young people to be inspired and motivated by these girls and to realize that while their own school may be far from perfect, they still have an obligation to show up every day to that classroom and learn as much as they can.”
NK: 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.”
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.