Michelle Obama asked more than a thousand girls on Tuesday to be "hungry" for education, while also urging them to raise awareness about the millions of girls around the world who lack access to it. "There are 62 million girls who would give anything to be in your position," the first lady told the girls, all from different schools and organizations, who gathered at the Apollo Theater in New York City's Harlem. "You all have to own this piece of your education. So if you care about those girls, the first thing you have to care about is your education." Obama spoke as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, and was joined by Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia; Charlize Theron, actress and founder of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project; Nurfahada, a 16-year-old ambassador from nonprofit organization Plan International; and Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, which hosted the event.
Obama urged the girls in the audience to carry her message far beyond New York. "I want you all to be tweeting and Instagramming something more important than your shoes and your food," Obama said. "You are already mentors; there are girls in your community who are looking up to you, so what you are going to tell them is to stay in school…. You can compete with the boys, you can beat the boys, that’s what you are going to tell them." The factors keeping girls out of school around the world are complex, Obama said. Poverty is a huge factor, but childhood marriage and a cultural belief that boys are more valuable than girls also play a role. Even access to sanitary supplies and private washing facilities during menstruation are instrumental in keeping girls out of school. Gillard, who was Australia's first and only female prime minister, said it costs on average $1.18 per day to educate a girl throughout the world. Although current programs finance 88% of that cost already, the gap is just 14 cents per day, she said.
There are 62 million girls who would give anything to be in your position.
"If world leaders stepped forward with 14 cents per day for each of these girls, we could make sure these girls went to primary schools and secondary schools. That’s got to be do-able," Gillard said. "We have to be thinking about how to defeat poverty at the same time, because poverty is holding so many of these girls back." The United Nations has made ending extreme poverty and ensuring universal access to primary and secondary education by 2030 part of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The goals, announced last week as part of the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, have helped put education high on the international agenda. Girls' access to school has been specifically highlighted. On Friday, Pope Francis urged world leaders to guarantee access to education for all of the world's children, including "girls who are excluded in certain places." Following the pope's address, Malala Yousafzai, 18, who was shot by Taliban fighters for demanding to go to school in her native Pakistan, also pushed world leaders to guarantee access to education. "Education is not a privilege; education is a right," Yousafzai told the U.N. "Education is peace." Gillard agreed, citing studies on Tuesday that show educating girls also leads to more support for democracy, better health outcomes, and lower infant-mortality statistics. But convincing families that education is important in cultures where girls are not valued is a challenge, she said. "Even providing school meals can change a family’s mind. If their girl is going to get a big meal that day, that can make the difference," Gillard said.
I want you all to be tweeting and Instagramming something more important than your shoes and your food.
Theron, whose Africa Outreach Project works to raise awareness about AIDS, said education is also crucial to public health. "We know that stopping AIDS lies within education," she said. The women also had some choice words for boys and men who don't support smart women. "There is no boy at this age who is cute enough to stop you from getting your education," Obama said. "If I had worried about who liked me or thought I was cute at your age, I wouldn’t be married to the president of the United States." Nurfahada, a girl ambassador with Plan International, who is from the Philippines, agreed. "As long as you are doing right, and you are doing things for not just yourself but for others, you're being good regardless of what the attention of the men around you is," Nurfahada said. Actress Sophia Bush, an advisor for Glamour's The Girl Project, echoed the first lady's message. "We're talking about the power of an educated girl," Bush said. "Ladies, let me tell you something: The most valuable part of you is your brain. Smart is sexy and beautiful and badass, it’s impressive and something you can be proud of." Obama also spoke about the #62MillionGirls campaign during Sunday's Global Citizen festival in New York. The first lady is urging girls and women around the world to share photos of themselves on social media with the caption: "In school, I learned…" to help raise awareness for the #62MillionGirls campaign.