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 Alejandra Teleguario Santizo. 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.”
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?
AS: “I’ve seen too many girls drop out of school, not be allowed to go to school, or receive a poor quality of education. That’s why I’ve decided to become a teacher myself — an English teacher! Ever since I learned English, I’ve received many opportunities for personal development that I now want to use to serve my community.”
MO: What advice do you have for girls who face challenges similar to you in reaching their full potential through an education?
AS: “Never give up! We are the change that the world needs. Persistence is important, because we will be able to achieve what we want as women. And get involved. Because of my advocacy work and efforts, I’ve been able to better engage my community and educate policy makers. That’s where change begins.”
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.
“I also advise girls to be supportive of each other. I cannot say this enough! Too often we’re taught that we have to compete, or that someone else’s failure is our success. But we can all rise together; we can all win. We have to be a team of women and girls who love each other and value each other and cherish one another. Because if we don't cherish each other, no one else will. So let's start there. Go out and find a way to lift up some other girl in your life. Maybe it's a little sister, a classmate, or a neighbor. You can be a mentor right now, today.”
AS: Who are some of the women you admire the most and why?
MO: “I deeply admire the young women and girls I’ve met around the world who are fighting so hard to get an education. These girls are so bright and passionate. And they’re so hungry to learn. They get up before dawn, they spend hours harvesting crops, cooking for their families, and tending to their younger siblings. They walk for hours each day to get to school, often at great risk to their personal safety. Then they come home and work jobs as maids and in factories before they then study for hours late into the night. So many of these girls have such big plans for their lives; they dream of attending college, of becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, and entrepreneurs. I’m in awe of their courage and determination. They are my heroes!”
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.