How Michelle Obama could help make school a reality for millions of girls worldwide

The first lady is spearheading a new initiative that, in partnership with the Peace Corps, aims to educate adolescent girls around the world.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo/File
President Barack Obama listens as first lady Michelle Obama speaks at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, to announce their 'Let Girls Learn' initiative. The Obama administration is expanding efforts and directing a variety of federal agencies to work with other countries to help young girls worldwide attend and stay in school.

Tens of millions of girls worldwide are not in school, and first lady Michelle Obama wants to help fix that.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Obama announced a new partnership with the Peace Corps in line with Let Girls Learn, a government-wide initiative to help girls, especially in developing nations, begin and complete their education.

“Peace Corps will be supporting hundreds of new community projects to help girls go to school and stay in school – everything from after-school mentoring to girls’ leadership camps, to entrepreneurial projects… and many more,”  the first lady said at the program’s launch.

The numbers tend to vary depending on which organization is counting, but according to the latest UNICEF data, about 58 million primary-school-age children are out of school today, and 31 million of those are girls. That’s not counting the additional 63 million adolescents aged 12 to 15 who are also not in school, the organization found.

All in all, the Peace Corps estimates that about 62 million girls globally are missing out on an education.

In hotspot countries, the disparity can be much more stark. In Central African Republic, Afghanistan, and Niger, for instance, less than 70 girls for every 100 boys are enrolled in school, according to a Brookings Institute report. In Chad and Somalia, the figure drops to less than 50 for every 100 boys.

This is despite the United Nations' insistence that education has plenty of positive effects on health, nourishment, and livelihood. Maternal mortality drops among educated mothers, who are also more likely to send their own children to school. Incomes go up, unemployment goes down. The gender gap closes.

Yet a variety of reasons exist that keep girls from school.

Poverty is a big one, with millions of parents unable to make enough to put food on the table, much less pay for school fees, supplies, or uniforms. Children in these places – which are often rural, and disproportionately in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – often have to spend hours laboring in farms or drawing water from distant wells, leaving no time for formal education.

Families who do have a bit to spare may choose to pay for a son’s education instead of a daughter’s, perpetuating stereotypes about roles for women. Girls in such environments also tend to get married off as soon as a match is found, effectively ending any chance for further study.

“Households typically make decisions about girls’ schooling and marriage jointly, not sequentially, and education tends to lose out,” according to a UNICEF report on child brides.

Violence is another obstacle: Attacks appear to be rising around the world against girls who are in school or seeking access to education, according to a UN Human Rights Council report released earlier this month. The report found strikes against schools in at least 70 countries from 2009 to 2014, with many of the attacks “specifically directed at girls, parents, and teachers advocating for gender equality in education.”

Such a variety of issues in a range of cultures will require at least as many solutions, Obama said during her address. She added that activists in the audience had often advised her against an all-in-one approach.

“Time and again, you have told me that whatever these obstacles these girls face – whether it’s school fees, or violence, or cultural beliefs that girls simply aren’t worthy of an education – you’ve said that these problems will not be fixed from on high, that these are community challenges that call for community solutions,” the first lady said.

With the new partnership, Obama hopes to tap into the nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers already positioned within communities in 60 countries. The Peace Corps will recruit and train new volunteers focused on advancing young girls’ empowerment and education. The volunteers will encourage dialogue that helps locals both figure out what barriers exist that keep girls from school and come up with solutions.

The effort will start in 11 countries, with the goal of eventually going global.

“I see myself in these girls. I see our daughters in these girls,” Obama said. “And like all of you, I just can’t walk away from them. Like you, I can’t just sit back and accept the barriers that keep them from realizing their promise.”

The partnership kicks off with the first lady’s trip to Japan and Cambodia later this month.

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