Michelle Obama in Spain: The 'girl-power unit' tackles education equality

First lady Michelle Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia wrapped up a week-long trip to Northern Africa and Spain to promote education for girls. 

Andrea Comas/Reuters
US first lady Michelle Obama promotes education for women in Madrid, Spain, on June 30, 2016. Obama's "Let Girls Learn" initiative aims to improve educational opportunities for women.

First lady Michelle Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia highlighted education for girls during a six-day tour of North Africa and Spain, as part of the "Let Girls Learn" initiative aimed at bolstering education levels for women. 

In Madrid, Spain, Mrs. Obama spoke to around 100 teens in Madrid at a conference Thursday, urging them to join her campaign for change. Obama spoke about various barriers that stand in the way of getting an education for girls across the world. 

"You see it is not just about whether parents can afford school fees or countries can build enough schools," she said. "It's also about whether families and communities think that girls are even worthy of an education in the first place," she said.

The Let Girls Learn initiative was launched in March 2015 to help improve existing programs and create new ones to "address the range of challenges preventing adolescent girls from attaining a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential," according to its website. The Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) have all contributed to its initiatives. 

Let Girls Learn has funded community education projects, provided education to girls in conflict zones, and fought issues that keep girls out of school, such as poverty and HIV. Recently, Obama has been more focused on working to change cultural beliefs that are roadblocks for girls seeking education, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. The initiative aspires to get 62 million more girls into school around the globe.

"Recognizing that adolescent girls face multiple challenges in pursuing an education, Let Girls Learn is employing a holistic approach to change the perception of the value of girls at the individual, community and institutional levels; foster an enabling environment for adolescent girls’ education; and engage and equip girls to make life decisions and important contributions to society," according to the website. 

The six-day trip started with a stop in Liberia, where USAID has just dedicated an additional $27 million to Let Girls Learn. Obama visited a school, spoke with the country's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and visited a Peace Corps-sponsored girls leadership camp. The family then spent two days in Morocco before heading to Spain. 

"I'm traveling with my mother and my two daughters," Obama said. "This is the special girl-power unit of the Obama household. We left the president behind because he's a boy."

The trip follows a similar tour the first lady took in November 2015 to Qatar and Jordan, which addressed cultural barriers that stood in the way of education for girls. During that tour, she encouraged the men of those countries to fight for gender equality in education. 

"Today, to all of the men here, I want to be very clear. We need you," Mrs. Obama told the crowd at Qatar's World Innovation Summit for Education, "As fathers, as husbands and simply as human beings, this is your struggle, too."

"Solving our girls' education is definitely about resources, but it is also about attitudes and beliefs," she said during that tour, according to the Associated Press. "It's about whether parents think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons. It's about whether our societies cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women or whether their views of women are as full citizens entitled to equal rights."

In Spain, Obama said stigmas often prevent girls from getting an education, and encouraged her listeners to help support girls' education worldwide. 

"It's about whether girls are valued only for their bodies — for their labor, for their reproductive capacities — or are they valued for their minds as well," she said. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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