Michelle Obama is turning to a new ally in her campaign to improve girls' education and career opportunities around the world: Arab men.
She's just begun a seven-day tour in Qatar and Jordan focusing on changing cultural beliefs obstructing girls' education, and she's petitioning men there to stand up for gender equity 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, or WISE, an annual conference on improving education and opportunities for children around the world. “As fathers, as husbands and simply as human beings, this is your struggle, too.”
Obama is taking her White House-sponsored Let Girls Learn initiative to the region with a series of speeches, school visits, and high-profile meetings targeting the stigmas and stereotypes that hinder girls' education.
"Solving our girls' education is definitely about resources, but it is also about attitudes and beliefs," she said, 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 It's about whether our societies cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women or whether their views of women are as full citizens entitled to equal rights."
"If we truly want to get girls into our classrooms, then we need to have an honest conversation about how we view and treat women in our societies," she continued. "And this conversation needs to happen in every country on this planet, including my own."
Obama arrived in Doha, Qatar, on Monday to promote Let Girls Learn. On Tuesday, she visited a US Air Force base with comedian Conan O'Brien, and on Wednesday she was scheduled to visit a school in Jordan, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, that Syrian refugees now attend.
She kicked off her trip with a moving op-ed in the Atlantic explaining the barriers to girls' education, starting with the fact that an estimated 62 million girls globally do not attend school.
Conflicts also impede education. According to WISE, conflicts in the Middle East deprive more than 13 million children of schooling.
As part of Let Girls Learn, Obama has worked to fund community girls’ education projects, educate girls in conflict zones, and address issues like poverty and HIV that keep girls out of school. Now, she's focusing on encouraging cultural beliefs that support girls' education.
In her Qatar speech, Obama said cultural shifts can happen – as they have in the US – and when they do, create a powerful ripple effect that can lead to even more cultural and political progress for women.
"Girls who are educated marry later, have lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and are more likely to immunize their children and less likely to contract HIV. Educated girls also earn higher salaries – 15 to 25 percent more for each additional year of secondary school – and studies have shown that sending more girls to school can boost an entire country’s GDP," she wrote in her Atlantic essay.
"And when educated girls become healthy, financially secure, empowered women, they’re far better equipped to advocate for their needs and aspirations, and challenge unjust laws and harmful practices and beliefs."