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Michelle Obama: For girls, a heartbreaking loss -- and an opportunity

'Let Girls Learn' initiative will support girls' education efforts in Liberia and Morocco, she says

Michelle Obama | 7/11/2016, 4:30 p.m.
Ralphina Feelee lives in Liberia, where the average family gets by on less than two dollars a day, and many ...
Official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama in the Green Room of the White House was made on February 12, 2013. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/The White House

— Ralphina Feelee lives in Liberia, where the average family gets by on less than two dollars a day, and many families simply can't afford to educate their daughters. Teen pregnancy rates are high, and pregnant girls are often discouraged from attending school.

Sometimes it's not even safe for girls to attend school in the first place, since their commutes to and from school can be dangerous, and they sometimes even face sexual harassment and assault at school.

Ralphina wakes up early each morning, cooks for her family, cares for her younger siblings, and goes to work at a local market -- all before she even gets to school. But she still attends class each day, working especially hard in science and math so she can fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.

Rihab Boutadghart lives in a remote part of Morocco near the Sahara Desert. While Morocco has made huge strides in education, and nearly all girls there attend elementary school, girls in rural areas often live far from the nearest middle and high schools, so many of them drop out of school by the time they turn twelve. Right now, only 14 percent of girls in rural Morocco attend high school.

But Rihab, who proudly describes herself as a "feminist," is determined to finish her education. She dreams of becoming an entrepreneur and being the CEO of a major company, and she recently appeared on Moroccan TV urging girls to work hard and follow their passions.

I had the privilege of meeting Ralphina and Rihab earlier this week when I traveled to Liberia and Morocco to highlight our global girls' education crisis -- the fact that right now,more than 62 million girls worldwide are not in school. This is such a heartbreaking loss, because these girls are so bright and so hungry to learn -- and like Ralphina and Rihab, they have such big dreams for themselves. These girls are no less smart or deserving of an education than my own daughters -- or any of our sons and daughters. The only thing that separates them from our children is geography and luck.

Sometimes the issue is resources: their families simply can't afford the school fees; or the nearest school is hours away; or the school nearby doesn't have adequate bathroom facilities for girls, so they're forced to stay home during their menstrual cycles, and they wind up falling behind and dropping out.

But often the root of the problem is really about attitudes and beliefs: families and communities simply don't think girls are worthy of an education, and they choose to marry them off as teenagers instead, often forcing them to start having children when they're basically still children themselves.

The girls I met in Morocco and Liberia want to be doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers. One of them wants to run for office so she can fight for women's rights and combat climate change. Another hopes to open her own auto shop to teach women about cars so they can be more independent.