As part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, Michelle Obama has gone to the Middle East to speak at a global conference on education in Qatar. She previewed what she’s going to talk about in an article in The Atlantic – and she’s not pulling any punches. FLOTUS begins by acknowledging the importance of things like scholarships, transportation, etc. But then she gets down to the heart of the matter when it comes to the challenges facing girls.
But while these investments are absolutely necessary to solve our girls’ education problem, they are simply not sufficient. Scholarships, bathrooms, and safe transportation will only go so far if societies still view menstruation as shameful and shun menstruating girls. Or if they fail to punish rapists and reject survivors of rape as “damaged goods.” Or if they provide few opportunities for women to join the workforce and support their families, so that it’s simply not financially viable for parents struggling with poverty to send their daughters to school.
In other words, we cannot address our girls’ education crisis until we address the broader cultural beliefs and practices that can help cause and perpetuate this crisis. And that is precisely the message I intend to deliver this week when I travel to the Middle East…I’ll be urging countries around the world to both make new investments in girls’ education and challenge laws and practices that silence, demean, and brutalize women—from female genital mutilation and cutting, to forced child marriage, to laws that allow marital rape and disadvantage women in the workplace.
While we’ve made strides on these cultural issues here in the United States (as the First Lady acknowledges), it was my experience growing up that the shame of silence around things like menstruation made it deeply difficult to traverse the challenges they represent to girls. So while I’m sure that speaking so openly about them will ignite backlash in certain quarters, the fact that Michelle Obama is willing to do so is a powerful step in the right direction.
What has sometimes hobbled our efforts to address these issues openly has been the misguided notion that tolerance for different cultures means tolerance for the abuse of women and girls. That’s why the words of a previous FLOTUS – Hillary Clinton – were so important 20 years ago.
Tragically, women are most often the ones whose human rights are violated. Even now, in the late 20th century, the rape of women continues to be used as an instrument of armed conflict. Women and children make up a large majority of the world’s refugees. And when women are excluded from the political process, they become even more vulnerable to abuse. I believe that now, on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break the silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.
As I’ve noted before, the empowerment of women and girls has a powerful effect on any country.
“In fact, the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated,” [Valerie] Hudson wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy.
Michelle Obama takes it one step further.
But ultimately, for me, this issue isn’t just about politics or economics—for me, this is a moral issue. As I’ve traveled the world, I have met so many of these girls. I’ve seen firsthand that every single one of them has the spark of something extraordinary inside of them, and they are so hungry to realize their promise. They walk for hours each day to school, learning at rickety desks in bare concrete classrooms. They study for hours each night, holding tight to their hopes for the future, even in the face of heartbreaking odds.
These girls are no different from my daughters or any of our daughters. And we should never have to accept our girls having their bodies mutilated or being married off to grown men as teenagers, confined to lives of dependence and abuse. We should never have to raise them in societies that silence their voices and snuff out their dreams. None of us here in the U.S. would accept this for our own daughters and granddaughters, so why would we accept it for any girl on our planet?
In other words, she’s asking us to expand our moral imagination beyond our own families, community and national borders. But ultimately, if we envision a more peaceful world, it is in our own interest to heed her call.