From Lunch to Learning: Michelle Obama’s Got a New Education Focus

The “Let Girls Learn” campaign will work with Peace Corps volunteers to boost gender equality and girls’ education in developing countries.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Receiving an education can be a challenge for many people in developing nations, but young girls face unique barriers that leave them disproportionately affected—up to 62 million girls worldwide are not in school.

As an outspoken advocate of girls’ rights (and school lunches), Michelle Obama is looking to lower that stat and improve gender equality and educational opportunities around the world. Under the first lady’s guidance, the U.S. has partnered with Japan to launch the international initiative “Let Girls Learn,” which focuses on encouraging girls in developing countries to attend and stay in school. Obama is heading to Tokyo this week to ask other world leaders to add their financial support to the $231 million from the U.S.’ federal budget to help make this goal a reality.

To spread the campaign’s message, the U.S. has come up with a unique strategy: Work with Peace Corps volunteers placed around the world to design solutions that are specific to each country’s cultural practices and issues.

“America’s nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers live and work in developing communities across the globe and know better than just about anyone the challenges girls face,” Obama wrote in her op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. Along with specific training in girls’ education, these volunteers will work with local community members to develop leadership camps and mentoring projects, while establishing viable solutions that allow girls to safely attend school.

Access to education is not only an essential human right, but statistics show time and again that sending girls to school can create a positive ripple effect for entire communities. Each additional year of education increases a woman’s income by up to 25 percent, and primary education decreases a woman’s risk of contracting HIV threefold, according to the campaign’s figures.

Higher levels of education mean women are better able to contribute to their communities at large, financially support their families, and help stimulate economic growth as a whole. Common reasons for keeping girls out of school include fear of sexual assault on the journey to and from school, early marriage, costly tuition, and the reliance upon girls for household work.

“The question today is no longer whether to invest in global girls’ education but how, particularly when it comes to adolescent girls,” Obama continued in her op-ed.

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After her stopover in Tokyo, the first lady will head to a school in Cambodia where the program is already under way. “Let Girls Learn” will tackle education goals in some 60 countries, beginning with a reading program in Nigeria, primary education in Afghanistan, and emergency schooling for refugee children fleeing violence in South Sudan.

Girls walk miles each day to school, study for hours each night, and stand strong against those who say they are unworthy of an education,” Obama wrote in closing. “If they are prepared to make those sacrifices, the global community should be able to summon the resources to help them fulfill their promise and the promise of their families, communities, and countries.”