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International Opinion

First Lady Urges Global Educators to Help Let Girls Learn

By Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing — December 03, 2015 4 min read
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At the recent World Innovation Summit for Education, a conference run by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development which gathered delegates from 120 countries in Doha, First Lady Michelle Obama joined a panel of world leaders who spoke about the transformative power of global girls’ education. International education consultant Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing explains.

At the 2015 WISE Summit, which convened 2,000 global education leaders and advocates around themes of impact and inclusive growth in education, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered an impassioned keynote on the importance of girls’ secondary education. Her speech came days after she published a moving essay about the Let Girls Learn initiative, which aims to help educate and empower the world’s 62 million girls not in school.

The case for improving secondary schooling for girls
Every young person deserves the benefits of a quality education. And countless studies show that educating girls unleashes positive ripple effects, including not only increased economic growth and wages but also healthier mothers and children and better access to education for future generations.

Yet despite these tremendous potential gains, the gender gap remains wide. Millions of the world’s girls are not in school, either because they never had the chance to begin or were unable to remain in the system. Moreover, many of the girls who are in school are not learning basic skills, and some risk their safety in order to attend.

In terms of solutions, the First Lady stressed matters of not only resources but also societal beliefs. Highlighting the barriers keeping adolescent girls from school in developing regions, the First Lady made an impassioned call for new investments to help girls make the critical transition from primary to secondary school.

Adding that “even when girls do manage to finish secondary school—even university—in many countries, they graduate only to find that there’s no place for them in the workplace,” the First Lady advocated a holistic approach that shift attitudes and empowers young women to use the skills they work so hard to develop.

At times, the First Lady’s remarks were personal, revealing that her own education generated opportunities she “never could have dreamed of as a young black girl from a working class family.” Her experiences illustrate the transformative power of high-quality education—a poignant reminder of why closing the opportunity and achievement gaps is such important work.

Joined by female education champions
The importance of this issue, both regionally and globally, was amplified by those who joined her onstage. Opening the conference, Qatar Foundation Chair HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the UNESCO special envoy for basic and higher education who has been instrumental in expanding university education in Qatar, said the challenges faced by girls were worsening: “In this region we are not only paralyzed but going backwards at the speed of light.”

Seeking to draw attention to not only harsh realities but also solutions, WISE honored Afghan educator Dr. Sakena Yacoobi for her enduring efforts to rebuild her country’s education landscape. Dr. Yacoobi’s work to promote female education includes training scores of teachers and establishing “underground” learning centers for young women to continue their education—forbidden under Taliban rule.

A panel of distinguished world leaders including Julia Gillard, Leymah Gbowee, and Mabel van Oranje concluded the session, further emphasizing the importance of prioritizing girls’ education as both an intrinsic right and a critical lever to achieving the recently-adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Robust new evidence reveals why and how to accelerate progress
Although girls’ education is not a new issue, its widespread global attention is relatively recent. For more than two decades, international development efforts have focused on the girls’ education imperative. Yet despite significant progress toward gender parity—particularly in primary enrollment—much work remains at all levels of education.

Ten years ago at UNESCO, I found the case for educating girls convincing, and mounting evidence has since strengthened that case. Moreover, rigorous new research spotlights proven ways to accelerate progress, including strategies for getting girls into school, helping them complete their education, and improving their learning outcomes. The Brookings Center for Universal Education‘s review of this robust body of evidence from diverse contexts can inform efforts to make relevant changes in policy and practice.

Taking action here at home
The WISE Summit is a prime example of the momentum toward improving secondary education for girls. But you don’t have to be a global education expert to get involved. As part of the Let Girls Learn effort, Mrs. Obama is sharing the stories and struggles of these young women with students in the US to inspire them to commit to their own studies. The First Lady also hopes to engage US students in promoting education equity efforts worldwide.

What’s more, teachers can draw on this issue to foster global competence in their own classrooms. For example, teachers can bring the topic to life through interactive materials, free lesson plans, and correspondence with Peace Corps volunteers. Also, students can both use an online toolkit to raise funds for Peace Corps-affiliated projects (such as sending girls to empowerment camps) and raise awareness about this issue by writing, presenting, or tweeting using the hashtag #LetGirlsLearn.

Connect with Vanessa and Heather on Twitter.

Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing, founding principal of VSG Insights, is a research and strategy adviser for education leaders across the world.

Image credit: Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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