Michelle Obama tackles Mideast’s out-of-school girls

Campaign to bring 62 million girls worldwide into the classroom brings US first lady to the Middle East this week.

First Lady Michelle Obama is campaigning to get 62 million girls into classrooms around the world [Reuters]
First Lady Michelle Obama is campaigning to get 62 million girls into classrooms around the world [Reuters]

New York, United States – Michelle Obama’s campaign to educate all girls has seen her meet, hug and chat with youngsters in Cambodia, Japan and Britain this year while shining a light on the world’s 62 million girls who do not see the inside of a classroom.

This week, the Let Girls Learn initiative that she launched in March takes her to the Middle East, where she will speak at Qatar’s World Innovation Summit for Education before going to Jordan to spotlight girl refugees from the civil war in Syria.

In a downtrodden district in the capital Amman, she will visit one of the 28 schools that the US has built in a $458m scheme these past five years and meet some of the 1,200 pupils – including 400 Syrian refugee children – who study there.

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Tina Tchen, Obama’s chief of staff, said developing countries have made great strides in getting girls in schools in recent years, but there is still work to do so they can fully catch up with their brothers.

“When you dig down into the statistics, you will find huge disparities that grow at the secondary school level, especially in places like Africa, in parts of the Middle East,” Tchen told Al Jazeera.

“They are confronting cultural and societal barriers around the role of women that particularly keep girls out of school.”

She pointed to Malala Yousafzai, who was shot on a school bus in Pakistan in 2012 by the Taliban for advocating girls’ right to education, and the more than 200 schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria last year.

When girls go to school, they are less likely to marry young or die in childbirth, Tchen said. Every year a girl spends in school, her future earnings can grow by as much as 25 percent, making a valuable fillip to the economy.

Obama is more popular than her husband, US President Barack Obama, with approval ratings of about 65 percent in the US. She champions uncontentious causes, such as tackling childhood obesity, helping military families, and educating girls.

She wins praise for her fashion sense, for being a hard-working mother to Malia and Sasha, and for not taking herself too seriously. Her healthy lifestyle initiative has seen her appear in comedy skits, with Sesame Street puppets and in workout videos.

Her story – of a black, working-class woman who made it to the White House – resonated with female students at a school in run-down East London in June. In March, she was greeted by flag-waving schoolgirls in Cambodia and Japan.

Her focus on education is personal. She grew up in a brick bungalow on Chicago’s gritty south side during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Hard work and parental backing saw her win places at Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

“Education was everything for me,” she said last month. “It was the starting point for every opportunity I’ve had in my life.”

Addressing a female crowd in New York’s Apollo Theater in September, the first lady got shrieks of applause for her advice to schoolgirls, who should focus on their class work instead of makeup and hairdos, she said.

“If I had worried about who liked me and who thought I was cute when I was your age, I wouldn’t be married to the president of the United States today,” she told the audience.

Her campaign even comes with a 20-song playlist via the website Spotify, with inspirational anthems, from Diana Ross’ classic, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, to Survivor by Destiny’s Child, and TLC’s No Scrubs.

In the Middle East, Obama will be greeted with cheers – particularly in Jordan, where she is set to announce new commitments from a fund that has secured more than $800m from Japan, South Korea and Britain.

She will post updates about the seven-day trip.

Rob Jenkins, an Amman-based director for the UN children’s agency UNICEF said he supported the girls’ education scheme – but warned against ignoring boys across the Middle East who cannot get behind a school desk.

“It’s great to have a global leader coming to highlight one very important group of children who are struggling to realise their right to education,” Jenkins told Al Jazeera. “But it shouldn’t be at the expense or exclusion of looking at the broader picture.”

Globally, the 124 million children the UN says are not in school are almost evenly split between boys and girls. 

Jordan has worked hard to achieve parity in education these past two decades so that nowadays almost all of the country’s native-born children – both boys and girls – get to study in school, said Jenkins.

It is tougher for the Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan, he said. Some 80,000 UN-registered Syrian refugee children in Jordan are not in school, but the girls are just as likely to be kept out as boys. 

A survey this year by the charity CARE found that refugee boys are actually more likely – by 38 percent – to be out of school there than girls, 33 percent), spokeswoman Nicole Harris told Al Jazeera. 

In September, UNICEF reported that conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere were keeping more than 13 million children out of school and warned of a “lost generation” of boys and girls across the Middle East.

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As families are torn apart and impoverished by conflict, children’s education suffers, the UN says. This is often because classrooms are jam-packed in parts of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where millions of Syrians have fled.

Hard-up families are more likely to send children onto the streets to sell flowers or cigarettes, or get boys labouring on building sites or farms. More girls are being married off young in the hope they will have better prospects, the UN says.

“With boys, we see an increase in child recruitment into fighting, and that’s a huge concern,” UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma told Al Jazeera.

“They used to work as cooks, porters or assistant paramedics, but now, we see more children on the front lines, manning checkpoints, carrying weapons, and even as suicide bombers or executioners. It’s important to focus on girls, but it’s equally important to focus on boys, too.”

Gayatri Patel, a gender expert with CARE, said some refugee parents prefer to marry off their daughters than send them to school, which leaves them less in control of their lives and more likely to be poor and sick.

“For parents, there’s an added layer of fear around girls’ honour, sexuality and worries that they’ll be sexually harassed if they go to school,” Patel told Al Jazeera. 

“With boys, the fear is about whether they will be attacked by a gang or recruited for ISIS,” she added, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source : Al Jazeera


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