Obama: invest in girls’ future

US first lady tells global education summit in Qatar that more commitment needs to be given to education and job equality.

US first lady Michelle Obama talks with some girls after the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha on Wednesday. Naseem Zeitoon / Reuters
Powered by automated translation

DOHA // The US first lady Michelle Obama has urged governments to spend more on education for girls and allow greater rights and freedom for women.

Mrs Obama on Wednesday told a global education summit in Qatar that a change of culture was needed to battle gender inequality in education and employment.

“Solving our girls’ education crisis is definitely about resources but it is also about attitudes and beliefs,” she said. “It’s about whether parents think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons.

“It’s about whether our societies cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women, or whether their view of women are as full citizens entitled to equal rights.”

Mrs Obama said 62 million girls worldwide were not in school, and that societies and some of their values had to change before that could be resolved.

“We cannot address our girls’ education crisis until we address the cultural norms and practices that devalue women’s intelligence, that silence their voices, that limit their ambitions.

“We need to provide girls with safe transport to school, but we also need to confront the cultural norms that made girls unsafe in the first place.”

The UAE, Jordan and Qatar are regional leaders in girls’ education, with girls often outperforming boys in reading and maths.

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of International Cooperation and Development, this week reaffirmed the UAE’s commitment to the right of girls to education when she met Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace laureate.

Malala, 18, has become a global advocate for female education after she was shot to the head by a Taliban hitman on a bus taking her to school in 2012.

Mrs Obama was on Wednesday addressing the World Innovation Summit for Education, an annual gathering for policymakers, academics and education leaders hosted by the Qatar Foundation.

She was there to promote the US government’s Let Girls Learn initiative, aimed at helping adolescent girls in poor countries or in conflict zones to go to school.

Elias Bou Saab, education minister of Lebanon and executive vice president of the American University in Dubai, said the UAE was seen as a leader in promoting gender equity in education and the workforce.

Mr Bou Saab said the Government had “become a role model for many countries over how serious they are in giving opportunities to women and to education”.

“I don’t think any woman in the UAE who is seeking to get a job cannot get a good job.”

Nour Abu Ragheb, founder of education reform consultancy Edvise ME in Jordan, said gender inequity often surfaced after women graduated from university and entered the workforce.

“You go to girls’ schools and you find they’re more articulate, they’re more focused, they’re doing well, they like school and they like learning,” Ms Abu Ragheb told the summit.

“You go to the boys’ schools and that’s not the case. But I think after they’re done with their education, that’s where we need to confront all of the traditional norms.

“Whether they choose to get married early or whether it’s imposed, that’s something that we need to talk about.”

Ms Abu Ragheb said authorities must offer support to recent graduates so that they could continue their career after starting a family, by improving maternity leave and offering daycare centres at the office.

Social limits must also be addressed, she said.

"A husband might not want his wife to be working, a father might be more conservative than her," Ms Abu Ragheb told The National.

“There are social issues – how much say she has in decision-making at the home level, how mobile she is.”