US First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in Tower Hamlets today to deliver a simple message to schoolgirls in one of the most deprived areas of Britain: education is the key to success.
Obama said when she looked at the girls in the audience at Mulberry School for Girls, she saw future doctors, business leaders, lawyers, and politicians.
The First Lady joined the school’s headteacher, Vanessa Ogden, and former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard to launch the ‘Let Girls Learn’ partnership between the United States and UK.
Mulberry was chosen as the launch location because of its success with students from working class backgrounds, with 83 per cent of students going to university after graduation. The school is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“We want to make sure that every door is open to girls like you. And not just here in England, and not just in America, but in every corner of the globe,” Obama said to a mainly female audience drawn from schools across the area.
She continued: “That starts by making sure that every girl on this planet has the kinds of opportunities you have to get an education and to succeed.”
Her goal for the ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign is to remove the stigmas around female education in other countries, so the estimated 62 million girls worldwide who currently are out of school can have similar opportunities.
The ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign was launched in the U.S. in March and now in partnership with the UK, will begin with a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Together the U.S. and UK have pledged $200 million (approximately £128 million) over five years to help girls receive an education.
Ogden told the audience that Michelle Obama was ‘’one of the great inspirational women of our time and a role model for us at Mulberry School.”
Ogden added: “The first lady does not just speak about the importance of education, she acts. She uses her platform to shine a light on those whose situation otherwise goes unnoticed.”
In her address, Obama said that when any girl is held back from fulfilling her potential it impacts the others around her.
“This isn’t just a devastating lose for these girls but a devastating lose for all of us who are missing out on their promise. One of these girls could have the potential to cure cancer or start a business that transforms an industry or become the next President or Prime Minister who inspires a country.
But if she never sets foot in a classroom, chances are she will never discover or fulfil her potential…” she said in her remarks.
She said research has shown that educating girls not only improves her livelihood, but the community as well. Statistically, educated women contribute more to their local economy because of decent living wages.
These women also tend to marry and have children at later ages, enabling them to raise healthy families, lowering the maternal and infant mortality rate.
“What our parents told us really is true, that if we get our education we can do anything. We can lift up ourselves to heights we never imagined,” Obama said.
Obama said her platform for female education comes from her own two experiences: the first, her childhood; and the second, her first visit to London as First Lady six years ago.
She said growing up as a young black girl from the working class, she dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. However, the people she lived with and knew in the community would tell her she was setting her expectations too high.
“It was like these folks were trying to put me in a little box, a box that fit their constrained expectations of me,” she said.
The key, she told students, was continuing to believe in herself and achieving high academic merits. These two qualities led her to a prestigious law school, and into a successful career in many fields.
Additionally, she said that her first experience abroad as First Lady when she spoke to pupils at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in north London had also influenced her education platform. She said she has not forgotten the girls who sat in front of her, who dreamed of being leaders and scientists, artists and elected officials.
A mother of a student at Mulberry, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I think most importantly, [Obama’s speech] was meant for the young girls and what they can achieve if they follow their dreams…
“It’s hard to follow your dreams but you need to be determined.”