Remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama at The Bush Institute's Global Woman's Network Summit

Via Videoconference

10:55 A.M. EDT

MRS. BUSH:  Thank you so much, Onaba.  Thank you for joining us today, for moderating this conversation between me and Mrs. Michelle Obama.  I think Michelle Obama has already been watching us.  There she is.  Hey, Michelle!  Good to see you.  (Applause.) 

MRS. OBAMA:  Great to see you, Laura.  Hi, everyone.  First let me apologize that I couldn’t be there with you guys in person.  But I’m excited to be a part of the conversation, so thanks so much.  

MRS. BUSH:  Well, this really works out perfectly because this summit is about how to use new technology and innovation for First Ladies and their staffs.  And so it’s perfect that we can use this new technology now to videoconference in.  

Our moderator, Onaba, is here with me.  She’s the valedictorian of her class at the American University in Afghanistan.  And this is really good news — she’s a new Fulbright scholar.  So that’s terrific.  So, Onaba, thank you.  (Applause.)   

MS. PAYAB:  Thank you for much for the honor of moderating the conversation with you and Mrs. Obama.  I am so excited to have this opportunity to discuss innovation and technology, in particular in the context of global girls’ education, an issue I know you both have spent a great deal of time championing. 

My first question is for Mrs. Obama.  Mrs. Obama, as First Lady of the United States, you have focused on encouraging young people of the United States to complete their education past high school, and you have also focused on expanding access to education for girls abroad.  Why is this so important to you?

MRS. OBAMA:  Well, Onaba, thank you first of all for moderating the panel.  Congratulations on everything that you’re doing.  I wish I could be there in person to congratulate you, but we’ve got a visitor coming.  You may have heard of the Pope.  (Laughter.)  So I wanted to make sure that I was here.

But for me, to answer your question, the issue of adolescent girls’ education is really personal.  Growing up, most of you probably know my family didn’t have much money.  And neither of my parents were able to get a college degree, and there were plenty of people in my life who made me feel like a girl with a background like mine just wasn’t equipped to go to college.

And as I’ve traveled across America and around the world as First Lady, I’ve met so many amazing, brilliant young people facing some of these same challenges and, in many cases, far, far worse challenges than anything I ever encountered.  And that’s particularly true for girls in developing countries.  

In fact, 62 million of these girls aren’t in school at all.  And like many of you, I really see myself in these girls.  I see my daughters in these girls.  So it’s really hard to walk away from them.  As you know, they’re bright.  These girls are hungry to learn, and I know that if they can get an education just like I did, they can absolutely rise above their circumstances and fulfill their potential.

That was my story, and that’s why I’m focusing on this issue as First Lady.  And I will continue to champion this cause long after I’m finished here in the White House. 

MS. PAYAB: Thank you so much, Mrs. Obama.

Mrs. Laura Bush, after September 11th, you became a strong advocate for women and girls in Afghanistan.  You were the first First Lady who taped the Presidential Radio Address on November 2001 to describe the brutality and barbarism against women and girls by Taliban, and you encouraged Americans and the international community to support women and girls of Afghanistan.  Then you made your first trip to Afghanistan in 2005, which is when you announced the establishment of the American University of Afghanistan, of which I am a beneficiary.

As you know, the university officially started in 2006 with 53 students, including only one woman.  Last year, I was the valedictorian, and more than 53 percent of the incoming class are women.  (Applause.)  What was your hope then for the university, especially Afghan women and girls?  And a decade later, what’s your hope now? 

MRS. BUSH:  Well, I would have never guessed when I was in Afghanistan and announced the establishment of the American University in Afghanistan that I’d be sitting 10 years later with the valedictorian, a woman from that class.  And I’m so thrilled.  This is truly a dream come true for me, to be with you, Onaba, and to see the success of you and your sisters all across Afghanistan.

George and I remain very committed to Afghanistan.  We believe that we have to continue to work with you and with all the people of Afghanistan to be able to build the kind of country that I know you want and to build the institutions that you need to support a democracy.  

We in the United States inherited those institutions.  We inherited all the rights that we have, and it seems easy to us.  But it took us over a hundred years even to abolish slavery; longer than that for women to receive the right to vote in the United States.  And so Americans are impatient.  We want to see Afghanistan succeed.  We hope that you will succeed quickly but we do know that it takes time, and we know that from our own history.

When you look around the world and you see the countries where half of the population is left out, where women are marginalized and they’re not involved either in the economy or in any part of life in society in these countries, you see countries that are failing.  Which is why it’s so important that all of us — and that’s what we’re doing here today — work to make sure that girls and women are educated, and they’re allowed to participate in every part, every aspect of society in their countries.  And you certainly are just a wonderful example of that.  Thank you, Onaba.

MS. PAYAB:  Thank you so much, Mrs. Bush.  AU students really appreciate what you have done for them.  

Mrs. Obama, 62 million girls around the world are not in school.  Can you talk a little bit about how it affects their families and countries?

MRS. OBAMA:  Absolutely.  And let me just say to Laura, congratulations on all the great progress that you’ve made.  It just shows how powerful the platform of First Lady can be, even when you’ve left office.  So I really want to congratulate you on the great work.

The evidence is very clear when it comes to the importance of girls’ education.  As Laura mentioned, when we send more girls to school, that’s not just good for them, it’s good for their families, and it’s even good for their entire countries.

We know that countries where more girls are in secondary schools, they have lower maternal mortality rates, lower infant mortality rates.  They have lower rates of HIV/AIDS.  They have better child nutrition. 

And when girls attend school, they earn higher salaries.  And collectively, that can boost their entire country’s economy.  So there’s a pretty dramatic ripple effect when we send girls to school.  It’s really one of the most impactful things that we can do for developing countries and for developed countries for that matter.  

And that’s one of the reasons why I launched earlier this year Let Girls Learn, which is an initiative that hopes to help these girls and their communities by empowering them through education.  Education is the reason I sit before you today.  And I know that we are all in agreement that we deserve to give every girl on this planet that same opportunity.

MS. PAYAB:  Exactly.  And, Mrs. Bush, we know that you worked to encourage women’s empowerment during your time as a First Lady of the United States.  You have chosen to continue to work on these issues through the Global Women’s Initiative at the Bush Institute.  Why is empowering women and girls so critical to advancing women’s rights?  And why is it important to convene Global Women’s Network summit? 

MRS. BUSH:  Well, I think Michelle just told us all the reasons that it’s so important.  We know that the good health of mothers is important to the good health of their children.  We know that women being involved in an economy is great for the economy of their countries.  We know that when women and men are educated, their countries are much more likely to be successful and prosperous.

So all of those things we know.  And what we need to do is figure out all the different ways we can help make sure that happens.  And Michelle’s Let Girls Learn is one great program that tries to encourage people to make sure girls are in school everywhere.

Here, we’ve worked on some of the things I told you about already — the Women’s Leadership Fellowship, where we’ve brought women from Egypt — two classes of women from Egypt and two classes of women from Tunisia to learn leadership skills, to be paired with an American woman — a prominent American woman who’s in their same profession.  And then it’s a year-long fellowship.  They stay in the United States for a month, and then they stay in contact with their American mentor for the whole year.  At the midpoint of the year, the American mentors went to Egypt or Tunisia to meet with their fellows.

But the idea is based on research by an SMU professor, a woman who’s a professor here, that shows that your network is as important as your education level to your success.  And we in the United States, women have a chance to build broad networks with our friends and our colleagues, and people — associations that we join.  But not all women have that.

So the idea was to bring women all from the same country, in two classes from Egypt and two from Tunisia, so when they went home, they had each other and they could introduce each other to their colleagues, and thereby, broaden their network.  And one of our classes of Tunisian women say their network is now 17,000 women strong, which is really terrific.  (Applause.) 

MRS. OBAMA:  Wow.

MRS. BUSH:  So that’s one of the ways we are working to help women broaden their networks worldwide in countries.  And that’s certainly what we’re doing here today.  That’s part of it, is we’re giving — all of us have the chance now to network with each other.  The First Ladies have the chance to meet nonprofits that are in their countries, corporations that are interested in their countries, and ways to figure out how to partner together with their networks.

MS. PAYAB:  Mrs. Obama, how do you hope for the First Ladies and other leaders attending this summit will draw on and employ the information, new relationships and partnership as a result — they have gained in participating in this summit?

MRS. OBAMA:  Thanks for that question.  Networking is key, as Laura said.  And this is an excellent opportunity for a phenomenal group of global leaders to come together.

Now, when I’ve traveled internationally, I’ve really tried to engage foreign leaders on the issue of adolescent girls’ education.  And fortunately, so many of these leaders are already doing great work on this issue, or they’re interested in finding ways to get started.  And as the U.S. forms new partnerships with some of those countries, one of the things we’re really focusing on are what we call community-led, community-driven approaches.
  
And that’s probably my main advice that I would give to all of you there today.  Starting at the community level is incredibly effective, because while the problem of girls’ education globally is a global issue, so many of these solutions are really local.  They’re about working side by side to address the challenges that people are facing in their day-to-day lives, in their homes, their villages, their neighbors — their neighborhoods. 

Maybe that means something as simple as creating safe transportation to help girls get to school.  Maybe it means building bathrooms for girls in schools.  Maybe it means helping families pay school fees.  Or maybe it’s about working with — hand in hand with local leaders, with the families, and, oftentimes, with the girls themselves to do something really important, and that is to change attitudes.  

In the video that I saw, one of the First Ladies talked about the change in mindset.  Because if we really think about it, it’s not always about resources when we’re trying to solve some of these big problems like girls’ education.  One of the biggest barriers we face in this work is battling cultural norms and traditions that say that girls are simply unworthy of an education.

So I hope that all of you will continue to work together with each other and with folks at the local level in your communities, in your countries to find ways to really work on mindset, face these challenges and come up with real, community-driven solutions.  Again, that’s something that we hope to do through Let Girls Learn, working with Peace Corps volunteers who are often the main people from this country who are on the ground living for long periods of time in communities.  They get to know the leaders, they get to know the cultural norms, they get to know the girls, and the best solutions often come from those relationships.  

MS. PAYAB:  Thank you.  Now I have two questions that I would like both of you to answer.  Women are often noted to be good collaborators.  Women work together for the betterment of their communities.  Why do you feel it’s important for the two of you to collaborate together on summits for First Ladies and other leaders?  We’ll start with you, Mrs. Bush.

MRS. BUSH:  Well, I think it’s very important — I think Michelle just said it — and that is how important partnerships are.  And when she and I work together, it really elevates the issue that we’re talking about, more than if just either one of us was working separately.  

And I think it’s also a great example for the world to see that women of different political parties in the United States agree on so many issues.  We’re in the midst of a political campaign now, as everyone knows, a presidential race coming up.  And when you watch television, you think that everyone in the United States disagrees with everybody else.  (Laughter.) 

But in fact, we as Americans agree on so many more things than we disagree on.  (Applause.)  And when Michelle and I work together with other former First Ladies, I think it raises — it elevates the ideas that we’re working on, and in this case, of course, it’s on women’s rights and women’s education and education for women and girls.  

And it does help to, what Michelle just said, which is change attitudes.  And that is the — really the basic thing that we need to change.  We need to make sure people respect women and girls enough to know that they need to be educated just like boys do.  So I think that’s important.

George and I were in Washington a couple of years ago and we were meeting with the then-health minister of Ethiopia, Tedros, if you know him.  We were talking to him about Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon; we were getting ready to launch it in Ethiopia.  And he’s now — Tedros is now the foreign minister of Ethiopia.  But at the time, we were in Washington because all the former Presidents were coming to Washington to honor George’s dad for his Points of Light Foundation — President Bush for his Points of Light Foundation.  

And so I just happened to say to Tedros, we’re here because all the former Presidents are coming and President Obama is in a video to honor President George H.W. Bush.  And he said, you just don’t know what that means.  He said, you don’t know what that means to the rest of the world to see all the former Presidents together.  And it really does.  It really is a wonderful example I think for the rest of the world that our Presidents and our First Ladies work together on issues that are important to Americans but also important to the world.  (Applause.)

MRS. OBAMA:  Absolutely.  Well said, well said.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  The only thing I’ll add — I think I made this comment last year — women, we’re smarter.  We can do this stuff — like collaboration, we’re really good at it.  So let’s keep taking the leadership role and show the world what we can do.

The other thing I want to say is, as you all know, I deeply admire and respect Laura.  And I think that it’s important to collaborate with people you admire and respect, regardless of party.  So there’s that, and I would encourage all of you — through these summits, you all are making wonderful relationships, and the goal is to take that mindset back to your countries whenever there’s a transition and figure out how to continue to create these bipartisan or nonpartisan partnerships.

Because that’s what makes a democracy work, truly.  It’s the willingness to reach across party lines and find that commonality, which absolutely exists throughout this world.  It’s not just true here in the United States, but it’s true across the globe.  We all want the best for our families, no matter where you live in the world.  We want our kids to get educated.  We want to make sure people have health care.  We want to ensure that we live in safe communities.  And we also need to make sure that our girls are getting the education they need.

But all of these issues are about anything but politics.  All of these issues are about helping people lift themselves and their communities out of poverty, or to help folks fulfill their highest potential.  And the work that we’re doing here through the summit that the First Ladies, all of us are doing, it’s about ensuring that women and girls can be treated as full and equal citizens, which is so critical for all of our countries’ economic and political success.  No matter what party we belong to, we can all agree on that very objective.

And I agree with Laura that I think it’s important for the two of us and others in public life to model and to encourage that kind of collaborative approach.  It has made my transition to this office so much easier having somebody like Laura and her team.  We’ve said this before — it’s not just Laura and I, it’s not just President Bush and President Obama, but it’s our staffs.  My Chief of Staff continues to talk to Laura’s former Chief of Staff on a very regular basis.  And it’s that kind of sharing that prevents us from recreating the wheel, or — it allows us to build on the things that are already working so that the country gains as we transition from one party to the next.  That’s how we do it in America.  And our goal is to spread that message around the world.

(Audio drops.)

MRS. BUSH:  (In progress) but Barbara got this idea of recruiting young, smart college graduates to work in the health field.  And she has fellows in four countries in Africa and in three cities in the United States.  They’re an American young person, college graduate paired with somebody — a young person from another country, and they work to help health organizations or ministries or nonprofits build capacity.  So they do everything.  

There are young architects in Rwanda who are designing the ventilation system for our Partners in Health hospital so that people with TB don’t expose other people there.  Or they help set up the supply chain management and procurement to get drugs out to the clinics in some countries.

But anyway, Barbara is doing very, very well.  She’s just sort of a star in the global health field now.  And Jenna, as some of you may know and some of you may not, is now a contributing correspondent on NBC’s Today Show.  She’s actually the one Michelle goes to.

MRS. OBAMA:  I do.  (Laughter.)  

MRS. BUSH:  When she knows she wants an interview without any trick questions.

MRS. OBAMA:  That’s right.  (Laughter.) 

MRS. BUSH:  George says Jenna is just continuing the Bush family tradition of warm relations with the media.  (Laughter.)  And Jenna is the mother of the two grandchildren — Mila and Poppy Louise.  You know I know from how successful my girls are, and they are truly successful, and I’m so proud of them.  And of course, the mother is always kind of slightly shocked when her children end up being successful.  (Laughter.) 

But I know the kind of world I want them to have.  And I want them to have a world where they and Mila and Poppy Louise can achieve their highest goals, the highest (inaudible) — that her beautiful daughter made — in New York now for the UNGA, and it was “Forgive for Peace.”  And of course, which is so meaningful from Rwanda, but meaningful for all of us now at this time in our world.

And so I think all of us when we look at our daughters and our sons, if you have sons, we want them to be successful and to live in a peaceful world.  That’s what we hope for all of them.

MS. PAYAB:  Can we have your remarks, Mrs. Obama?

MRS. OBAMA:  Certainly.  First of all, the sound came in and out, so I just want to make sure I heard some of the question.  But I think we’re talking about motherhood.  And from what I could tell from Laura’s answer, talking about two of my favorite young women, Barbara and Jenna, that we’re sort of bragging on our kids right now.  (Laughter.)  

But let me just say this, I feel so blessed and lucky to be the mother of what I think are two amazing, smart, funny, outspoken young women.  And this is yet another thing that Laura and I share — that we’ve managed to raise two girls in the White House and somehow maintain our sanity and hopefully theirs too.  I’m still checking on my girls; we’re not out yet.  (Laughter.)

Laura has done a phenomenal job with her daughters, and I hope that my girls continue to mature as beautifully as they have been while here.  And I also hope that as they grow up, as Barbara and Jenna have, that they find ways to leave their own mark on the world as well.  

And that actually brings me to a point that I want to make about the work that we have to do on global girls’ education.  What we’re trying to do here is not just about lifting up girls abroad; it’s about reminding young people like my daughters that they need to be hungry for their own education here at home, here in the United States.  And that’s why through Let Girls Learn, I’m also working to educate young people here in the U.S. about the sacrifices that girls are making worldwide.  What some young girls are doing just to get to school, how they’re pushing forward in the face of poverty and violence and so many other horrors.  I want our young people to be inspired by these girls, and I want them to commit more deeply to their own education here at home.

And I also want girls here in the United States to find ways to connect to these girls abroad.  I mean, as we talk about the role that technology can play — I always tell young people, don’t use your iPhone to just take a picture of what you’re eating.  (Laughter.)  You can actually take a picture of some interesting things that are going on in your lives and share them across the globe.  Find those girls in other parts of the world, support their efforts to get an education.

And I hope that that’s work that we as First Ladies can help to support — find ways to connect our girls with each other from country to country.  Ultimately, as I said before, in this global age, I think we can agree that our kids need to be global citizens.  They need to understand what’s happening in the world beyond our borders.  And introducing them to an issue that they can relate to — something like girls’ education — that can be one of the best ways to start that conversation, to begin that process.

So I can’t help but, again, think about my girls as I think about these issues.  As I watch them grow and blossom and flourish, I think about the millions of other girls that deserve that same chance.  And I want my daughters to be as impactful as Barbara and Jenna are being.  And I think it’s up to us as mothers to help set that example and provide them with the tools and with the passion to be able to direct that energy as they get older.

So I hope that this generation of young people coming up, they learn each other and they use technology in that way — to build those bridges and to really spark that movement of empowerment across the globe.

MRS. BUSH:  Michelle, you and President Obama have been wonderful examples as parents for parents all over the United States.  So thank you all for that.  And I know your girls are doing great.

So I think we’ve come to the end of our time.  I actually have a timer right here.  (Laughter.)  Thank you for joining us today, Michelle.  Thank you very, very much.  And say hello to the Holy Father for us if you have a chance when he comes to visit you today — or tomorrow.  

MRS. OBAMA:  I will.  

MRS. BUSH:  And thank you very much for joining us.  And we hope to see you soon.  

MRS. OBAMA:  Absolutely.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  

END 
11:35 A.M. EDT