Michelle Obama cares about girls. Not just Malia and Sasha, but the more than 62 million girls who are not in school. Last year she launched the Let Girls Learn (LGL) initiative and this month the White House released a report outlining investments of more than $1 billion dollars in new and ongoing LGL programming by the U.S government in more than 50 countries as well as nearly 100 private sector partnerships to promote adolescent girls’ education around the world. To continue this effort after the Obamas leave the White House, the FY 2017 budget has requested more than $100 million in new funds for Let Girls Learn.
Tina Tchen is the chief of staff to the Office of the First Lady and executive director for the Council on Women and Girls. She was also instrumental in the recently released CNN production, “We Will Rise,” which spotlights the personal challenges that girls in developing countries face every day. The documentary debuted at the White House on October 11, the International Day of the Girl, in collaboration with First Lady Michelle Obama, actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto, and CNN’s Isha Sesay.
Tchen sat down with me in her office at the WhiteHouse to discuss the challenges of educating girls around the world, what will happen to Let Girls Learn initiative after Michelle Obama leaves office and why millennial men “just get it.”
Adedayo Fashanu: How can people partner with the Let Girls Learn initiative?
Tina Tchen: What we do from the Office of the First Lady is to lift up people and encourage people to do more. Overall, we are trying to build a global movement that will encourage governments and communities around the world to support girls getting educated. The Nigerian government, for example, has been trying to increase its resources for girls’ education, especially for its adolescent girls. USAID has been investing in some of those projects, so I think we can continue to expand those.
There is no one solution to the issue of adolescent girls not getting educated. It’s not just building schools or getting books: it can be ending child marriage in one place or building enough latrines and bathrooms in another place or having income support for school fees in another place. Or just changing attitudes, hearts and minds in communities so they support girls going to school instead of keeping them from it. What we have tried to do through Let Girls Learn is encourage people to do all of those things. Not just one thing, but whatever is the barrier to girls getting an education in your own community, work to overcome that.
Fashanu: What will happen to the initiative when Michelle leaves office?
Tchen: Every administration is different. What we are doing it not just talking about our accomplishments from the last year and half, but our strategy for the future. What we have is a multi-year, multi-agency. We have six different federal agencies that touch and fund different programming that affects adolescent girls. We have had a strong coordinated process led from the White House and those projects like what USAID is doing with its Challenge Fund, what the Peace Corps is doing on the ground with its Let Girls Learn Fund. Those programs have multi-year funding. Now we know, so that over the course of the next two or three years with what we have been able to put into the budget, those projects can keep going for another two to three years. We hope that would continue to expand.
We will have diplomatic efforts which we hope will continue partnering up with countries like Japan, U.K., and South Korea to work together to put in funds. We have over $600 million from other countries who have stepped up to increase their support. We think the film will inspire people across the country to continue to want to work on Let Girls Learn and finally, the public private partnerships. So many of the commitments that we have announced from private sector companies to support girls’ education or water projects in particular areas or work for refugee children and education for adolescent girls who are in refugee camps– those are multi-year commitments. We think that the strategy we laid out today is a pretty easy roadmap for any future administration to follow and we hope that they will.
Fashanu: What are your hopes for the future of girls globally?
Tchen: What I hope for is that every girl gets a chance to complete her education and reach her full potential. That is what I hope for my daughter and that is what I hope for everyone’s daughter. I think if we allow girls to reach their full potentials, just think of the inventions that could be made, or the new companies that can be developed, or the job that could be created. Think of all of that talent right now that we are just letting go to waste somewhere. If we can just tap into that. That is why the data is so compelling that we educate girls. We let them complete their education and we support them in achieving whatever their dreams maybe. Whether it is to become a doctor or a scientist or a computer engineer or a social worker, that we can just unleash this creativity and growth and health and prosperity for people.
Fashanu: For boys and young people– what is the next right thing to do from here to be part of the solution?
Tchen: Our website has action steps that people can take if people are inspired by the film. Small things, like if you are a college student, maybe hold a carwash to raise money, a Let Girls Learn fund or you can do bigger things if you work for a company. Let your company’s foundation or volunteer group to do something bigger together to support girls’ education. If you’re a teacher, you can teach your students about what is going on with these girls around the world and you can inspire girls in the states who are going to school right now, to be reinvested in their own education.
Young people are really key. You are the future leaders- many of you have lived this experience or have friends that have lived this experience. I think continue to give voice to these stories and getting more allies together to kind of go at it. Develop new technologies that will allow light for kids who don’t have electricity, to have light at night to work or access to the internet more easily. There is so much your generation can do; I think I’m encouraged because there is so much awareness from young boys. Young men in this generation, kind of get it, they want to support causes. We have a good president who writes about being a feminist. Talking to this generation gives us great hope.