What Let Girls Learn Has Taught Me

Michelle Obama smells amazing. When she wrapped her arms around me for a hug after speaking on her Let Girls Learn initiative, the first thing I thought was holy shit Michelle Obama is giving me a hug, and secondly, wow she smells so good.

It was a sweltering Washington D.C. July afternoon but the First Lady seemed unbothered by the heat. Instead, she brought inspiration, poise, and grace with her: “You all are here today because someone believed in you, because someone gave you the chance to be everything you would want to be.” That line stuck with me then and continues to remind me both that I am worthy of my opportunities, and so are the amazing people around me. But on that July afternoon, I was thinking, what did I want to be? Who believes in me? And what sort of girl do I have the potential to be?

It was a question I asked myself a lot that summer. I was a Teen Advisor for the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign and had spent a couple days in DC working with other Teen Advisors for the 2015 Girl Up Summit. I was overwhelmed by the other girls I served with, and couldn’t help thinking that I wasn’t meant to be there. My sixteen-year-old self was not important enough to interact one of the nation’s most inspiring women, and here she was wrapping her arms around me. It was a summer of is this really happening right now? And, why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve to be here. I thought that all summer: in DC at the Girl Up summit, at home as I was packing for a 3 week trip to Rwanda for a global “women in STEM” program, on the plane-ride, and on the bus from Kigali International to our compound at Gashora Girls Academy in Eastern Province, Rwanda.

But once I got to Rwanda, after meeting girls from eight African countries and from around the U.S. and sharing a meal together, I thought – we’re all in this together. The three weeks in Rwanda flew by, and I made lifelong friends. My final project was a prototype of a solar powered Wi-Fi hotspot that was created with love, hard-work and long-nights. Working alongside three other girls from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana, we had moments of cultural difference, misunderstanding, and frustration, but all of that was accompanied by moments of brilliance, joy, and success.

Throughout my time in Rwanda I was in constant reflection – I was journaling, talking with friends, writing a personal blog, and a more public blog for the Huffington Post. I was constantly progress checking: Do I know the type of woman I will be? Who believes in me? Who inspires me? Have I grown? And the answers became ever clearer: maybe, apparently a lot of people, WOMEN, and YES!!

At the very end of my trip, I was able to present my tech-prototype with another First Lady, The First Lady of Rwanda Jeanette Kagame. I held my head high as I presented on the lack of Internet access afforded to a majority of the world (4 billion people do not have access to Wi-Fi), and the emerging technologies that can better connect people globally. As I sat on the plane on my way home, I knew not only that other people believed in me, but that I believed in myself.

Let Girls Learn taught me about global citizenship, teamwork, female empowerment and most importantly, self-belief. Last week, when an internal memo from the White House was released on the termination of Let Girls Learn, I was devastated. Immediately my phone blew up with Facebook messages from young, empowered women and girls who had, like me, directly benefited from Michelle Obama and the PeaceCorp’s program.

While there have been retracted statements from The White House as to their continued support of women’s empowerment, it is uncertain what the future of Let Girls Learn looks like. Let Girls Learn has been pivotal to me becoming who I am today. I am saddened to think that girls after me won’t have the opportunity to ask themselves the hard questions that I did over the summer of 2015. And even more devastatingly, many won’t have the opportunity to recognize their immense potential. Michelle Obama, in her big way, believed in me, and it taught me to believe in myself.

Malala Day 2014: What are you #StrongerThan?

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. – Nelson Mandela

Today marks the second annual Malala Day. Malala Yousafzai and two of her classmates were shot by Taliban gunman on their way to school in Pakistan in October 2012 (for being girls and for wanting to get an education). After surviving the traumatic encounter, Malala did not fear school, but instead has become a global icon for promoting pacifism and everyone’s right to education.

Malala says that the extremists fear the power of education, and courageously asks, “Let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism. Let us pick up our books and our pens, and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness.”

According to UNESCO, global literacy rates are on the rise, however, currently two-thirds of illiterate adults (493 million) are women. Among the 123 million illiterate youth, 76 million are female.

Even though the size of the global illiterate population is shrinking, the female proportion has remained virtually steady at 63% to 64%.

UNFPA reminds us of the far-reaching effects of educating girls. Education for girls is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Not only does education create opportunities for individuals, educating a girl improves her family’s opportunities and health outcomes for generations. An educated women can secure resources for her family, access to education for her children, and is less likely to have unintended births. Educating girls also generates positive social and economic development.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, “education contributes directly to the growth of national income by improving the productive capacities of the labor force.” A study of 19 developing countries found that a country’s long-term economic growth increases “by 3.7 percent for every year the adult population’s average level of schooling rises.”

Countries that have made social investments in health, family planning, and education have slower population growth and faster economic growth than countries that have not made such investments.

This Malala Day, Malala does not want us to forget that we are stronger than those who threaten the right to education. Stand with Malala and the others who are fighting for women’s education by tweeting that you are #StrongerThan.

Meet other girls like Malala who are fighting for their right to education from around the globe here:

To learn more about the importance of educating girls, watch the following TED Talks:

Visit these organization’s websites to learn about how they are working toward improving education for women and girls:

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Michael Volpicelli


Women at the Top

Social Norms. Informal Institutions. Silent rules.

These govern all societies throughout the world. They set up rules of conduct and shape the behavior and roles of people living in a community. These rules are needed in many cases, they form our culture and our social understanding. However, in many cases these norms create a socially acceptable discriminatory environment, which is difficult to change.

Women meet these every day. Some notice them distinctly in their everyday life whereas others don’t acknowledge them as a problem. These norms are present in the household as well as in the workplace. These norms may create gender related constraints, limiting women’s empowerment. These norms may make gender based violence acceptable or may discriminate against women in the workforce.

This post focuses on women in the workforce and women as leaders. Women in the World Foundation asks, “What would the world look like if women were represented fairly in government?” And mention that, “just 18.4 percent of parliamentarians and 10 percent of heads of state are women”.

Studies have shown that women meet stronger opposition as leaders, usually just because they are women. Even if the woman has managed the leadership position better than the man (not saying that this always is the case), the woman has been less popular. See links at the bottom for further information.

As it may be against “common practice” to have a woman elected as village council, CEO or Prime Minister, they may not be seen as capable enough for the position. For these norms to change, we must change the status and roles of women. As women make up half the population in our world (at least in most places) they need to be a part of governing and leading it as well. Women should have an equal part in any global and local concerns, be it peacebuilding or be it corporate responsibility.

Forbes has examined The 10 Worst Stereotypes of Powerful Women, interviewing top female leaders and their experiences with gender stereotypes.

Michelle Obama has been called an “angry black woman”. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF),  mentions that she has met the notions that powerful women need to be masculine to succeed. NBC’s Ann Curry shares that she “was told she couldn’t be a news reporter because women had “no news judgment.””

These are some examples of successful women who have managed to break social norms and change the way we see women in our world. Haven’t they?

So how can women break these silent rules? Although gender related constraints are different in different areas of the world, I think this TED talk by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is inspiring. She summarizes the actions women need to take in three points.

Let’s work together to help women around the world be able to “sit at the table,” as this is easier said than done in most parts of the world.

For more inspiration on this topic:

Women in Public Service Colloquium

UN Multimedia: Women leaders call for an end to discriminatory barriers

Wellesley study: Female Leadership Advantage

Forbes: The myth of the ambition gap

Forbes: 5 Essential leadership lessons for women

Blog: The Upwalk