US first lady promotes learning to empower Moroccan girls

AP News
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Posted: Jun 28, 2016 2:07 PM
US first lady promotes learning to empower Moroccan girls

MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — Michelle Obama told Moroccan teenage girls that her parents knew the value of education, her brother set an example "and I thought if he can do it, then I can do it, because I know I am smarter than him!"

Actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto joined the U.S. first lady's encounter Tuesday with two dozen young women in Marrakech to discuss the challenges girls around the world face in getting educated. In the North African kingdom of Morocco, only 36 percent of girls continue school beyond the primary level.

"We have to change those notions that girls are only valuable for their reproductive capacity or their ability to do manual labor," Obama said, adding that 62 million girls worldwide do not have access to education for an array of reasons, from a lack of resources to cultural norms.

The first lady's daughters, Sasha and Malia, joined their mother in Marrakech but did not take part in the event.

The "Let Girls Learn" initiative, launched in March 2015 by President Barack Obama and the first lady, is to be extended to Morocco, the White House announced Tuesday. It said the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government foreign aid agency working in partnership with the Moroccan government, is investing nearly $100 million to transform secondary education in the country. USAID is also giving $400,000 to create five new girls' dormitories to improve educational opportunities for girls from rural areas.

"The investment in an education now will reap benefits (in) years to come and that is what my family knew instinctively," the first lady said. "My parents didn't go to university. We didn't have a lot of money. But one of the things ... was that my parents understood the value of an education. And they fought for me, they sacrificed, they saved."

The group met in the courtyard of Dar Diafa, a historic riad that has been converted into a restaurant.

One young woman taking part, who identified herself only as Karima from Ouarzazate, in south-central Morocco, said her parents ensured she had a primary school education but discouraged her from focusing her secondary education on science technology, a field dominated by men.

A school bus helped 16-year-old Hannan Amin, from Ifrane, get to school and avoid a 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) trudge on foot.

"Every single person's story is different," said Streep, who advised the young women never to give up and said she was the first in her family to get a university education.

"In my own life I know that losing heart is the most dangerous thing. You can put any obstacle in front of me and I will jump over it, but when I lose heart, you lose everything," she said.

Obama was to attend a traditional Moroccan iftar — the sumptuous dinner to break the fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan — on Tuesday night with Princess Lalla Salma, the wife of King Mohammed VI. She travels to Spain on Wednesday.

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This version has been corrected to show that the Millennium Challenge Corporation is a U.S. government foreign aid agency.

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Andrew Drake in Marrakech contributed to this report.