SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AP) — U.S. first lady Michelle Obama plans to meet Cambodian students Saturday to hear their stories and share America's perspectives on education as part of a campaign to help girls around the world stay in school.
Mrs. Obama is on a five-day trip to Asia to promote the U.S.-led education initiative, "Let Girls Learn," which she and the president announced earlier this month. The community-based program, to be run by the Peace Corps, is meant to help get 62 million girls around the developing world back into classrooms.
The White House has said the first lady is also expected to "share American perspectives about education and good governance," but was unlikely to directly criticize Cambodia's human rights record.
Mrs. Obama's trip is the first by a sitting American first lady to the Southeast Asian nation, whose prime minister, Hun Sen, has ruled for 30 years with little tolerance for dissent.
President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cambodia in 2012, and pressed Hun Sen in private on a variety of human rights and political issues during a meeting that White House officials described as tense.
Mrs. Obama's trip started in Japan, one of Asia's richest countries, and concludes in Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest. Japan is helping to fund the project and announced it would devote 42 billion yen ($340 million) to girls' education projects.
Cambodia is one of 11 countries where the program is initially being rolled out. The others are Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Togo and Uganda.
On Saturday, the first lady and Hun Sen's wife, Bun Rany, will sit down with Cambodian high school students participating in community-led programs. She will also deliver a speech to Peace Corps volunteers and later hold a round-table discussion with volunteers working on projects to support girls' education in Cambodia.
She will get a firsthand look at some of the educational challenges.
The Southeast Asian country was devastated in the 1970s by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which closed schools and executed intellectuals among its many victims. Foreign aid and investment have helped the economy grow rapidly in the past decade, but the education system and overall development remain stunted.
Even today, most Cambodian children drop out of school, according to 2014 statistics from the Education Ministry that show 95 percent of children enter primary school but only 20 percent finish secondary school.
Poverty is the main problem, especially in rural areas, where families can't afford the minimal costs of education and keep children home to help support the family, according to UNICEF.
Cambodia's problems with child prostitution, child labor and human trafficking also play a role, and often target girls.
Some of the Peace Corps-led projects will involve mentoring programs and girls leadership camps, said Mrs. Obama.
During her visit, Mrs. Obama has shared her personal story, now familiar to Americans, in the hope of inspiring children overseas. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Mrs. Obama is fond of saying that she and her husband came from modest backgrounds but had a passion for education and a willingness to work hard that transformed their lives.
"I know that for every girl like me, there are so many others across the globe who are just as smart, just as capable, just as hungry to succeed, but they never have the chance to go to school," she said in Tokyo. "And that is such a profound waste of human potential."
The White House said that Japan and Cambodia were chosen for Mrs. Obama's trip because one is a donor country and one is a country in need, and it reflects a U.S. commitment to be more involved in the Asia-Pacific region.
The trip has also given the first lady a chance to soak up some of Asia's rich culture. Before leaving Japan on Friday, Mrs. Obama flew from Tokyo to the ancient capital of Kyoto for a tour of famed Buddhist and Shinto shrines and tried her hand at taiko drums after a rousing performance by students.
In Siem Reap, she will visit Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple complex later Saturday before heading home Sunday.