If you happened to be walking through Midtown Manhattan yesterday afternoon, there’s a fair chance you felt something akin to a magnetic force pulling you toward the Manhattan Center, where former First Lady Michelle Obama, Melinda French Gates, and Amal Clooney came together to discuss an issue close to their hearts: girls’ empowerment and education. Right now, more than 100 million girls around the globe are out of school—whether due to violence in their communities, poverty, racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, or a number of other compounding issues. In response, these leaders joined forces for an event in support of the Girls Opportunity Alliance’s new Get Her There campaign, a call to action to educate and empower adolescent girls so they can reach their full potential. Because, as Obama said to the crowd, “When we don’t take these issues seriously, we see our rights as women and girls erode for all of us.”
In short, Obama’s words were the thesis for the day: Girls’ education may sound important on paper, but in reality, it’s an issue that affects and connects us all—and what we do about it could be our saving grace or our downfall.
To set the tone for the day’s programming, Sara Bareilles took the stage to perform her hit song, “Brave,” and backstage, the musician told ELLE.com what it meant for her to participate in the campaign: “We are each other. We are every girl in every country all over the world. No one is free until everyone is free; I really believe that. This initiative is so special, because it allows people to have this point of connection to join. We’re so powerful together.”
Next, Marsai Martin, the host of the day’s event and the producer of the campaign’s short video “Dear 25-Year-Old Me,” interviewed three young women who have been directly impacted by the Girls Opportunity Alliance, a program started by the Obama Foundation that has funded 54 projects from community-based organizations in 20 countries, all focused on girls’ empowerment and education. “Right now, so many young women are facing obstacles to fulfilling their potential, and as a result, the world is missing out on their talents and their ideas,” Martin told the crowd.
From there, Miriam Kimani, 23, shared her story of growing up in rural Kenya, where many of the girls around her were dropping out school, marrying young, getting pregnant as teenagers, and, in some cases, facing female genital mutilation. But after getting a scholarship to attend high school, Kimani graduated and is now at Lafayette University studying civil engineering.
Bringing the issue stateside, Addison Belhomme, a 15-year-old from the same Chicago neighborhood as Obama, shared that due to increased gun violence in her neighborhood, she’s rarely able to go outside and play, but she’s still working toward her goal of becoming a filmmaker. “Being blessed with this opportunity to speak on this platform and chase my dreams, I believe, comes with a duty that I have to tell the stories of people and individuals who don’t have that platform, and tell them the right way,” Belhomme said.
As Obama and Martin pointed out, it’s these accomplishments—and this potential—that gets lost when girls are not given the chance to succeed. And recently, the pandemic has only exacerbated that loss: Gates noted that 10 million more girls are at risk of falling into child marriage because of COVID-19. She continued: “I’m tired of meeting with presidents and prime ministers and finance minsters—and let’s be honest, most of them are guys—who keep saying, ‘Oh that’s the nice-to-do issue. We’ll get to the women’s and girls’ issues when there’s time.’ No, no, no. This is the central issue of our time. If you put a girl or a woman at the center of the agenda, what I know and I’ve seen and I’ve researched, we all do now, is she will change not just her family, but her community, her society, and her economy around her.”
It’s also certainly not an issue that we can expect will merely fix itself. “We cannot assume that justice is just going to happen,” said Clooney. “You can’t even assume things will move in the right direction. We’re seeing backsliding. Ask a girl in Afghanistan, where the clocks have turned back 20 years on her rights. This country, we’ve had the reversal of women’s rights.” But she noted, through her work as a lawyer and activist, she’s seen the “bravest” women and girls consistently fighting back. “Today, watching on our screens what’s happening in Iran, girls who’ve suffered the worst brutality built a protest movement being led by girls in school uniforms who are facing off against a regime that is using force to torture and kill. And they’re still determined, because if they’re not the ones on the front lines, they can’t rely on others for change. I think that’s incredible. I think it gives us perspective. If girls like that can risk everything to just be free to show their hair and have just basic freedoms, then we can all do more from where we’re sitting.”
To drive this point home, Obama wrapped up the event with a blunt call-to-action, talking directly to a room full of supporters and donors. “I have felt the sting of ‘yes, we can’ turning into ‘oh, you got it,’” she said. “This issue is not that. We do not have it. We are not here because we’ll fix it, and you guys can just go on your way. We are living through that kind of apathy, complacency, and lack of engagement.”
She continued: “If we don’t get it right, it will come back to bite us. It will be our daughters, our nieces, the girls that we think are beyond this—at some level we will feel the impact of our lack of investment in this issue.”
Madison is a senior writer/editor at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture. When she’s not on the internet, you can most likely find her taking a nap or eating banana bread.