Michelle Obama: This issue is personal for me

— By First Lady Michelle Obama

(CNN) — For me, education has never been simply a policy issue — it’s personal.

Neither of my parents and hardly anyone in the neighborhood where I grew up went to college. But thanks to a lot of hard work and plenty of financial aid, I had the opportunity to attend some of the finest universities in this country. That education opened so many doors and gave me the confidence to pursue my ambitions and have a voice in the world.

For me, education was power.

And a few years ago, when I had the honor of meeting Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head just for trying to go to school, this issue got really personal for me. I saw that the terrorists who nearly killed her were trying to silence her voice, snuff out her ambitions, and take away her power.

That’s why I decided to work on global girls’ education as first lady: because right now, there are tens of millions of girls like Malala in every corner of the globe who are not in school — girls who are so bright, hardworking and hungry to learn. And that’s really the mission of the Let Girls Learn initiative we launched last year: It’s a global effort to give these girls the education they need to fulfill their potential and lift up their families, communities and countries.

Now, as first lady, I have no budget of my own for programs, and I have no authority to make or pass laws. That’s why, when we first launched Let Girls Learn, many folks doubted that we could make a real impact on this global issue.

But over the past year and a half, we’ve established partnerships with some of the world’s largest companies and organizations that are committing money, resources and expertise. We’re collaborating with countries like Canada, Mexico and the Nordic countries on girls’ education efforts. Countries like Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom have collectively pledged nearly $600 million.

The United States is investing over a billion dollars through new and ongoing efforts and running Let Girls Learn programs in more than 50 countries. The World Bank Group will be investing $2.5 billion over the next five years. And through social media campaigns, Let Girls Learn has rallied people across America and across the globe to step up and be champions for girls worldwide.

All this is happening because time and again, whether it’s a head of state, a corporate CEO, or a 15-year-old girl here in the United States, when people hear the stories of girls who aren’t in school, they want to help.

That’s why CNN’s new film on global girls’ education, “We Will Rise,” airing for the first time this week, is so critically important — because it tells these girls’ stories.

This powerful film chronicles the lives of some of the girls I visited this past summer in Liberia and Morocco, two countries in Africa where many girls struggle to get an education. I was joined in my travels by the actors and activists Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto, who are also passionate about girls’ education, as well as CNN anchor Isha Sesay.

Together, we sat down with girls in both countries to discuss the barriers they face and the dreams they hold for their futures. Like so many girls around the world, many of these girls come from families struggling with poverty. Some endure dangerous commutes to and from school each day. Others face cultural pressures to drop out, marry young and start having children of their own.

But these girls have big plans for their lives. They want to attend college and become doctors, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs; and day after day, they do whatever it takes to get the education they need to fulfill their dreams. They get up before dawn, and spend hours harvesting crops, cooking for their families and tending to their younger siblings before heading to class. After school, they work as maids and in factories, and they study for hours late into the night.

I hope you will be as moved by their stories as I was — and I hope you’ll visit LetGirlsLearn.gov to learn more about how you can take action to help girls like them worldwide go to school.

Unlike so many girls around the world, we have a voice. That’s why, particularly on this year’s International Day of the Girl, I ask that you use yours to help these girls get the education they deserve. They’re counting on us, and I have no intention of letting them down. I plan to keep working on their behalf, not just for the rest of my time as first lady, but for the rest of my life. I hope you will join me.

Michelle Obama: For girls, a heartbreaking loss — and an opportunity

— Ralphina Feelee lives in Liberia, where the average family gets by on less than two dollars a day, and many families simply can’t afford to educate their daughters. Teen pregnancy rates are high, and pregnant girls are often discouraged from attending school.

Sometimes it’s not even safe for girls to attend school in the first place, since their commutes to and from school can be dangerous, and they sometimes even face sexual harassment and assault at school.

Ralphina wakes up early each morning, cooks for her family, cares for her younger siblings, and goes to work at a local market — all before she even gets to school. But she still attends class each day, working especially hard in science and math so she can fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.

Rihab Boutadghart lives in a remote part of Morocco near the Sahara Desert. While Morocco has made huge strides in education, and nearly all girls there attend elementary school, girls in rural areas often live far from the nearest middle and high schools, so many of them drop out of school by the time they turn twelve. Right now, only 14 percent of girls in rural Morocco attend high school.

But Rihab, who proudly describes herself as a “feminist,” is determined to finish her education. She dreams of becoming an entrepreneur and being the CEO of a major company, and she recently appeared on Moroccan TV urging girls to work hard and follow their passions.

I had the privilege of meeting Ralphina and Rihab earlier this week when I traveled to Liberia and Morocco to highlight our global girls’ education crisis — the fact that right now,more than 62 million girls worldwide are not in school. This is such a heartbreaking loss, because these girls are so bright and so hungry to learn — and like Ralphina and Rihab, they have such big dreams for themselves. These girls are no less smart or deserving of an education than my own daughters — or any of our sons and daughters. The only thing that separates them from our children is geography and luck.

Sometimes the issue is resources: their families simply can’t afford the school fees; or the nearest school is hours away; or the school nearby doesn’t have adequate bathroom facilities for girls, so they’re forced to stay home during their menstrual cycles, and they wind up falling behind and dropping out.

But often the root of the problem is really about attitudes and beliefs: families and communities simply don’t think girls are worthy of an education, and they choose to marry them off as teenagers instead, often forcing them to start having children when they’re basically still children themselves.

The girls I met in Morocco and Liberia want to be doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers. One of them wants to run for office so she can fight for women’s rights and combat climate change. Another hopes to open her own auto shop to teach women about cars so they can be more independent.

But we know that when we give these girls the chance to learn, they will seize it. They’ll walk for miles each day to school. They’ll study for hours every night by candlelight, determined to learn as much as they possibly can.

We also know that educating girls doesn’t just transform their life prospects — it transforms the prospects of their families, communities, and nations as well. Studies show that girls who are educated earn higher salaries — 10 to 20 percent more for each additional year of secondary school — and sending more girls to school and into the workforce can boost an entire country’s GDP. Educated girls also marry later, have lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and are more likely to immunize their children and less likely to contract malaria and HIV.

That’s why, last year, President Obama and I launched Let Girls Learn, an initiative to help adolescent girls worldwide attend school. And this week, we were proud to announce major new efforts by the U.S. government to promote girls’ education in Africa.

In Liberia we’ll be running girls’ empowerment programs, working to end gender violence in schools, and supporting new, second-chance schools for girls who were forced to drop out because of pregnancy or rape.

In Morocco we’ll be working closely with the Moroccan government to help transform high schools across the country, and we’ll be supporting new school dormitories to allow girls from rural areas to attend school far from home.

Large scale efforts like these are critically important, and will affect the lives of countless girls, but they’re simply not enough. Governments alone cannot solve this problem — not when we’re talking about a number like 62 million.

That’s why I ended my trip this week in Spain delivering a speech to an audience of young Spanish women. I wanted to make a simple, but urgent point: Every single one of us in countries like Spain and the U.S. has the power — and the obligation — to step up as a champion for these girls.

I told these young women: If you have access to social media, then you have a platform to tell these 62 million girls’ stories and raise awareness about the challenges they face. And that’s just as true for everyone at home in the U.S. You can go to 62MillionGirls.com right now to find all the information you need to get started and to learn how you can take action to support girls’ education efforts across the globe.

Once you know these girls’ stories, I think you’ll find, as I have, that you simply can’t walk away from them. After traveling the world as First Lady and meeting so many girls like Ralphina and Rihab, I carry their hopes and their ambitions with me everywhere I go, and I plan to continue my work on their behalf not just for my final seven months as First Lady, but for the rest of my life. I hope you will join me in this mission.

Michelle Obama is the first lady of the United States. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Michelle Obama: My challenge to you

— It has been five years since I started Let’s Move!, an initiative to address childhood obesity and help all our kids grow up healthy. And as we mark this fifth anniversary, we’re celebrating how far we’ve come, we’re challenging ourselves to do even more, and we’re committing to be true champions for this issue in the years ahead. That’s our theme for this anniversary year: Celebrate, challenge, champion.

We certainly have plenty to celebrate. Over the past five years, we have seen a real cultural shift across our country. Food and beverage companies are racing to cut sugar, salt, and fat from their products. Cities, towns, and counties are supporting healthy after-school programs and youth sports leagues. Faith leaders are educating their congregations about healthy eating and physical activity. Restaurants are offering healthier versions of their dishes, and fast food places are even including apple slices and low-fat milk in their kids’ meals.

Through Let’s Move!, we’re reaching millions of kids every day: 1.6 million kids are attending healthier day cares, where fruits and vegetables have replaced cookies and juice. More than 30 million kids are eating healthier school lunches. Nearly 9 million kids participate in our Active Schools program and get 60 minutes of physical activity a day, and nearly 5 million kids will be attending healthier after-school programs in the next five years.

Taken together, these efforts are starting to have an impact: Childhood obesity rates have finally stopped rising — and obesity rates are actually falling among our youngest children.

But let’s be very clear: While the progress we’ve made is impressive, the statistics are still daunting.

About one in three kids in this country is still overweight or obese — for African-American and Hispanic kids, it’s nearly 40%. We still spend nearly $200 billion a year on obesity-related health care costs, and that figure will jump to nearly $350 billion a year by 2018 — a 75% increase in just three years. So imagine what those numbers will look like in five years — or 10 or 50 — if we don’t keep pushing forward.

That brings us to the “challenge” part of our anniversary theme. We cannot just pat ourselves on the back and say: “Job well done.” We know that if we get complacent, then we will go right back to where we started. So we all need to challenge each other to do all that we can on behalf of our kids.

We need to protect the progress we’ve made on healthier school lunches, and we need more schools to find new ways to get kids active before, during, and after the school day. We need more cities to create safe walking routes to schools and restore bike paths and hiking trails so families can get active. And we need to be more creative in spreading the word about healthy eating and physical activity.

For example, we recently launched #GimmeFive — an online campaign through which you share five ways you’re leading a healthy life and then challenge someone else to “gimme five” more ways to get active or eat healthy — do five pushups, try five new recipes, take the stairs instead of the elevator for five days in a row. The vice president has done it, as have Beyonce, Ryan Seacrest, Dwyane Wade, and so many other kids, parents, teachers, and community leaders across the country.

And finally, I want to challenge everyone to take a stand for healthy choices with their wallets. Because at the end of the day, we know who has the real power: It’s consumers.

With every product we buy at the grocery store, we’re casting our vote for the kind of food we want for our families. And if we keep demanding healthier choices, then companies will provide those choices.

This won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. This problem has been decades in the making, and it will take decades to solve. And that’s what the last part of our theme — “champion” — is about.

Truly being a champion for our kids means investing for the long term — not for just a year or two, but for a generation and beyond. That’s what I intend to do. I have no intention of slowing down on this issue in the years ahead.

I’m going to keep working with all those who have been working for change on this issue for so long. And I am confident that if we all keep pushing forward, day after day, year after year, we will finally be able to give our kids the healthy futures they so richly deserve.

Michelle Obama is the first lady of the United States. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.