Two of the most influential women in the world just came together to talk about the importance of education with a teen girl from Kolkata, India.
Teen Vogue facilitated a conversation between former US first lady Michelle Obama, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, and 17-year-old student Priya Mondol ahead of International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11. “My Voice, Our Equal Future” is this year’s theme for the United Nations advocacy day to raise awareness about gender inequality.
Yousafzai kicked off the chat by sharing that she’s met girls around the world who share her understanding of the power of education.
“I am passionate about girls’ education because I personally know what it is like to be denied the right to go to school — and I know that education is every girl’s best hope for the future,” she said.
The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic militant group, shot Yousafzai because she was advocating for girls' education in 2012. She’s since launched the Malala Fund to support girls’ education worldwide.
Obama said she also owes her life’s accomplishments to her education. She credits meeting Yousafzai as an inspiration for her dedication to ensuring girls can learn. Obama has used her platform to stand up for education through various initiatives, including the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 and the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance.
Mondol is a beneficiary of Her Future Coalition, an organization supported by the Girls Opportunity Alliance. She asked Yousafzai to speak about how she kept studying despite the adversity she’s faced.
“Being a student and an activist is a lot of pressure and it is discouraging sometimes,” said Yousafzai, who recently graduated from Oxford University. “But, for me, there is no other option. I can’t pursue my own education while millions of girls are denied the same opportunity.”
She’s hopeful knowing that other young people are also trying to better themselves and help create a brighter future.
Obama invited Mondol to share the obstacles she’s had to overcome to stay in school. Mondol explained that her mother died when she was young and she became discouraged when her peers were dropping out of school to get married or have children. Her Future Coalition, which has pledged to sponsor her to attend college, helped her stay motivated.
“They tell us that those who have education also have respect,” Mondol said. “I want respect in my life. That’s why I am studying.”
Obama then reflected on the discrimination she faced as a Black woman in school. She admitted that just like anyone else, she doubted herself along the way.
“I learned to put my head down and focus on the task at hand — and then I let that work speak for itself,” she said. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do, whether it was in the classroom or in the White House. And that’s how my confidence in myself grew, too.”
The three women wrapped up the conversation by discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact girls.
The Malala Fund recently released a report that estimates 20 million girls may never go back to school due to the crisis. Yousafzai stressed that it’s important to remember many barriers that girls face existed before the crisis.
“I want a renewed commitment to education,” she said. “If we do that, the data shows that our economies will be more resilient and our public health will improve.”
Obama’s and Yousafzai’s initiatives are both working to continue to support girls’ education during and after the pandemic. Anyone can donate to the Global Girls Opportunity Alliance Fund, Obama explained, and she encouraged young people to start fundraisers to keep girls in school. Meanwhile, the Malala Fund is always accepting stories from girls around the world to tell their stories, and Yousafzai urged girls to call attention to the issues they care about.
“When you hear another girl speaking out, listen, learn, and help amplify her voice,” she said.