Siem Reap, Cambodia: Michelle Obama called on schoolgirls to stay in school to push for equality and hold their leaders accountable on Saturday during the first trip by a sitting US president’s wife to Cambodia.
The first lady is visiting Cambodia — ruled by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen for the last thirty years — to highlight what she has described as a “crisis” in women’s education with 62 million girls around the world denied schooling, primarily for economic or cultural reasons.
“When girls get educated, when they learn to read and write and think, that gives them the tools to speak up and talk about injustice and demand equal treatment,” she said in a speech to Peace Corps volunteers in Siem Reap.
“It helps them participate in the political life of their country and hold their leaders accountable,” she added.
Earlier in the day Obama — herself a Harvard-educated lawyer from a modest background — visited a school with the Cambodian premier’s wife Bun Rany to hear first hand from schoolgirls about the problems they face accessing education.
The pair were greeted by students dressed in crisp black and white uniforms who waved Cambodian and US flags, greeting the First Lady in carefully practised English.
Some of the students described the difficulties they had staying in school, faced with long journeys to class and pressure from their families to find work or complete household chores.
“Everyday, I get up at 4am to cook rice to bring to school,” one girl called Sohang told Obama. “It takes me one hour to ride a bicycle to school.”
Cambodia’s education system was ravaged in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule.
Huge numbers of intellectuals and teachers were killed as Pol Pot’s regime dismantled modern society in their quest for an agrarian Marxist utopia.
The traumatic period left the country impoverished and with an acute shortage of teachers, something that still haunts its education system to this day.
According to Cambodian government statistics 68 per cent of children are enrolled in primary education, but this drops off to 17.7 per cent by lower secondary and just 8.8 per cent by upper secondary.
Room to Read, a charity involved in children’s education in Cambodia, says there are three times more boys than girls in school.
The US government has launched the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, which Obama is promoting during her trip. The programme will be run by Peace Corps volunteers in 11 countries and promote girls’ education.
Before flying to Cambodia, the First Lady visited Japan, a major donor to the initiative.
Later Saturday, Obama’s convoy took her to the famed Angkor temple complex, much to the delight of hundreds of surprised tourists who hastily snapped pictures as she was led around the world heritage site.
The park contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, dating from the 9th to the 15th centuries, and is Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination.
Her visit comes at a time when the White House is pursuing its foreign policy “pivot” towards Asia, seen by many as an attempt by Washington to counter China’s meteoric rise and increasing influence in the area.
Southeast Asia is a key component of that pivot and the Americans are keen to woo the region.
During President Barack Obama’s last two trips to Asia, southeast Asia has featured prominently, including a 2012 visit to Cambodia — a country that was once secretly carpet bombed by the US.
Hun Sen marked three decades in power in January and is regularly criticised by campaigners for ignoring human rights and stamping out dissent.
While it is unlikely Michelle Obama will bring up rights abuses, the White House has said she would “share American perspectives about education and good governance”.
She is due to fly back to the US on Sunday morning.