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First lady of the United States Michelle Obama and first lady of Cambodia Bun Rany meet with students from Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program

March 23, 2015

Press releases Cambodia

On Saturday, March 21, 2015, First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, joined by Mrs. Bun Rany, First Lady of Cambodia, visited with 10 girls in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program at a high school in Siem Reap, Cambodia, as part of Mrs. Obama’s tour to Japan and Cambodia to promote the White House’s recently launched “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Mrs. Obama chose to visit Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in Cambodia for its community-driven solutions that are changing girls' lives. The first ladies were addressed by several of the students who shared their personal stories of overcoming obstacles to education and posed questions on “Let Girls Learn”—a testament to the confidence and empowerment instilled in these girls through Room to Read’s program.

Starting with just 15 girls in 2001, today Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program supports more than 32,400 girls across nine countries. In 2013, 94% of participants either remained in the program or graduated from secondary school and 72% of the girls graduating from the program continued on to tertiary education—a rate well above the national average in the countries where Room to Read operates. In Cambodia, over 6,159 girls have benefited from the program to date. In October, the start of the Cambodian school year, Room to Read will welcome 2,141 new girls to the program.

Mrs. Obama, the first sitting First Lady of the United States to ever visit Cambodia, and Mrs. Bun Rany met with Room to Read students to hear how girls seeking an education benefit from community-led programs like Room to Read. Room to Read’s approach aligns with a component of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative the First Lady is championing: community-based solutions to the education barriers girls face.

Mrs. Obama called the girls in Room to Read’s program “role models to the world.” She encouraged them during her remarks saying, “When you complete your education…and I know that you will…find another young girl in your community or in your family, and you help them. You mentor them. You hold their hand when it gets hard.”

Providing much more than academic support, Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program ensures that girls complete secondary school with the skills and confidence necessary to negotiate key life decisions and navigate their futures. Room to Read achieves this by engaging with families, schools and communities, and by providing mentorship, life skills education and material support. Key to the program are Social Mobilizers, local women who are hired as mentors and work with girls and their families to ensure that girls stay in school, participate in activities, and navigate the challenges of adolescence with the ability to make their own life choices, both personally and professionally.

Room to Read places great emphasis on collaborating with families and communities as well as governments at the local, regional and national levels. Community meetings are held for parents and guardians to discuss their challenges and the importance of sending all of their children—not just the boys—to school. Partnerships with governments promote girl-friendly learning environments and ensure that the program is complementary to national efforts, sustainable and scalable.

“We want to have a better life. We no longer want to see poverty, discrimination against girls. We want to see this country full of educated people,” said 12th grade student Sohang Vean to the first ladies. Sohang dreams of becoming a math teacher and shared she never lost hope in herself despite her many hardships. “I want all the girls to work hard in their studies. No matter what we face, we need to overcome them. Only education can change everything.”

Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program is one of two programs Room to Read operates to impact children’s education. Room to Read’s Literacy Program transforms primary schools into comprehensive learning environments that enable children to develop a regular habit of reading. Room to Read will be reaching the milestone of impacting 10 million children through its quality programs later this year.

Read more about Phounam, one of the girls in Room to Read’s program who spoke with Mrs. Obama here.