"There are 62 million girls around the world who would give anything to be in your position," said First Lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday, addressing a crowd of over 1,000 school-age girls at the Apollo Theater in New York City and countless more watching over a live stream from around the world. "I don't care if you are in one of the most underserved communities in the country. There is a girl that would love to be in your place. You all have to own this piece of education. If you care about those girls, then the first thing you have to do is care about your education so you grow up empowered to be able to work on this issue when you're our age."
Obama was joined on stage by former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard, actress and HIV/Aids activist Charlize Theron, a 16-year-old girl from the Philippines named Nurfahada as well as moderator and Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive.
The panel represented the joint efforts of a lot of different organizations, but chiefly the White House's "Let Girls Learn" initiative and Glamour's "The Girl Project," in partnership with CARE, Plan International USA, Girls Inc. and Communities in Schools. Maybelline sponsored the event.
"There's no one reason why girls are not in school, it really varies from community to community," said Obama. "It could be the absence of resources to pay for school fees, it could be issues of teen pregnancy or early marriages in other parts of the world, or it could be a fundamental mindset that fathers and leaders and mothers believe that their girls aren't as worthy as their boys are to get an education. You have to attack that mindset from the bottom up."
Starting with social media. Obama encouraged those in the audience to post a selfie with the caption "what I learned in school" and use the hashtag #62MillionGirls. "We're going to make this go viral," said Obama. Famous names like Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington and Coldplay's Chris Martin have already participated in what Obama hopes to pull together into a giant photo album.
During the panel conversation — which lasted a little over an hour and was preceded by a quick crowd-pleasing performance by Nico & Vinz — topics ranged from Gillard's work expanding education in South Sudan to Theron's concerns about the high rates of HIV infection for adolescents, especially girls. "The Global Health Campaign has said education is a social vaccine against HIV and it's so incredibly true because we know when girls stay in school they are much more likely to not become infected," said Theron.
But the focus wasn't just on global issues — the panelists kept circling back to themes directly applicable to the girls in the theater, especially when it came to teenage romance. "There is no boy at this age that is cute enough or interesting enough to stop you from getting your education," said Obama, who encouraged women of all ages to push aside people with negative energy. "If I worried about who liked me or who thought I was cute at your age, I wouldn't be married to the President of the United States."
You can watch the entire conversation here.