A message of empowerment marked Michelle Obama’s historic visit to Siem Reap on Saturday, as the first lady of the United States aimed to advance her Let Girls Learn initiative in a country where females still face significant disadvantages in education.
Obama arrived in the Kingdom on Friday night, and spent her Saturday meeting with high school students and Peace Corps volunteers before capping off her journey with a tour of the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Her presence roused excitement in the tourist town, as restaurants unfurled welcome banners and onlookers waved at her motorcade with excitement.
The first lady began her day with a visit to Hun Sen Prasat Bakong High School accompanied by her Cambodian counterpart, Bun Rany.
There, they were greeted by children enthusiastically waving Cambodian and American flags before they sat down with 10 girls involved in non-profit organization Room to Read’s girls’ education program.
The girls shared stories of balancing hardship with learning with both first ladies.
One student, 19-year-old Savean, told them that she rides her bike 40 minutes to school every day and volunteers as an English tutor in her home village despite her demanding home duties.
Phounam, 18, expressed her desire to practice medicine, because her village is so far away from a hospital.
Alternating between beaming smiles and pensive nods of understanding during their presentations, Obama offered some uplifting remarks herself.
“The fact that you’re here proves how smart, strong and capable you all are, “ Obama told the group. "It’s important women in my country know you exist.”
Obama relayed her own stories of adversity, revealing to the students that before she became a successful lawyer, many doubted she had the gumption to pursue higher education.
“People told me I wasn’t smart enough for college, for law school… but I ignored them,” she said. “I want you to ignore them, too… we need you to be the leaders of tomorrow.”
Bun Rany echoed her sentiment, saying through an interpreter that Cambodian women must follow their educational pursuits to prove that women, “don’t just belong in the kitchen.”
Obama’s motorcade then proceeded to the Sofitel Hotel, where the first lady was set to deliver remarks to Peace Corps volunteers involved in Let Girls Learn, a program developed by US President Barack Obama’s administration that is aimed at making educational opportunities for adolescent girls the world over.
There, the first lady, who the White House had previously said would not shy away from discussing human rights while in the Kingdom, made arguably her most politically-charged comments while speaking on the importance of women’s education in fostering an active and meaningful civil society.
“It’s not always easy for a government to meet the needs of its people. My husband certainly gets his share of criticism and disagreement, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Not in America,” she said.
“The opinions of our people and our country, both men and women from every background — that’s what makes American strong and vibrant.
“Those aren’t just American values,” she continued.
“The foundation for those values… is education. When (girls) learn to read and write and think and to speak up and to talk about injustice and demand equal treatment, it helps them participate in the political life of their country.”