White House denies changes to Obama’s girls education program

Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama announcing a new partnership for the Let Girls Learn initiative in June 2015. (Credit: Simon Davis/DFID)

The White House has denied any changes to Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, which education experts say has fought global poverty by empowering women and girls around the world.

“There have been no changes to the program,” Kelly Love, a White House spokeswoman, told CNN, hours after the network reported on internal documents that stated that the program would be shut down immediately.

The internal memo reported on earlier in the day by CNN had said that while aspects of the initiative’s programming will continue, the program itself was ending.

“Moving forward, we will not continue to use the Let Girls Learn brand or maintain a stand-alone program,” an email from Sheila Crowley, the acting director of the Peace Corps, reportedly said.

The White House did not indicate how long the program would continue, nor did they address why the memo had been sent. A source told the Washington Examiner that the memo was sent due to “internal confusion.”

Obama launched the $250 million initiative in 2015 with the aim of funding “new efforts to expand educational opportunities for girls – including in areas of conflict and crisis.” The holistic program was designed to tackle the barriers that keep 62 million girls out of school.

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Since then, the program has invested at least $1 billion in programming in 50 different countries.

Much of that funding came in the form of donations from public and private partnerships. One funder, international relief agency CARE, invested $15 million in the program last year to help girls in rural India to re-enter the formal education system.

CARE’s senior policy advocate on gender, Gayatri Patel, said the Let Girls Learn initiative shows that the U.S. government’s commitment to improving the lives of adolescent girls and giving them the tools they need to have better futures.

“It is not just about getting girls into schools,” Patel said in an email to Humanosphere, “but more broadly about examining and overcoming what keeps them from school in the first place – child marriage, early pregnancy, violence, discrimination that favors boys going to school over girls, harassment of girls on the way to and during school, etc. are all very complex issues that are among those challenges.”

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The confusion over the education initiative surfaced the same day Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rolled back parts of Obama’s other signature project – the National School Lunch Program – which, among other changes, required schools to serve meals with reduced sodium content and an increase in whole grains. Perdue said the Trump administration would relax those regulations going forward.

Since the election, the role of advising the president on women’s issues and empowerment has largely been adopted by Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. The first daughter hosted a dinner party for CEOs to discuss women in the workforce in February, and launched a #WomenWhoWork initiative on social media.

Ivanka Trump also announced the creation of a fund to benefit female entrepreneurs around the world while visiting Germany earlier this month. She said her father’s record as a businessman demonstrates that he’s worked to advance women in the workplace, and that he is “a tremendous champion of supporting families and enabling them to thrive.”

Numerous media reports said her comments were followed by “boos and hisses” from the German audience.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com