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KUALA LUMPUR: The United Nations’ report that 98 million adolescent girls worldwide are not in school is a reflection of how the real potential of young women are not fully explored, said former first lady of the United States Michelle Obama.

Referring to the daily struggles girls in rural Vietnam face to get to school, she said: “What if the answer to everything, struggling with the environment, education, healthcare... What if the answer is in the mind of that little girl in the video who is riding that bike?” she asked.

“We don’t invest in this. That means we miss the answer, and that is how we should be thinking about it.

“Truth is, it isn’t just going to come from the mind of a male, it is going to come from all of us.

“So, if we are under-investing in half of the population on the planet, I guarantee you that we are missing on some right answers,” she said at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific 2019 plenary session, here, yesterday.

She stressed that children’s full potential should be fully explored and allowed to flourish, otherwise “the fire” would die out.

“Either it (the potential) gets developed, or gets squandered... and to think there are 98 million girls out there that were born just like I was, with hunger, with something in them that they know they have regardless what they are told, and to have that not invested in.

“That is what sinks hopes, that is what stagnates minds. And that is what wastes resources. To think that it is happening around the world, it is unspeakable and wasteful. It is not a smart move for the planet,” she said.

The session was moderated by former Miss Malaysia World and Fugee School co-founder Deborah Priya Henry and featured Academy Award-winning actress Julia Roberts.

Reflecting on her trip to Vietnam with Roberts, Obama said it was to emphasise the need for girls to be in school.

She added that it also provided a platform for Girls Opportunity Alliance to help raise funds for the needy.

Roberts said the Vietnam trip was a life-changing experience.

“As a mother, it affected me and my core beliefs.

“It offered me a valuable opportunity to witness the difficulties faced by the children and the weary smiles of women there reduced me to tears.

“It was inspiring to hear about the plight of women and children in getting an education. It was an incredible opportunity that I wanted to be part of. It was absolute proof that education, love, and belief in each other is all it needs to move forward.”

During the trip, Obama and Roberts visited the Can Giuoc High School in southern Long An province in the Mekong Delta.

They were accompanied by Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former US president George W. Bush.

The trip was also aimed at supporting grassroots communities to help girls stay in school under the Girls Opportunity Alliance network.

In her best-selling book Becoming, Harvard-educated Obama details how her own education and good teachers shaped her life and paved her way to becoming a successful lawyer, university administrator and advocate.

The Obamas have dedicated much of their time to the nonprofit Obama Foundation, which includes the Girls Opportunity Alliance initiative that Obama promoted in Vietnam.

Michelle announced last week a US$500,000 donation to the Alliance’s work worldwide.

The money was earned from merchandise sales related to her book.

Actress Julia Roberts (left) speaks as former US first lady Michelle Obama (centre) and moderator Deborah Henry (right) listens at an event for the Obama Foundation in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. - NSTP/ROSELA ISMAIL
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