Sunday, April 21, 2024

Michelle Obama urges Cambodian girls to stay in school

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SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AP) – United States first lady Michelle Obama on Saturday urged Cambodian students to stay in school and take advantage of their education to demand greater freedoms and more equality in their Southeast Asian country.

Cambodia has been ruled for 30 years by authoritarian strongman Hun Sen, the prime minister, whose wife, Bun Rany, joined Mrs Obama on her visit Saturday to the northern city of Siem Reap.

Mrs Obama is on a five-day trip to Asia to promote the U.S.-led education initiative “Let Girls Learn”, which she and the president announced earlier this month. The community-based programme, to be run by the Peace Corps, is meant to help get 62 million girls around the developing world back into classrooms.

Mrs Obama spoke to students at a high school filled with dirt paths and red brick buildings that unlike many schools in rural Cambodia has running water. After being welcomed by rows of children who greeted her by waving Cambodian and American flags, the first lady met with ten girls who shared tales of rising early to feed their families before heading off on long treks to school and studying late into the night.

“You are role models to the world,” Mrs Obama said, calling on the students to use their “voices to advocate for good things – whether it’s more education, better health care, more freedoms, more equality.

“You now will have a voice and you will have the training and education to use it for good,” the first lady said. “Not just here in Cambodia, not just here in Siem Reap, but in the world. I hope that you all will feel empowered to do that.”

Mrs Obama’s trip marks the first by a sitting American first lady to Cambodia. President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cambodia in 2012, and pressed Hun Sen in private on a variety of human rights and political issues during a meeting that White House officials described as tense.

Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state, and has been regularly criticised by political opponents and human rights groups for monopolising power and brutally crushing dissent. His supporters say he has helped stabilise the country, which is still haunted by a 1970s genocide that saw nearly two million people die under the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime.

Mrs Obama’s trip started in Japan, one of Asia’s richest countries, and concludes in Cambodia, one of its poorest.

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