WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama on Saturday decried the kidnapping of scores of Nigerian schoolgirls who have been missing for nearly a month and used their plight to speak out for the rights of girls everywhere to get an education.
Delivering the weekly presidential radio and Internet address on the eve of the U.S. holiday honoring mothers, the first lady and mother of two said that, like millions of people around the world, she and President Barack Obama are “outraged and heartbroken” over the April 15 abduction of nearly 300 girls from their dormitory.
She asked the nation to pray for their safe return and stressed the importance of education.
“In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” Mrs. Obama said in the five-minute address, referring to Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12. “We see their hopes, their dreams, and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”
She said what happened more than three weeks ago in Nigeria was not an isolated incident, but “a story we see every day as girls around the world risk their lives to pursue their ambitions.”
Mrs. Obama mentioned Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived a gunshot to the head as she traveled to school in 2012. Malala has become an outspoken advocate for the rights of all girls to get an education.
More than 65 million girls worldwide do not attend school, even though educated women earn more money, have healthier families and provide a boost to their countries’ economies, the first lady noted.
“So education is truly a girl’s best chance for a bright future, not just for herself, but for her family and her nation,” Mrs. Obama said.
She expressed hope that events in Nigeria will inspire boys and girls across the U.S. to take getting an education seriously.
“I hope that any young people in America who take school for granted, any young people who are slacking off or thinking of dropping out, I hope they will learn the story of these girls and recommit themselves to their education,” she said.
Mrs. Obama recently launched a domestic initiative called “Reach Higher” to encourage kids to pursue education after high school.
In Saturday’s address, she asked the nation to pray for the Nigerian girls’ safe return.
“This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education – grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls,” the first lady said. “Let us hold their families in our hearts during this very difficult time, and let us show just a fraction of their courage in fighting to give every girl on this planet the education that is her birthright.”
The kidnapped girls and their thirst for learning were also mentioned in a commencement speech Mrs. Obama delivered Saturday at Dillard University in New Orleans.
The Nigerian government’s inability to find the girls, who were abducted by the Boko Haram organization, has sparked worldwide outrage, including protests and a social media campaign. The U.S. and other countries have sent military and other experts to assist the government’s search effort. President Obama has said the U.S. will do everything it can to help Nigerian authorities find them.
Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful.” The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has claimed responsibility for the mass abduction and has threatened to sell the girls.
Authorities have said more than 300 girls were kidnapped from their school in the country’s remote northeast. Fifty-three escaped and 276 remain captive.