Asia Life

Why Is Michelle Obama Visiting Asia?

The First Lady will be making a trip to Japan and Cambodia in a few weeks.

Why Is Michelle Obama Visiting Asia?
Credit: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson

On March 2, the White House announced that Michelle Obama would be traveling to Japan and Cambodia from March 18 to March 22.

Previously, the media had been filled with theories about why she would be making the trip. Some had said this would be a spring break with her daughters, while others sensed a more elaborate plot by the Obama administration to make up for a perceived slight following her absence in Obama’s trip to Japan last year — and her vacation with her daughters in China weeks earlier.

But the White House statement said the First Lady’s trip will be focused on promoting the new Let Girls Learn International girls education initiative. The initiative, which was officially launched by Michelle Obama and U.S. President Barack Obama on March 3 to coincide with the beginning of Women’s History Month, is a government-wide approach to empower girls around the world, bringing together existing efforts by several organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Cooperation and the Peace Corps. She will be joined on the trip by Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet.

The objective of Let Girls Learn is to help adolescent girls worldwide attend and complete school and pursue their broader aspirations. According to the White House, 62 million girls around the world – half of them adolescents – are not in school, which diminishes their economic opportunities and increases their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, early and forced marriage and other forms of violence. With a quality education, girls are more likely to earn a better living, raise a healthy, educated family, improve the quality of life for themselves and their community, and help build the foundations of more stable, democratic countries. As President Obama said in his speech, “This is not just a humanitarian issue, it is a political and security issue, and that’s why it needs to be a foreign policy priority.”

Japan and Cambodia are both seen as important countries in furthering Let Girls Learn, and the two visits are significant for different reasons. In Japan, where she will be from March 18-20, the First Lady said in her remarks Tuesday that she will be meeting the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Akie Abe, who she says “shares her passions and is eager to partner” in the initiative. She will also meet the current U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy who founded the Peace Corps. She will reportedly highlight plans to increase cooperation between the U.S. Peace Corps and Japan’s Overseas Cooperation Volunteers.

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Cambodia, where she will be from March 21-22, is the only Asian nation among the 11 currently involved in the Let Girls Learn Peace Corps initiative in its first year. Here, she will be the first sitting U.S. First Lady to ever visit the country, following Obama who became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cambodia during his trip there in 2012. In Siem Reap, she and Hessler-Radelet will meet Peace Corp volunteers and visit a school to see up close how community-driven solutions are changing girls’ lives. Interestingly, the Kennedy connection extends to the second leg of her Asia trip as well, since former president Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline Kennedy also made a visit to Cambodia in 1967, four years after her husband’s assassination.