US first lady plans mid-March visit to Japan, Cambodia

WASHINGTON (AP) – Michelle Obama will promote educating girls around the world during a mid-March visit to U.S. ally Japan, and to Cambodia, a place where the government’s record on human rights gave her husband pause during a reluctant visit a couple of years ago.

Mrs. Obama will visit Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan, from March 18-20 and end the trip with a March 21-22 stop in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, the White House said Tuesday.

Cambodia is an interesting choice for the first lady.

President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cambodia in late 2012 after his re-election. White House officials insisted at the time that Obama was only going because Cambodia was the host for two annual regional summits he has made a point of attending. Obama appeared visibly unhappy during the brief visit.

The Cambodian government has been led since 1985 by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has a reputation for ruthlessness and a low tolerance for opposition. The southeast Asian nation also has problems with child prostitution and human trafficking.

The Obamas were announcing the “Let Girls Learn” education initiative at a White House event Tuesday.

The president and first lady, the parents of two teenage girls, both say their own success would not have been possible without education, and everywhere they travel they encourage young people to finish school. In the U.S., Mrs. Obama also leads a separate initiative encouraging young people to continue their education after high school.

More than 60 million girls around the world, half of them adolescents, do not attend school, said Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady.

Lack of education limits their economic opportunities and makes them more vulnerable to such afflictions as HIV and AIDS, early and forced marriage, and gender-based violence, said Tchen, who also directs the White House Council on Women and Girls. Educated girls and their families, meanwhile, are more likely to have a better quality of life.

The administration is putting under the “Let Girls Learn” umbrella a range of programs currently operating largely across Africa and the Middle East that focus on education, empowerment and leadership, health and nutrition, gender-based violence, and early and forced marriage.

Separately, the Peace Corps and Mrs. Obama’s office will work together to support community-based solutions to these issues.

The Peace Corps has thousands of volunteers working in more than 60 developing countries. Its “Let Girls Learn” program will begin in Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Togo and Uganda, before it is expanded to other countries.

A third aspect of the initiative is designed to help kids in the U.S. understand why they should care about the issue.

The Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development are already spending money on these programs. Obama is also asking Congress for $250 million in new and reallocated funding for the initiative, Tchen said. The administration anticipates getting additional support from the private sector, philanthropies, foundations and other donors.

In Japan, Mrs. Obama will highlight the importance the two countries place on international girls’ education. President Obama traveled to the close U.S. ally on a state visit last April, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to make a reciprocal visit soon.

Cambodia is one of 11 countries included in the first year of the “Let Girls Learn” program to be run by the Peace Corps.

In Cambodia, Mrs. Obama will see how community-driven solutions are helping girls, a focus of the Peace Corps piece of the initiative.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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