LONDON — Michelle Obama's visit to a girls' school in a diverse east London neighborhood turned into a love fest Tuesday when she was greeted with singing, poetry and interpretative dance on her mission to promote education for girls.
In return, the U.S. first lady spoke from the heart about the role education played in her remarkable rise from a tough working-class environment, and the need for girl students to fight discrimination and cut their own proud swath in the world.
"The world needs more girls like you growing up to lead our parliaments and our board rooms and our courtrooms and our universities," Obama said, visibly moved. "We need you."
She came to London to promote her "Let Girls Learn" initiative, which now has the backing of the British government. The two nations on Tuesday announced plans to support girls' education in countries affected by crisis such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
About $200 million will be devoted to the efforts, which also include supporting teacher training, girls' leadership camps and other community based programs.
Obama said there are more than 62 million girls with no chance to go to school — a basic right she said should be extended to every girl on the planet. She cited unaffordable school fees, early and forced marriages and pregnancies, and also societal beliefs that girls are simply less worthy as some of the factors holding girls back from reaching their potential.
Girls in their maroon school uniforms waved American flags and screamed with excitement as Obama arrived at the Mulberry School for Girls in the Tower Hamlets neighborhood.
She told the student audience, which included many Muslims, that they might hear people make stereotyped comments about their religion but that they cannot afford to be discouraged.
"You might wonder if people will ever look beyond your headscarf to see who you really are," she said. "But with your education from this amazing school you have everything you need to rise above it."
Obama was joined by Justine Greening, Britain's International Development Secretary, and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. They argued that countries that educate girls on an equal basis with boys reap many benefits.
"It has a direct impact on national economies. It's hard to argue with the facts," Obama said.
The first lady brought her teenage daughters Malia and Sasha and her mother Marian Robinson on the trip and they all had tea with Prince Harry at Kensington Palace before the school visit.
They also planned to have tea with Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha at 10 Downing Street.