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NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged international leaders to show the courage and commitment of girls who make sacrifices to go to school - like the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls - to provide children around the world the quality education they deserve.
Obama gave the keynote speech at an event dedicated to fighting a global learning crisis and held on the sidelines of the United Nations' General Assembly.
Universal education for every child in the world is one of several millennium development goals the United Nations has committed to achieving by next year - but which is expected to slip away.
The latest data shows that 250 million of the 650 million primary school-age children worldwide cannot read, write or do basic mathematics, according to UNESCO, the world body's educational, scientific and cultural organization.
The first lady recalled Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai, who became a global celebrity after surviving being shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls' education, and the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram Islamist militants.
"I'm thinking about girls like Malala, I'm thinking about those brave girls in Nigeria, I'm thinking about all the girls who will never make the headlines, who walk hours to school each day, who study late into the night because they are so hungry to fill every last bit of their God-given potential," Obama said. "If we can show just a tiny fraction of their courage and their commitment then I know we can give all of our girls an education worthy of their promise.
"If we truly believe that every girl in every corner of the globe is worthy of an education as our own daughters and granddaughters are, then we need to deepen our commitment to these efforts," the first lady said.
However, when former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now U.N. special envoy for global education, made a plea for $6 billion to achieve universal primary-school education, he was met with weak applause.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova warned in June that there is "no chance whatsoever" that the world will hit the millennium development education target by next year.
A UNESCO report issued at the time said that 58 million children aged 6-11 were still out of school and that progress in reducing their numbers had been slackening considerably since 2007.
Bokova said this "unfinished business" not only violates basic human rights but also threatens stability.
"Of all the 58 million out-of-school children, the majority are in conflict areas, and this becomes not just an issue of human dignity, it becomes a security issue in many parts of the world," she said.
Reporting By Mirjam Donath