Michelle Obama called for an end to “outdated laws and traditions” preventing millions of girls around the world from completing their education, in an impassioned speech Wednesday in Qatar.

The US first lady, on a seven-day tour of the Middle East, told an education conference in Doha that an “honest conversation” was needed around the globe about how women were treated and how this prevented millions of girls from finishing school. “If we truly want to get girls into our classrooms then we need to have an honest conversation about how we view and treat women in our societies and this conversation needs to happen in every country on this planet, including my own,” she told delegates at the World Innovation Summit for Education.

“When girls are young they are often seen simply as children but when they hit adolescence and start to develop into women they are suddenly subject to all of their society’s bias around gender. That is precisely when they start to fall behind in their education,” she added. “It’s also about attitude and beliefs. It’s about whether parents think their daughters are worthy of an education as their son. “It’s about whether our societies cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women.” Obama spoke for almost 25 minutes at the Qatar National Convention Centre to a packed audience which included political and education leaders from around the world and dignitaries including Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, mother of Qatar’s emir.

The first lady’s speech was also highly personal and she said that her own education had helped take her to places she could only “dream of” as a child.

Obama also said the constraints put on women “limit men too”. To loud applause she told the audience: “Today, to all of the men here, I want to be very clear — we need you. We need you as fathers, as husbands and simply as human beings. This is your struggle too. We need you to speak out against laws and beliefs that harm women.”

Obama’s speech was part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, a programme to find ways to provide education for the 62 million girls worldwide, according to the first lady, who do not go to school every day. Opening the conference, Sheikha Moza warned that the challenges faced by girls in the Middle East were worsening.

“In this region we are not only paralysed, but going backwards at the speed of light,” she said, adding that “education was under attack”.

Sheikha Moza and Michelle Obama also presented the 2015 WISE Prize for education, worth $500,000, to Sakena Yacoobi, the founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning who said she was accepting the award on behalf of “Afghan people, children and women”.

After Qatar, where she also visited a major US air base with television chat show host Conan O’Brien, Obama is due to head to Jordan but her flight has been delayed because of the weather. Conditions were cloudy and dusty Wednesday in Amman but an airport source told AFP that regular air traffic had not been disrupted by the weather.