WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama spoke out Monday against gender oppression in Africa that he said is "crippling" parts of the continent, urging young leaders there to empower women and eliminate traditions like female genital mutilation and violence against women.
Obama held up an inaugural class of young African fellows who are getting six weeks of leadership training in the United States as inspiring examples of what the continent can achieve. He drew cheers as he announced their program is being expanded and renamed after former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Obama said the world's security and prosperity depends on "a strong, prosperous and self-reliant Africa" and he repeatedly spoke out on the important role that women must play in Africa's future. "One of the things we've got to teach Africa is how strong the women are and to empower women," Obama said.
Obama said female empowerment will be a topic of discussion at the inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, being held Aug. 4-6 in Washington. About 50 African leaders are expected to attend what the White House says will be the largest gathering any U.S. president has held with African heads of state and government.
"The most successful countries are the ones who treat their women well," Obama said. "If you are not empowering your women you are crippling your country."
Obama told the young Africans participating in the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, now the Mandela Washington Fellowship, that they shouldn't hold on to old traditions like removing some or all of a girl's genitals, which practitioners often link to Islamic requirements. The World Health Organization says more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 African and Middle Eastern countries, with complications including cysts, infection and infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
"I'm sorry, I don't consider that a tradition worth hanging on to," Obama said. "I think that's a tradition that's barbaric and should be eliminated."
Obama announced the fellowship during a stop in South Africa last summer to connect young African leaders to leadership training opportunities at top U.S. universities.
He said next year's summit will be held in sub-Saharan Africa and that four regional leadership centers will be created in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa for more training programs on the continent. He also said the program will include more online tools like mentoring and courses and more public-private partnerships to support young entrepreneurs that want to start businesses or nonprofits.
Fellows Obama singled out in his comments included a Nigerian woman who distributes sterile kits for delivering babies after a friend died in childbirth, and a woman from Senegal who started an academy to fight trafficking of young girls
Obama said the spirit of the group reflects the optimism and idealism of Mandela, who died last December at age 95. Mandela spent 27 years in jail under apartheid, South Africa's former system of white minority rule, before eventually leading his country through a difficult transition to democracy. In 1994, he became the first democratically elected leader of a post-apartheid South Africa.