WASHINGTON – Michelle Obama called on young African leaders to change traditional attitudes and beliefs that harm girls and women, adding that educating and making women financially literate is not enough.
“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens,” Mrs. Obama said.
The first lady spoke Wednesday to the inaugural class of young African fellows who are getting six weeks of leadership training in the United States as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship.
“Leadership is about creating new traditions that honor the dignity and humanity of every individual. Leadership is about empowering all of our people— men, women, boys and girls,” she said. “When we commit to that kind of leadership across the globe, that is when we truly start making progress on girls’ education.”
Mrs. Obama said Africa has made great strides such as more girls attending school, women starting businesses and more women serving in parliaments. But she said serious work remains when female genital mutilation, forced child marriage and domestic violence against women continue in some countries.
She said these “are not legitimate cultural practices,” but “serious human rights violations.”
The first lady said women in the U. S. have also overcome obstacles, such as voting rights, but they still face challenges with employment discrimination and domestic violence, and are still fighting for equal pay and higher ranks in government and corporate workplaces.
Mrs. Obama said her own life was influenced by the support and encouragement of her family — including men like her father, brother, uncle and grandfather.
“The men who raised me set a high bar for the type of men I’d allow into my life, which is why I went on to marry a man who had the good sense to fall in love with a woman who was his equal, and to treat me as such,” she said, speaking about President Barack Obama.
The first lady called on men to do the same and to tell peers who disagree that “any man who uses his strength to oppress women is a coward, and he is holding back the progress of his family and his country.”
After Mrs. Obama’s remarks and meeting with participants in the crowd, she held a round table discussion with more than 30 African leaders to discuss girls’ education.