Empower women, Obama tells Kenya

Nairobi – United States President Barack Obama said on Sunday that a country that did not value its women and children was likely to lag behind in development.

Obama spoke passionately about the need to empower women, in an address to Kenyan leaders and select citizens invited by the US Embassy in Nairobi, shortly before he flew out en route to Ethiopia as part of his current tour of Africa.

A father of two girls, Obama told his audience in Nairobi that it was “stupid” to play in a game where “half of your team” was left out.

“Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximise their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy.

“Imagine if you have a team and you don’t let half of the team play, that’s stupid… That makes no sense,” he said.

He praised Kenyan Josephine Kulea as a champion for girls as she had founded Samburu Girls Foundation that had helped to rescue over 1 000 girls from abusive forced marriages and ensured they were enrolled in schools. She had also managed to plan rescue missions for girls who were married as young as six.

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US President Barack Obama urged Kenya”s leaders to make women”s development a priority. Photo: Jonathan Ernst

“It will be important for Kenya to recognise that no country can achieve its full potential unless it draws on the talents of all its people and that must include the half of Kenyans, maybe a little more than half, who are women and girls.

“Every country in every culture has traditions that are unique and help make that country what it is. But just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it defines your future… Around the world, there is a tradition of repressing women, and treating them differently and not giving them the same opportunities… And husbands beating their wives and children not being sent to school,” said Obama.

“Those traditions treating women and girls as second-class citizens… those are bad traditions, they need to change, they are holding you back… There’s no excuse for sexual assault, or domestic violence, there’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation, there’s no place in civilised society for the online casino early or forced marriage of children.

“These traditions may date back centuries, they have no place in the 21st century,” the US leader stated.

Obama said progressive development policies demanded that girls get an education. “Evidence shows that societies that give daughters similar opportunities as their sons are more likely to progress faster… and when they become mothers are more likely to bring up educated children.”

During the Global Entrepreneurship Summit which was held here he noted that three resource centres for women entrepreneurs would be launched in Kenya, Zambia and Mali with $100 million of the $1 billion raised for young entrepreneurs in Africa.

Obama urged Kenyan youth not only to seek better opportunities abroad, in reference to his father who had applied to 30 universities before finally being accepted by a Hawaiian University. Obama said young Kenyans could now shine at home in Kenya because of the tremendous strides that the country had since made.

“You don’t need to do what my father did and leave your home in order get a good education and access to opportunity. Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here right now… We are investing in youth, we are investing in the young people of Kenya… It’s the young people who must take the lead.”

Obama said young people were the continent’s future leaders and that was why he was investing in them and connecting them through programmes such as his Young African Leadership Initiative.

In the Kenyan spirit of harambee – togetherness – he noted that people should be given opportunities according to the content of their characters and not judged by stereotypes.

“There is a proverb that says, ‘we have not inherited this land from our fore-bears, but have borrowed it from our children’. In other words we study the past so that it can guide us into the future and inspire us to do better… The youth, I believe there’s no limit to what you can achieve. A young ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did and serve a foreign master.”

“In our Young African Leaders Initiative, we are empowering and connecting young people, connecting young people from across the continent who are filled with energy and optimism and idealism and are gonna take Africa to new heights,” Obama said.

He also praised Kenyan Richard Ruto for his initiative “Yes Youth Can”, a civil society organisation formed after the 2007/8 election violence and inspired by Obama’s 2008 election victory. The organisation has over one million members and is making progress in stopping incitement to political violence and giving opportunities to young people affected by conflict.

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