WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama criticized gender oppression in Africa that he said is "crippling" development in some countries, speaking out publicly Monday for the first time against female genital mutilation while encouraging young leaders from the continent to empower women.
Obama pointed to 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 depend on "a strong and 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 want to teach about Africa is how strong the women are and how we've got to empower women," Obama said.
He said that includes getting rid of traditions that have "no excuse," including violence toward women and female genital mutilation, 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."
The White House noted that Obama signed legislation last year that made it a crime to take a girl outside the U.S. to perform the procedure and that other administration officials have worked to end the practice. But Obama's comments at the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, now the Mandela Washington Fellowship, were believed to be his first on the matter.
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.
"One of the single-best measures of whether a country succeeds or not is how it treats its women," Obama said. He compared a country that doesn't empower its women to be scientists and engineers to a World Cup team that only sends out half its players. "You are crippling your own development unnecessarily."
Obama announced that the young leaders program will be expanded with the creation of four regional leadership centers in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa for more training on the continent. He also said it will offer more online tools like mentoring and courses and more public-private partnerships to support young entrepreneurs that want to start businesses or nonprofits.
Participants in the young leaders program Obama singled out 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.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
Follow Nedra Pickler at http://twitter.com/nedrapickler
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.