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Obama: Women’s Equality is a National Security Issue

  • Mary Alice Salinas

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on the State of Women, in Washington, June 14, 2016.

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on the State of Women, in Washington, June 14, 2016.

President Barack Obama says women’s equality is a national security issue, and while America has made great progress, much more work remains, both in the United States and around the world.

Obama spoke Tuesday to an estimated 5,000 people, mostly women, taking part in the first White House Summit on the State of Women.

“I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like,” he said prompting loud applause.

Obama touted the growing influence and power of women in American society, and noted Hillary Clinton’s historic political achievement as the first female presumptive presidential nominee of a major party.

He said the Democratic Party nominee “has raised the expectations of our daughters and our sons for what is possible.”

First lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey have a discussion on Trailblazing the Path for the Next Generation of Women during the White House Summit on the United State of Women in Washington, June 14, 2016.

First lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey have a discussion on Trailblazing the Path for the Next Generation of Women during the White House Summit on the United State of Women in Washington, June 14, 2016.

Still, too many women remain “stuck in the toughest of economic circumstances,” Obama added. Average households have transformed from 50 years ago, and the economy has not “caught up” with some of those changes, he argued.

“Those days when the average family was a dad who went to work every day and a mom who stayed home and did all the unpaid labor, that’s not what our economy looks like anymore,” he said.

“Household and work arrangements come in all shapes and all combinations. And yet our workplace policies still look like they’re straight out of 'Mad Men,' ” he added, referring to a popular television series set in the 1950s and 1960s.

Equal measures

He called for more action to ensure that women get equal pay for equal work, paid family and sick leave, affordable child care and paid medical leave.

Violence and sexual assault against women and girls also is still too prevalent, both in America and around the world, the president said.

Jessica Davidson spoke about being raped while in college nearly two years ago. She said “a rape culture” exists in the United States, and shame still keeps many victims from coming forward.

“I think there’s a fundamental lack of understanding about what consent means. It’s about respect,” she said. “People feel entitled to others' bodies. Consent is mandatory and we need to start teaching it from a very young age,” she added.

WATCH: White House women's summit

The summit included sessions on topics ranging from domestic violence, sexual assault, entrepreneurship, leadership and economic empowerment.

Obama said gender equality is a foreign policy priority.

“We know that any country that oppresses half the population — that doesn’t let them go to school or work and does not give them control over their own bodies — that’s a society that will not work over the long term. It will not reach its potential.”

Challenges for women

In one session, the owner of a catering business in Lagos, Nigeria, told billionaire Warren Buffett and others taking part in a discussion that women in that country face cultural and social challenges.

Most often, when a married couple purchases a property, it is listed in the husband’s name, making it difficult for the wife to access capital to start a business without her husband’s consent.

However, things are slowly changing, said Ayodeji Megbope, owner of No Left Overs Limited. Collaboration and support among women is critical, she said.

“We are collaborating, we are encouraging ourselves and we are showing that, ‘Look, as long as we stand together, the sky is just the beginning,’ ” Megbope said.

Obama also noted that the ideology of extremist groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State leads them to oppress and enslave women and girls, leading to instability, violence and terrorism.

Gender-based violence

“There’s a connection there,” he said. “We’ve implemented a comprehensive strategy to end gender-based violence around the world.”

Just ahead of the summit, the White House announced $50 million in commitments by the government, businesses and organizations to support women and girls.

They included commitments by companies to ensure equal pay, protections against gender-based discrimination, and support and educational opportunities for girls and young women who are “marginalized” in their communities.

The White House said the summit’s goal was to build a path forward for policymakers, advocates and supporters to continue to expand opportunities for women and girls.

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