“Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, our communities and ultimately our country,” said Obama at a meeting of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
“As a government, as a nation, we have ... the capacity to stop sexual assault, support those who've survived it and bring perpetrators to justice,” he added.
The president’s focus on Wednesday was on sexual assaults on college students and he signed an order creating a White House task force on protecting students from sexual assault.
The White House said the new task force would “provide schools with best practices for preventing sexual assault, improve transparency of the federal government's enforcement activities and coordinate among federal agencies to hold schools accountable for confronting sexual assault.”
“These young women worked so hard just to get into college,” said Obama. “Often their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it. So when they finally make it there only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families; it's an affront to everything they've worked so hard to achieve.”
Obama called the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses “totally unacceptable” and said he hoped each of the nation’s college presidents would take steps to address the issue and vowed federal help to tackle the problem.
Obama also spoke about the issue in personal terms, saying that it was a priority for him “not only as president … but as a husband and father to two extraordinary girls.”
The president also cited other steps his administration has taken to fight sexual assault, saying he was “proud” to sign the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Obama said it had helped increase support to local communities and states, offering funding to train law enforcement and health care professionals and to speed up the processing of rape kits to more quickly solve cases and bring justice.
Obama also addressed the problem of sexual assault in the military, saying that he expected “significant progress in the year ahead.”
“These crimes have not place in the greatest military in the world,” said Obama.
The president ordered a review of the military’s handling of sexual assault cases last year after the Pentagon found a sharp rise in the number of servicemembers reporting assaults.
Obama said the progress in fighting sexual assault had not been easy.
“It didn't just take new laws. It took a fundamental change in our culture, a shift in our attitudes about how we think about sexual violence and how much we value the lives and dignity of our wives and sisters and daughters and sons,” said the president.
“We've got to keep teaching young men in particular to show women the respect they deserve, and to recognize sexual violence and be outraged by it, and to do their part to stop it from happening in the first place,” he added.
“I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women. And that starts before they get to college,” said Obama.