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Unlock the intelligence, passion, greatness of girls: Leymah Gbowee at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Leymah Gbowee is a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Today, she speaks around the world, and people ask about her drive, challenges, moments, and regrets.

In 1998 she was a single mother of 4. Three months after her fourth child’s birth, she went to do work as a research assistant in a small village in northern Liberia. She got lodging with a single mother who was the laughingstock of the village. The mother was told by the village, “You and your daughter will die poor.” The mother asked Leymah, “Take my daughter with you.” Leymah said no, for she too was “dirt poor, no money, living with my parents.”

Two months later, she went to live with a village chief in another village. In the village there was a little girl who walked around dirty; when Leymah asked her name, the villagers told her, her name is “Pig.” Her mother had died in childbirth, the father unknown. Leymah thought she should take the girl with her, but, “Dirt poor, no money, living with my parents.”

Two months later, both villages fell into a war. To today, she has no idea what happened to either of those girls.

In 2004, working on women’s rights, she was asked to take a 9-year-old, who had been raped every day by paternal grandfather for months. And she did. Every day the child lay beside her, saying, “I wish to be well, I wish to go to school.”

In 2010 a 19-year-old gave testimony to the government. She had wanted to go to school, she got an athletic scholarship, she went. The first day, the director of sports asks her to come out of class. Every day she had to have sex with him as favor for getting into school.

Gbowee turns to the present: People around the world have made commitments to young people. To prevent them from experiencing want and fear. These are “great works by great people, aimed at getting young people where we want them to be.” And Gbowee believes they have failed. “In Liberia, teen pregnancy affects 3 out of 10 girls. Girls as young as 12 are prostituted for less than a dollar a night.”

“Where is the hope?”

Several years ago, she decided that there needed to be a way to bridge the gap between generations. She created the Young Girls Transformative Project. “All we did was create the space. When you create commitment, you unlock, intelligence, passion, commitment, focus, great leaders.” And many of those women are taking bold steps to advocate for the rights of other young women. One, who had dropped out of school, and gave her extra money to young women to go to school said, “My wish is to be educated. If I can’t be educated, if I see my sisters going, my wish is fulfilled.”

Six years ago, there was a woman, a single mother whose son wished for a piece of doner, who had wished for herself to be educated. She had failed to protect two girls. She failed, she failed, she failed. She got angry.

She faced down a brutal dictator and won. Got educated and other things happened. “And not only did the wish of a piece of doner come true, the wish of peace came true.”

That woman was Leymah Gbowee.

“I don’t have much to ask of you. Girls in this country have wishes for a better life. A girl in the Bronx, a girl in downdown LA, a girl in Textas, a girl in New Jersey. Will you journey with me to help that girl?… All they need us to do is create that space to unlock that intelligence, unlock that passion, unlock the greatness within them. Let’s journey together.”

Read more about Gbowee’s work:

Women Peace and Security Network: WIPSEN – Africa

West Africa Network for Peacbuilding / Women in Peacebuilding

See more: Leymah Gbowee on The Daily Show, and on The Colbert Report>>