TED2012

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

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Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee has two powerful stories to tell -- of her own life's transformation, and of the untapped potential of girls around the world. Can we transform the world by unlocking the greatness of girls?

- Peace activist, Nobelist
Leymah Gbowee is a peace activist in Liberia. She led a women's movement that was pivotal in ending the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, and now speaks on behalf of women and girls around the world. Full bio

Many times
00:15
I go around the world to speak,
00:17
and people ask me questions
00:20
about the challenges,
00:22
my moments,
00:24
some of my regrets.
00:27
1998:
00:29
A single mother of four,
00:32
three months after the birth of my fourth child,
00:34
I went to do a job
00:38
as a research assistant.
00:41
I went to Northern Liberia.
00:45
And as part of the work,
00:48
the village would give you lodgings.
00:51
And they gave me lodging with a single mother
00:54
and her daughter.
00:57
This girl happened to be
00:59
the only girl in the entire village
01:02
who had made it
01:04
to the ninth grade.
01:06
She was the laughing stock of the community.
01:08
Her mother was often told by other women,
01:11
"You and your child
01:14
will die poor."
01:16
After two weeks of working in that village,
01:19
it was time to go back.
01:22
The mother came to me, knelt down,
01:24
and said, "Leymah, take my daughter.
01:28
I wish for her
01:32
to be a nurse."
01:34
Dirt poor, living in the home with my parents,
01:37
I couldn't afford to.
01:41
With tears in my eyes,
01:44
I said, "No."
01:46
Two months later,
01:49
I go to another village
01:51
on the same assignment
01:53
and they asked me to live with the village chief.
01:55
The women's chief of the village has this little girl,
01:59
fair color like me,
02:02
totally dirty.
02:04
And all day she walked around
02:06
only in her underwear.
02:08
When I asked, "Who is that?"
02:10
She said, "That's Wei.
02:13
The meaning of her name is pig.
02:15
Her mother died while giving birth to her,
02:18
and no one had any idea who her father was."
02:21
For two weeks, she became my companion,
02:24
slept with me.
02:27
I bought her used clothes
02:29
and bought her her first doll.
02:31
The night before I left,
02:33
she came to the room
02:36
and said, "Leymah, don't leave me here.
02:38
I wish to go with you.
02:40
I wish to go to school."
02:42
Dirt poor, no money,
02:44
living with my parents,
02:47
I again said, "No."
02:49
Two months later,
02:51
both of those villages fell into another war.
02:53
Till today, I have no idea
02:56
where those two girls are.
03:00
Fast-forward, 2004:
03:02
In the peak of our activism,
03:06
the minister of Gender Liberia called me
03:09
and said, "Leymah, I have a nine-year-old for you.
03:11
I want you to bring her home
03:14
because we don't have safe homes."
03:16
The story of this little girl:
03:18
She had been raped
03:20
by her paternal grandfather
03:22
every day for six months.
03:24
She came to me bloated,
03:26
very pale.
03:29
Every night I'd come from work and lie on the cold floor.
03:31
She'd lie beside me
03:34
and say, "Auntie, I wish to be well.
03:36
I wish to go to school."
03:39
2010:
03:42
A young woman stands before President Sirleaf
03:44
and gives her testimony
03:47
of how she and her siblings live together,
03:49
their father and mother died during the war.
03:52
She's 19; her dream is to go to college
03:55
to be able to support them.
03:58
She's highly athletic.
04:00
One of the things that happens
04:02
is that she applies for a scholarship.
04:04
Full scholarship. She gets it.
04:06
Her dream of going to school,
04:08
her wish of being educated,
04:10
is finally here.
04:12
She goes to school on the first day.
04:14
The director of sports
04:17
who's responsible for getting her into the program
04:19
asks her to come out of class.
04:21
And for the next three years,
04:23
her fate will be
04:25
having sex with him every day,
04:27
as a favor for getting her in school.
04:30
Globally, we have policies,
04:33
international instruments,
04:37
work leaders.
04:39
Great people have made commitments --
04:41
we will protect our children
04:43
from want and from fear.
04:46
The U.N. has the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
04:48
Countries like America, we've heard things like No Child Left Behind.
04:52
Other countries come with different things.
04:56
There is a Millennium Development called Three
04:59
that focuses on girls.
05:01
All of these great works by great people
05:05
aimed at getting young people
05:07
to where we want to get them globally,
05:09
I think, has failed.
05:12
In Liberia, for example,
05:14
the teenage pregnancy rate
05:17
is three to every 10 girls.
05:19
Teen prostitution is at its peak.
05:23
In one community, we're told,
05:26
you wake up in the morning
05:28
and see used condoms like used chewing gum paper.
05:30
Girls as young as 12 being prostituted
05:34
for less than a dollar a night.
05:37
It's disheartening, it's sad.
05:41
And then someone asked me,
05:44
just before my TEDTalk, a few days ago,
05:46
"So where is the hope?"
05:48
Several years ago, a few friends of mine
05:50
decided we needed to bridge the disconnect
05:53
between our generation
05:55
and the generation of young women.
05:57
It's not enough to say
05:59
you have two Nobel laureates from the Republic of Liberia
06:01
when your girls' kids are totally out there
06:04
and no hope, or seemingly no hope.
06:07
We created a space
06:10
called the Young Girls Transformative Project.
06:12
We go into rural communities
06:15
and all we do, like has been done in this room,
06:18
is create the space.
06:21
When these girls sit,
06:24
you unlock intelligence,
06:26
you unlock passion,
06:29
you unlock commitment,
06:32
you unlock focus,
06:34
you unlock great leaders.
06:36
Today, we've worked with over 300.
06:38
And some of those girls
06:41
who walked in the room very shy
06:43
have taken bold steps, as young mothers,
06:45
to go out there and advocate
06:48
for the rights of other young women.
06:51
One young woman I met,
06:54
teen mother of four,
06:56
never thought about finishing high school,
06:58
graduated successfully;
07:00
never thought about going to college,
07:03
enrolled in college.
07:05
One day she said to me,
07:07
"My wish is to finish college
07:09
and be able to support my children."
07:11
She's at a place where she can't find money
07:13
to go to school.
07:15
She sells water, sells soft drinks
07:17
and sells recharge cards for cellphones.
07:20
And you would think she would take that money
07:24
and put it back into her education.
07:26
Juanita is her name.
07:29
She takes that money
07:31
and finds single mothers in her community
07:33
to send back to school.
07:36
Says, "Leymah, my wish
07:38
is to be educated.
07:40
And if I can't be educated,
07:42
when I see some of my sisters being educated,
07:44
my wish has been fulfilled.
07:47
I wish for a better life.
07:49
I wish for food for my children.
07:51
I wish that sexual abuse and exploitation in schools would stop."
07:53
This is the dream of the African girl.
07:58
Several years ago,
08:00
there was one African girl.
08:02
This girl had a son
08:04
who wished for a piece of doughnut
08:06
because he was extremely hungry.
08:09
Angry, frustrated,
08:12
really upset
08:15
about the state of her society
08:17
and the state of her children,
08:20
this young girl started a movement,
08:22
a movement of ordinary women
08:24
banding together
08:26
to build peace.
08:28
I will fulfill the wish.
08:30
This is another African girl's wish.
08:32
I failed to fulfill the wish of those two girls.
08:34
I failed to do this.
08:36
These were the things that were going through the head of this other young woman --
08:38
I failed, I failed, I failed.
08:41
So I will do this.
08:44
Women came out,
08:48
protested a brutal dictator,
08:50
fearlessly spoke.
08:53
Not only did the wish of a piece of doughnut come true,
08:56
the wish of peace came true.
09:00
This young woman
09:02
wished also to go to school.
09:04
She went to school.
09:06
This young woman wished for other things to happen,
09:08
it happened for her.
09:10
Today, this young woman is me,
09:12
a Nobel laureate.
09:16
I'm now on a journey
09:18
to fulfill the wish,
09:20
in my tiny capacity,
09:22
of little African girls --
09:24
the wish of being educated.
09:26
We set up a foundation.
09:28
We're giving full four-year scholarships
09:30
to girls from villages that we see with potential.
09:32
I don't have much to ask of you.
09:35
I've also been to places in this U.S.,
09:38
and I know that girls in this country
09:40
also have wishes,
09:42
a wish for a better life somewhere in the Bronx,
09:44
a wish for a better life
09:47
somewhere in downtown L.A.,
09:49
a wish for a better life somewhere in Texas,
09:51
a wish for a better life somewhere in New York,
09:54
a wish for a better life
09:57
somewhere in New Jersey.
09:59
Will you journey with me
10:01
to help that girl,
10:03
be it an African girl or an American girl
10:06
or a Japanese girl,
10:09
fulfill her wish,
10:11
fulfill her dream,
10:13
achieve that dream?
10:15
Because all of these
10:17
great innovators and inventors
10:19
that we've talked to and seen
10:22
over the last few days
10:24
are also sitting in tiny corners
10:26
in different parts of the world,
10:29
and all they're asking us to do
10:31
is create that space
10:33
to unlock the intelligence,
10:35
unlock the passion,
10:37
unlock all of the great things
10:39
that they hold within themselves.
10:41
Let's journey together. Let's journey together.
10:44
Thank you.
10:47
(Applause)
10:49
Chris Anderson: Thank you so much.
11:12
Right now in Liberia,
11:14
what do you see
11:16
as the main issue that troubles you?
11:18
LG: I've been asked to lead
11:21
the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative.
11:23
As part of my work,
11:26
I'm doing these tours
11:28
in different villages and towns --
11:31
13, 15 hours on dirt roads --
11:33
and there is no community that I've gone into
11:37
that I haven't seen intelligent girls.
11:40
But sadly,
11:44
the vision of a great future,
11:46
or the dream of a great future,
11:49
is just a dream,
11:51
because you have all of these vices.
11:53
Teen pregnancy, like I said, is epidemic.
11:55
So what troubles me
11:58
is that I was at that place
12:00
and somehow I'm at this place,
12:04
and I just don't want to be the only one
12:07
at this place.
12:09
I'm looking for ways
12:11
for other girls to be with me.
12:13
I want to look back 20 years from now
12:15
and see that there's another Liberian girl,
12:18
Ghanaian girl, Nigerian girl, Ethiopian girl
12:20
standing on this TED stage.
12:23
And maybe, just maybe, saying,
12:26
"Because of that Nobel laureate
12:28
I'm here today."
12:30
So I'm troubled
12:32
when I see them like there's no hope.
12:34
But I'm also not pessimistic,
12:37
because I know it doesn't take a lot
12:40
to get them charged up.
12:42
CA: And in the last year,
12:44
tell us one hopeful thing
12:46
that you've seen happening.
12:48
LG: I can tell you many hopeful things that I've seen happening.
12:50
But in the last year,
12:53
where President Sirleaf comes from, her village,
12:55
we went there to work with these girls.
12:57
And we could not find 25 girls
12:59
in high school.
13:01
All of these girls went to the gold mine,
13:03
and they were predominantly prostitutes
13:06
doing other things.
13:08
We took 50 of those girls
13:10
and we worked with them.
13:12
And this was at the beginning of elections.
13:14
This is one place where women were never --
13:17
even the older ones
13:19
barely sat in the circle with the men.
13:21
These girls banded together and formed a group
13:24
and launched a campaign
13:27
for voter registration.
13:29
This is a real rural village.
13:31
And the theme they used was:
13:33
"Even pretty girls vote."
13:35
They were able to mobilize young women.
13:37
But not only did they do that,
13:39
they went to those who were running for seats
13:42
to ask them, "What is it
13:44
that you will give the girls of this community
13:46
when you win?"
13:48
And one of the guys
13:50
who already had a seat was very --
13:52
because Liberia has one of the strongest rape laws,
13:55
and he was one of those really fighting in parliament
13:57
to overturn that law
14:00
because he called it barbaric.
14:02
Rape is not barbaric, but the law, he said, was barbaric.
14:04
And when the girls started engaging him,
14:08
he was very hostile towards them.
14:10
These little girls turned to him and said,
14:12
"We will vote you out of office."
14:14
He's out of office today.
14:16
(Applause)
14:18
CA: Leymah, thank you. Thank you so much for coming to TED.
14:24
LG: You're welcome. (CA: Thank you.)
14:27
(Applause)
14:29

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About the Speaker:

Leymah Gbowee - Peace activist, Nobelist
Leymah Gbowee is a peace activist in Liberia. She led a women's movement that was pivotal in ending the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, and now speaks on behalf of women and girls around the world.

Why you should listen

Liberia's second civil war, 1999-2003, brought an unimaginable level of violence to a country still recovering from its first civil war (1989-96). And much of that violence was directed at women: Systematic rape and brutality used women's bodies as fields for war.

Leymah Gbowee, who'd become a social worker during the first war, helped organize an interreligious coalition of Christian and Muslim women called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. Dressed in white, these thousands of women staged pray-ins and nonviolent protests demanding reconciliation and the resuscitation of high-level peace talks. The pressure pushed Charles Taylor into exile, and smoothed the path for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Leymah's fellow 2011 Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Gbowee is the founder and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which provides educational and leadership opportunities to girls, women and the youth in West Africa.