By Leymah R. Gbowee
8 years ago, I launched the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa on my 40th birthday, barely two months after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I was intent on leveraging my platform to provide educational & leadership opportunities for young African women — especially Liberians — by way of formal education.
Prior to the Nobel Prize, I encountered many young women in my daily work/ call as a peace activist who lamented several challenges of getting educated in post-war countries. At the top of the list of numerous challenges was the pressure to trade sex with men to finance their educational journeys.
Many of these young women bemoaned the challenge of finding willing benefactors sans entanglements. Others also told stories of having to be dependent on boyfriends for financial support. Sadly, in those instances, these boyfriends either succumbed to pressures from their families or willingly pressured these girls into having children for them as a relationship insurance policy or a sign of long term commitment.
I also heard stories of men who promised to pay fees yet ended up harassing and sexually assaulting these girls. I would leave most of these interactions with my head spinning. I regularly pondered the inequity of life, as well as dreamed of a point where these girls would no longer have to deal with such exploitations.
But what saddened me most was the fact that these girls were driven individuals who understood the value of education, yet were met with so many hurdles solely on account of their sex.
On the day of the Nobel ceremony, people close to me asked what I wanted to do with my life; at thirty-nine, there was no way I could retire. Without digesting the question, I responded, “girls’ education.” 8 years later, I am loving every moment of it. The Foundation’s mantra is “Empower to Inspire” because we believe every educated girl stands as a torchbearer, lighting candles of inspiration for other young women hoping to join them in the journey to education.
We have made it mandatory for our girls to go back to their villages, towns, and countries of origin after studying to stand as inspirational beacons in their communities of the possibility of female education. Today, we have aspiring doctors, accountants, bankers, gender specialists, social workers, agriculturists, nurses, environmentalists, economists, politicians, engineers, and many more because these girls continue to inspire one another.
I have seen young girls who could not speak up, today exude so much confidence. Girls who previously could only dream about the possibility of school have now completed high school and are in the process of obtaining a university degree. Core to the journey of empowering to inspire is character development. Whilst I am keen on a minimum of a 3.0 GPA, I am much more interested in emphasizing the importance of integrity and honesty.
There has been (and there remains) many smart/ brilliant leaders, however, we have witnessed the impact a lack of character in leaders has on the state of the world. I believe the betterment of our world equally hinges on education and character development.
One of my first students, Wanita Kollie, had many obstacles preventing her from becoming the Agriculturist that she dreamt of becoming. However, she was able to hurdle those hitches, completed university, and is on her path to fulfilling her dream. I mentioned her here because Wanita refused to allow her circumstance to define her. She is also using all the stones life threw at her to build and inspire other young women in the process.
Wanita, Georgia, Yvonne, Cecelia, Nancy, Ma Hawa, Kadiatu, Nush, Ernestine, Julateh, Stiffinie, Anita, Becky, Nikki, Ramatu, Caranetha, and the list goes on… you all continue to be lights on my path as I strive to empower many more who will, in turn, inspire the next generation.
For this, I thank you all!