In 2007, I returned to Ghana from graduate school and co-founded an organization in Ghana called the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A). The vision of WIPSEN-A was to build women’s strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance in Africa. One of the organization’s core priorities was “to mentor the next generation of young women to be peacebuilders.”
In my past experiences, especially with Mass Action for Peace campaign, we did not have as many young women working with us. The youngest women among us, calling for an end to the war in Liberia, were in their early thirties. If I could do life over, one thing I would do differently with the Mass Action Campaign would be to include the voices, the intelligence, and the unique skills and vision that young women bring to the table.
When we started WIPSEN-A, we were determined to engage with young women in different communities across Ghana and Liberia. We surveyed impoverished communities across the two countries to discern the realities of young women. We wanted to understand the everyday battles women and girls fight. We came to realize that the lived reality of many girls in impoverished communities is the persistent misuse and abuse of their bodies by men with financial means. In their quest to gain education to better their lives, girls are frequently propositioned to pursue sex-work and all too often it feels like their only option.
From all of these community conversations, there is a defining moment that is etched into my memory. One young woman asked me, “You always say we need to prioritize getting an education, but how do we go to school when we do not have any money?” She continued, “I believe education is the way forward, but my parents are poor and if I sit and wait on them to send me to school then I won’t get an education. So, if I meet an older man who is willing to pay my school fees, I won’t mind sleeping with such [a] man to get my tuition paid.” I vividly remember my response to this brilliant young woman; “you don’t have to, there’s always another way.”
Fast forward to 2011, when I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. My team sat me down and asked me, “now that you have won the Peace Prize, what do you wish to do? What is the legacy that you want to build?” Straight away, I knew my answer was “GIRLS’ EDUCATION”. I want to create a space where girls and young women, at least the ones who I encounter, no longer have to sleep with any person to pay their tuition fees. And for the last eight years, supporting girls’ education in Liberia through Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA) has been my mission.
In the last eight years, I have encountered countless young women who have come into GPFA’s programs with the desire to finish high school, then onto university and graduate schools. Most of these young women have astonishing drive to stay in school, but unfortunately their families cannot afford the financial costs of education. Equally, I have encountered young women from Muslim backgrounds whose families want them to get married early, and any resistance on their part risk complete alienation from their families/communities and a withdrawer of financial support, because of the refusal to get married.
These persisting situations and conditions that hinder girls’ education have propelled me to find a way to squeeze 48 hours of value out of a 24-hour day: raising funds for the primary purpose of sending girls to school. In my experience, if given the right opportunity, support and the space, these young women turn from ducklings into beautiful swans. They become empowered to realize their own dreams. Dreams that transform the way they perceive the world, igniting their faith in humanity; and in turn, inspiring others around them to pursue their goals.
At GPFA, we work with girls and young women over the long term – staying with them the whole way through their education journey. When girls start in our program they are often pessimistic about the way the world regards young women. However, by going through our programs, by knowing that there are safety nets and people in their corner, by having the kind of support that we provide with the little that we have, I have seen multiple women graduate with Master degrees. I’ve seen some of my Muslim sisters graduate and go off to medical school. I’ve seen the ones who are from marginalized families work exceedingly hard to become excellent professionals that will lead vital industries across Liberia. I’ve seen students who once said, “I am from a village and will never become anything,” go off to become skilled nurses. I’ve journeyed alongside a girl who was once defiled, and went on to graduate with honors, and is now working in the agriculture sector.
On this International Day of the Girl Child, I want to take this moment to celebrate all these amazing young women who have made it and the ones who continue to thrive even with all of the odds stacked up against them. I look forward to the generation looking up to these women and walking in their footsteps. I am inspired every day by their resilience, their perseverance, and their ability to embrace a new future with very limited opportunities.
Happy International Day of the Girl Child to all my beautiful sisters, daughters, mentees, and students!
Authored by Leymah Roberta Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
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