Leymah Gbowee Ted Talk Speech Transcript: Unlock the Intelligence, Passion, Greatness of Girls
Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee gave a Ted Talk on March 28, 2012 titled “Unlock the Intelligence, Passion, Greatness of Girls.” Read the full transcript of her speech remarks here.
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Leymah Gbowee: (00:03)
Many times I go around the world to speak and people ask me questions about the challenges, my moments, some of my regrets. 1998 a single mother of four, three months after the birth of my fourth child, I went to do a job as a research assistant. Went to Northern Liberia, and as part of the work, the village will give you lodgings. And they gave me lodging with a single mother and her daughter. This girl happened to be the only girl in the entire village who have made it to the ninth grade. She was the laughing stock of the community. Her mother was often told by other women, you and your child will die poor. After two weeks of working in that village, it was time to go back. The mother came to me, knelt down and said, “Lima, take my daughter. I wish for her to be a nurse.” Dirt poor, living in a home with my parents, I couldn’t afford to.
Leymah Gbowee: (01:44)
With tears in my eyes I said, “No.” Two months later, I go to another village on the same assignment. And they asked me to live with the village chief. The women’s chief of the village has this little girl, fair color like me, totally dirty. And all day she walked around [inaudible 00:02:10] nowhere. When I asked, “Who is that?” She says, That’s [inaudible 00:02:15].” The meaning of her name is pig. Her mother died while giving birth to her. And no one had any idea who her father was. For two weeks, she became my companion. Slept with me. I bought her used clothes and bought her her first doll. The night before I left, she came to the room and said, “Lima, don’t leave me here. I wish to go with you. I wish to go to school.” Dirt poor, no money, living with my parents I again said “No.”
Leymah Gbowee: (02:51)
Two months later, both of those villages fell into another war. Till today I have idea where those two girls are. Fast forward, 2004 in the peak of our activism, the minister of [inaudible 00:03:10] Liberia called me and said, “We might have a nine year old for you. I want you to bring her home because we don’t have safe homes.” The story of this little girl, she had been raped by her paternal grandfather every day for six months. She came to me, bloated very pale. Every night I’ll come from work and lie on the cold floor. She lies beside me and say, “Auntie, I wish to be well. I wish to go to school.” 2010 a young woman stand before President Sirleaf and gave her testimony of how she and her siblings live together. Their father and mother died during the war. She’s 19, her dream is to go to college to be able to support them.
Leymah Gbowee: (04:01)
She’s highly athletic. One of the things that happens is that she applied for a sport scholarship. She gets it, her dream of going to school, her wish of being educated is finally here. She goes to school on the first day, the director of sports who’s responsible for getting her into the program, asked her to come out of class. And for the next three years her fate will be having sex with him every day, as favor for getting her in school. Globally, we have policies, international instruments, world leaders, great people have made commitment we will protect our children from want and from fear. The UN has the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Countries like America, we’ve heard things like No Child Left Behind. Other countries come with different things. There is a Millennium Development Goal three that focuses on girls. All of these great work by great people aimed at getting young people to where we want to get them globally I think has failed. In Liberia, for example, teenage pregnancy rate is three to every 10 girls.
Leymah Gbowee: (05:23)
Teen prostitution is at its peak. In one community, we’re told you wake up in the morning and see used condoms like used chewing gum paper. Girls as young as 12 being prostituted for less than a dollar a night. It’s disheartening, it’s sad. And then someone asked me just before my TED talk a few days ago, “So where is the hope?” Several years ago, few friends of mine decided we needed to bridge the disconnect between our generation and the generation of young women. It’s not enough to say you have two Nobel Laureates from the Republic of Liberia, when your girl states are totally out there and no hope or seemingly no hope. We created a space called a Young Girl’s Transformative Project. We go into rural communities and all we do like has been done in this room is create this space. When these girls sit you unlock intelligence, you unlock passion, you unlock commitment, you unlock focus, you unlock great leaders.
Leymah Gbowee: (06:39)
Today we’ve worked with over 300. And some of those girls who walked in the room, very shy, have taken bold steps as a young mothers to go out there and advocate for the rights of other young women. One young woman I met, teen mother of four. Never taught about finishing high school graduate successfully. Never taught about going to college, enroll in college. One day she said to me, “My wish is to finish college and be able to support my children.” She’s at a place where she can’t find money to go to school. She sells water, sells soft drink, and sells recharge card for cell phones. And you would think she would take that money and put it back into her education. Juanita is her name. She takes that money and finds single mothers in her community to send back to school. Says Lima, “My wish is to be educated. And if I can’t be educated, when I see some of my sisters being educated, my wish has been fulfilled. I wish for a better life. I wish for food for my children. I wish that sexual abuse and exploitation in schools would stop.”
Leymah Gbowee: (07:59)
This is the dream of the African girl. Several years ago, there was one African girl. This girl had a son who wish for a piece of donut because he was extremely hungry. Angry, frustrated, really upset about the state of her society and the state of her children, this young girl started a movement. A movement of ordinary women banding together to build peace. I will fulfill their wish. This is another African girls wish. I failed to fulfill the wish of those two girls. I failed to do this. These were the things that were going through the head of this other young woman.
Leymah Gbowee: (08:42)
I failed. I failed. I failed. So I will do this. Women came out, protested a brutal dictator. Fearlessly spoke. Not only did the wish of a piece of donut come true. The wish of peace came true. This young woman wish also to go to school. She went to school. This young woman wish for other things to happen. It happened for her. Today this young woman is me, a Nobel Laureate. I’m now on a journey to fulfill the wish in my tiny capacity of little African girls. The wish of being educated. We set up a foundation. We’re giving full four year scholarships to girls from villages that we see with potential. I don’t have much to ask of you. I’ve also been to places in this U.S., and I know that girls in this country also have wish. Wish for a better life, somewhere in the Bronx. Wish for a better life, somewhere in downtown LA. Wish for a better life, somewhere in Texas. Wish for a better life somewhere in New York.
Leymah Gbowee: (09:58)
Wish for a better life, somewhere in New Jersey. Will you journey with me to help that girl, be it an African girl or an American girl or a Japanese girl fulfill her wish, fulfill her dream, achieve that dream? Because all of these great innovators and inventors that we’ve talked to and seen over the last few days are also sitting in tiny corners, in different parts of the world. And all they are asking us to do is create that space to unlock the intelligence, unlock the passion, unlock all of the great things that they hold within themselves. Let’s journey together, let’s journey together. Thank you.
Speaker 2: (10:48)
Thank you so much. Right now in Liberia, what do you see as the main issue that troubles you?
Leymah Gbowee: (11:22)
I’ve been asked to lead the Reconciliation Initiative. As part of my work, I’m doing these tours in different villages and towns, 13, 15 hours on dirt roads. And there is no community that I’ve gone into that I haven’t seen intelligent girls but sadly the vision of a great future or the dream of a great future is just a dream. Because you have all of these vices, teen pregnancy, like I said, it’s a pandemic. So what troubles me is that I was at that place and somehow I’m at this place and I just don’t want to be the only one at this place. I’m looking for ways for other girls to be with me. I want to look back 20 years from now and see that there’s another Liberian girl, Ghanian girl, Nigerian girl, Ethiopian girl, standing on this TED stage.
Leymah Gbowee: (12:27)
And maybe just maybe say, “Because of that Nobel Laureate, I’m here today.” So I’m troubled when I see them like there’s no hope. But I’m also not pessimistic because I know it doesn’t take a lot to get them charged up.
Speaker 2: (12:45)
And in the last year, tell us one hopeful thing that you’ve seen happening.
Leymah Gbowee: (12:50)
I can tell you many hopeful things that I’ve seen happening, but in the last year [inaudible 00:12:56] Sirleaf comes from her village, we went there to work with these girls and we could not find 25 girls in high school. All of these girls went to the gold mine and they were predominantly prostitutes doing other things. We took 50 of those girls and we worked with them. And this was at the beginning of elections. This is one place where women were never, even the older ones, barely sat in the circle with the men.
Leymah Gbowee: (13:24)
These girls banded together and form a group and launch a campaign for voters registration. This is a real rural village. And the team they use was even pretty girls vote. They were able to mobilize young women, but not only they did do that they went to those who were running for seats to ask them, “What is it that you will give the girls of this community when you win?” And one of the guys who already had the seat was very… Because Liberia has one of the strongest as rape law. And he was one of those really fighting in parliament to overturn that law because he called it barbaric. Rape is not barbaric, but the law he said was barbaric. And when the girls started engaging him, he was very hostile towards them. These little girls turned to him and said, “We will vote you out of office.” He’s out of office today.
Speaker 2: (14:26)
Leymah thank you so much for coming to TED.
Leymah Gbowee: (14:27)
Speaker 2: (14:28)