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. I went to Northern Liberia. And as part of the work, the village would 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 had 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, "Leymah, take my daughter. I wish for her to be a nurse." Dirt poor, living in the home with my parents, I couldn't afford to. 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 only in her underwear. When I asked, "Who is that?" She said, "That's Wei. 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, "Leymah, 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." Two months later, both of those villages fell into another war. Till today, I have no idea where those two girls are.
Fast-forward, 2004: In the peak of our activism, the minister of Gender Liberia called me and said, "Leymah, I 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'd come from work and lie on the cold floor. She'd lie beside me and say, "Auntie, I wish to be well. I wish to go to school."
2010: A young woman stands before President Sirleaf and gives 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. She's highly athletic. One of the things that happens is that she applies for a scholarship. Full 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 asks her to come out of class. And for the next three years, her fate will be having sex with him every day, as a favor for getting her in school.
Globally, we have policies, international instruments, work leaders. Great people have made commitments—we will protect our children from want and from fear. The U.N. 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 called Three that focuses on girls. All of these great works by great people aimed at getting young people to where we want to get them globally, I think, has failed.
In Liberia, for example, the teenage pregnancy rate is three to every 10 girls. 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, a 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 girls' kids are totally out there and no hope, or seemingly no hope. We created a space called the Young Girls Transformative Project. We go into rural communities and all we do, like has been done in this room, is create the space. When these girls sit, you unlock intelligence, you unlock passion, you unlock commitment, you unlock focus, you unlock great leaders. Today, we've worked with over 300. And some of those girls who walked in the room very shy have taken bold steps, as 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 thought about finishing high school, graduated successfully; never thought about going to college, enrolled 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 drinks and sells recharge cards for cellphones. 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, "Leymah, 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." This is the dream of the African girl.
Several years ago, there was one African girl. This girl had a son who wished for a piece of doughnut 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 the wish. This is another African girl's 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—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 doughnut come true, the wish of peace came true. This young woman wished also to go to school. She went to school. This young woman wished 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 wishes, a wish for a better life somewhere in the Bronx, a wish for a better life somewhere in downtown L.A., a wish for a better life somewhere in Texas, a wish for a better life somewhere in New York, a 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're 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 so much. Right now in Liberia, what do you see as the main issue that troubles you?
I've been asked to lead the Liberian 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, is epidemic.
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, Ghanaian girl, Nigerian girl, Ethiopian girl standing on this TED stage. And maybe, just maybe, saying, "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.
And in the last year, tell us one hopeful thing that you've seen happening.
I can tell you many hopeful things that I've seen happening. But in the last year, where President 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. These girls banded together and formed a group and launched a campaign for voter registration. This is a real rural village. And the theme they used was: "Even pretty girls vote." They were able to mobilize young women.
But not only did they 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 a seat was very—because Liberia has one of the strongest rape laws, 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.
Leymah, thank you. Thank you so much for coming to TED.