Liberia's Leading Lady Comes to Columbia

Every now and then, dreams really do come true.

Recently, I had the opportunity to see President Sirleaf of Liberia speak at Columbia University (where I am a freshman) as part of our World Leaders Forum. A friend of mine told me, “That’s so cool that you get to see him speak!”

“She!” I corrected them with a proud grin, “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a woman.” In fact, President Sirleaf is the first female head-of-state of an African nation. She is setting an example for women and world leaders everywhere.

The topic of President Sirleaf’s address was “Challenges of Transformation in a Fragile State: The Case of Liberia.” The country is currently in a state of transition as it goes from being a devastated warzone to an emerging economy.

As a result of Liberia’s long civil war, an entire generation of children did not get to go to school. As President Sirleaf said in her speech, “For so many years, many of our young people were bypassed by education.” Girls are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to education. In fact, 40 percent of girls ages 10-14 in Liberia have never received any formal education.

During the Q&A session following her address I asked President Sirleaf what steps Liberia is taking to advance education for girls. She responded that since Liberia made primary education free and required by law, enrollment has quadrupled and the majority of students are girls.

This is a promising sign, but as President Sirleaf pointed out to me, Liberia still has a problem with many girls still dropping out of school, often due to child marriage and teen pregnancy. In fact, Liberia has the second highest birthrate among girls ages 10-14 in the world. If a girl is married and has to raise a family, she doesn’t have time to go to school. Can you imagine having to do your homework in addition to doing all the cooking, cleaning, and childcare in your house?

Liberia has experimented with different ways to retain girls’ enrollment from free uniforms to free lunches to cash transfer programs that give families an incentive to send their children to school. Another effective way to keep girls in school is to make sure that they are not being married off before they even get a chance to complete their education. The good news is that when girls do stay in school, they marry later, have fewer children, and tend to produce better health outcomes for themselves and their children.

Throughout her address at Columbia, President Sirleaf’s message remained one of optimism: “With all the challenges, with all the hope, Liberia today remains a nation of progress.” To me, President Sirleaf is living proof that anything is possible. After all, as she is famous for saying, “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” President Sirleaf is right— in order to help create a better future for girls everywhere, we need to have the courage to do the impossible.


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