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Global Action for Children

Oprah’s Mission to Empower Women and Girls in South Africa

Photo: Courtesy of Harpo, Inc./Benny Gool

A woman who needs no introduction on a topic too few have ever heard of. Oprah discusses her mission to educate young girls in South Africa.

Why is it imperative that we have adolescent girls’ education at the top of our global agenda (as opposed to boys’)?

When you educate a girl you change the trajectory of her life. And not just her life. You start to affect her family, her community, her nation. When you educate a girl, that girl becomes a woman who understands the value of an education and educates her children. 

What inspired you to start the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls? Why in South Africa? What role did Nelson Mandela play in shaping your vision for the school?

The dream to build my school began with Nelson Mandela because of my love and respect for a man who spent 27 years in prison and became the first freely elected President of South Africa. He is a great citizen of the world. I was humbled by his humility.  

It started with our conversation in 2000 about how I wanted to do something for the girls of South Africa. I wanted to give back to the girls what I had been given. Before long that idea became my most cherished dream—a school for smart girls who had the mind power, but not the means or privilege of an education. I wanted to create a “leadership academy” because I feel strongly that women’s leadership can reshape the world.

This fall, the very first group of students is coming to the United States to start looking at colleges this month. It makes me so proud of how far they’ve come.

The Academy has already touched the lives of so many. Can you share your most memorable moment with an individual from the school?

I had assembled the girls for a discussion about career choices. As each raised her hand to talk about her dream of becoming a doctor, or dancer, or teacher, only one girl out of 150 stood up and said, “I want to be a historian.”  Many of the other girls began to snicker because I don’t think they heard of or understood the word “historian.”

Later I pulled her aside and told her about this great historian I knew in the United States, Dr. Henry Louis Gates. I then emailed Dr. Gates to tell him how she felt ostracized about wanting to be a historian. He sent a three-page reply. As I read his encouraging letter to her aloud, you could literally see her whole being transform from doubt to confidence, knowing that she too can become a great historian.

What are your goals for the Academy? What would you like it to accomplish in the next 10 years?

We support the development of a new generation of women leaders who, by virtue of their education and service, will lead the charge to transform themselves, their communities, and the larger world around them. The Academy will nurture their proven potential to affect positive and enduring change, prepare them for higher education and help raise the next generation of transformative South African leaders.

What advice can you offer readers who want to make a difference, as well?

I believe that education is the most important gift you could ever give to anyone, which is why my team and I helped build 60 schools internationally and granted numerous scholarships both in the United States and abroad. I’ve made it my life’s mission to give back and believe that each of us can play a role in making a difference in the world through service to others. Start with where you are and do what you’ve been empowered and blessed to do. Educate one girl or two or ten. Something as simple as paying for a uniform and school supplies can make a world of difference. Be willing to ask the question “What can I do?” And the answer will show itself.

Staff, [email protected]

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