Oprah Winfrey wants women to break gender barriers on a global scale.
“I have a strong interest — and now background experience — in helping girls become who they were meant to be,” says Winfrey, 62, one of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World.
A longtime advocate of female education, Winfrey funds several organizations aimed at improving the quality of life for women and helping to boost their confidence. She backs Women for Women International, which supports the financial, educational, and interpersonal needs of women survivors of war, poverty and injustice, as well as Girl Effect, a movement working to end poverty in adolescent women.
Also supported by the Nike Foundation, Girl Effect aims to break the cycle of poverty by building confidence in young women, empowering them and providing access to education and services. “[Girl Effect] will spend 10 to 18 months [in a village in Ethiopia, or Malawi, or Nigeria] just getting to know the village elders, the men who are in charge of what happens not just to the women, but also, obviously, the children,” Winfrey tells PEOPLE. “They will spend time sitting around, drinking tea, smoking the peace pipe, or whatever happens to be the communal expression for sharing in any particular environment.”
“They will spend time with those men and, eventually women, convincing the elders it’s important that your daughter go to school,” she continues. “You end up transforming lives because you first get the girls to see themselves differently. You get them to see the possibility for themselves. And then you get them to see that, ‘Oh, I don’t have to be married at 12. There can be a life for me if I can get myself educated but my father won’t let me be educated.’ “
Winfrey, who believes Girl Effect successfully employs a “non-traditional model for transforming the lives of adolescent girls,” says she’s learned from the organization’s leaders the importance of working with young people between the ages of 9 and 19.
“After a girl’s already had several children or been married off, it’s too hard,” she says. “The power of Girl Effect is they understand you’ve got to change the way the girl sees herself and the way her community sees her in order to bring about full empowerment.” That’s why those conversations about women in society need to happen early —so girls can reach their full potential.
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Girl Effect is just another example of Winfrey’s dedication to helping women get the education they deserve. The philanthropist also built a world-class school for girls in South Africa for grades 7 through 12 through the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Winfrey hopes the students who finish at The Academy will continue their educational paths and eventually transform their communities and countries.
“I have the ultimate satisfaction, I have the ultimate reward that I did exactly what I wanted to do,” says Winfrey. “I wanted to change the lives of these girls at my school. I have been graced with living long enough to see them fulfill the potential that I saw in them when they were 11 and 12 years old.”
“This coming year, 2017, I will have 10 girls in the United States graduate,” she adds of the success of her program. “I have to actually attend 10 graduations of girls graduating from some of the best schools in the United States — one of them now left Spelman and is at Oxford. I have watched them as little girls, literally, blossom into these flourishing young women that are just so dynamic. They’re going to change what happens in their country and in the world.”