How Mom Oprah is fueling women's empowerment
“Education is the key to unlocking the world, a passport to Freedom”. - Oprah Winfrey, Founder – Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls Great minds think alike, and when two of the African American community’s most respected icons got down to discussing empowerment and poverty reduction over a Christmas get together, a dream was born. Oprah Winfrey discussed the need for education and empowerment among young women from disadvantaged populations in Africa with her friend and guide, Nelson Mandela. The result of that discussion came in the form of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, an all-girls boarding school in the town of Henley-on-Kip in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Academy was founded by Winfrey in January 2007, with the vision of providing a “nurturing, educational environment for academically gifted girls who come from disadvantaged backgrounds”, and initially took in 152 students from economically-weak backgrounds. Special emphasis was put on admitting students whose families were suffering from HIV and AIDS; HIV infection rates are as high as 25% in South Africa. Oprah is quoted to have said, “Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS and in this country which has such a pandemic, we have to begin to change the pandemic”. Built at an estimated cost of $40 million, the Academy works towards facilitating the dreams and ambitions of young female students who are otherwise denied access, not only to basic education, but also stripped of their basic right to safety, security and proper nutrition. It has a yoga studio, multimedia center, library, and even a beauty salon. It also provides facilities for those who are inclined towards the performing arts in the form of a dance studio and music room. In context with academics, the students are taught basic subjects including science, humanities and various languages. Oprah herself has taken a few classes at the academy where she has shared life lessons on matters ranging from living on a budget to dealing with relationships. She is personally involved with the running of the Academy and ensures that graduating students leave for higher studies armed with every necessity they will need in order to live comfortably “off-campus” and in a new, challenging world out of the Academy. Oprah is addressed as “Mom Oprah” by the girls for being the maternal figure they never had. Some girls who have grown up orphaned because their mothers succumbed to HIV or violence, take comfort in the fact that they are treated as equal citizens who are expected to excel and shine at everything that they do. The fact that they are being groomed in order to be capable of taking on leadership roles and responsibilities is ingrained at the start of the semester, and consistent meditation, prayer, and debate keeps them motivated and on-track. Oprah Winfrey has always been open about her own humble beginnings, where she grew up amid poverty in rural America, and was subjected to racial discrimination and sexual violence while growing up. Her academy is a reminder of her own humble roots, and serves as a promise to other women from disadvantaged backgrounds that they will receive the opportunities and basic rights which she never had. On January 14th 2012, 72 students graduated from Oprah’s Academy, and, in her own words, “took flight” towards other endeavours. Each and every one of the students were admitted to universities in the United States. It is hoped that there will be many more in the future, and the credit for giving them new wings and a fresh perspective goes to the “Mom”, Oprah, who envisions an educated world with strong female leaders.