All across the world, powerful women are campaigning for change on some of the most fundamental human issues: gender and racial equality, access to food and water, environmental integrity, government accountability, and so much more.
Oftentimes, they put their lives on the line. All the time, they risk their reputations, their livelihoods, and their freedom.
Every day they choose to show up to make the world a better place. Here are just 12 activists whose work is shaping the 21st century.
Asieh Amini: Honor killings in Iran
In Iran, girls are sometimes stoned to death if they have sex outside of marriage, even if they are raped.
Asieh Amini first learned of this practice when she was reporting for a regional newspaper in Iran and was told that a 19-year old girl named Leyla “with a mental age of 8” was going to be stoned to death because she was repeatedly raped by family members.
Amini immediately jumped into action and pressured the presiding judge into releasing Leyla.
Since then, Amini has dedicated her life to fighting this horrific practice even as the authorities hound and threaten her. By raising awareness throughout the country and the world, Amini has saved the lives of many women.
The threats against her eventually grew so intense that she had to leave Iran and she now continues her work in Norway.
Rashmi Misra: Education in India
India may be the fastest-growing country in the world, but a lot of people, especially girls, are being left behind because the school system is failing.
Some of the education problems in India include: an enormous shortage of teachers, one of the highest dropout rates in the world, and schools without functional toilets and running water.
Rashmi Misra wanted to change this so she opened a school in her own home and began providing children from poor families with a rigorous education. Her efforts eventually attracted international attention and she has been able to open schools in the slums of New Delhi, Mumbai, and Goa.
Today, Vidya Schools focuses on empowering young girls and women by providing a free education and imparting entrepreneurial skills.
Nanfu Wang: Sexual violence in China
Activists for greater accountability and freedom in China are often detained and imprisoned. So when Nanfu Wang began documenting the efforts of activists against sexual violence, she came under government surveillance.
But the new barriers didn’t deter Nanfu. She was working to shed light on a series of sexual violence cases that were being brushed aside because they involved powerful local figures.
Nanfu began using covert cameras to capture footage and eventually had to flee to country to make her work available to a larger audience.
The resulting film “Hooligan Sparrow” has gained international renown. It revolves around an advocate for sex workers who goes by the name Hooligan Sparrow and illuminates the vast restrictions on expression that people face in China.
Safa al Ahmad: Free speech in Saudi Arabia
Women are second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. The number of restrictions they face is dizzying.
For Safa al Ahmad this gender oppression was compounded by the society-wide suppression of speech. When the Arab Spring erupted throughout the region, Saudi Arabia was not immune to internal dissent, but the government tried desperately to stamp out protests.
Safa al Ahmad illegally filmed peaceful uprisings in Saudi Arabia and managed to smuggle them out of the country to create “Saudi’s Secret Uprising.”
Since then, Safa al Ahmad has made other documentaries on uprisings in the Middle East and has a been a staunch advocate for women’s rights.
Liya Kebede: Safe childbirth in Ethiopia
Every day, almost 800 women die because of complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
Supermodel Liya Kebede grew up in Ethiopia and knew that the vast majority of births in the country take place in unsafe conditions that can lead to severe complications or death. So in 2005 she started her foundation that aims to improve maternal healthcare in Africa.
Kebede is proof that celebrity status can be leveraged to make the world a better place for everyone.
Brittany Packnett: Racial equality in the US
In the US, unarmed black men are significantly more likely to be shot and killed by police than unarmed white men. This is only one of the most lurid stats on racial disparity in the US, a country that is filled with structural and interpersonal inequalities.
In the fight for social justice, Brittany Packnett has become one of the most recognizable and eloquent leaders.
Her background is extensive. According to the Guardian, “She’s a co-founder of We The Protestors and Campaign Zero, a platform to end police violence. She served on the Ferguson Commission, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and builds culturally responsive educators at Teach For America.”
Packnett recognizes that the conversation also has to include more than heterosexual men. Black women and the LGBT community must also be championed because they, too, face disproportionate violence and marginizalation.
And y'all thought the work was over.— Brittany Packnett☔️ (@MsPackyetti) July 7, 2016
The movement continues.
Sonita Alizadeh: Child marriage in Afghanistan
When Sonita Alizadeh was 10 in Afghanistan, her parents tried to marry her off, but the proposal fell through. Then when she turned 15, her parents tried to marry her off again, but before it could be finalized, she rebelled.
Sonita had been studying music for years at this point and she filmed a rap video to vent her outrage.
The song became a huge hit and pressured her parents to back down. Now Sonita is studying in the US and has become a sensation back home. Her songs are fiercely feminist and rail against the barriers that women face.
In a country where 57 percent of girls are married before they are 19, Sonita’s work has the potential to spark a sea change.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo: Indigenous rights in Canada
In Canada, there are as many as 4,000 missing and murdered indigenous women. The country has a long history of oppressing indigenous populations and this saga of the missing and murdered is just one manifestation.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo’s sister was murdered. Then Melina encountered a law enforcement system that seemed to not care. Melina had been advocating for indigenous rights for more than a decade, but this event gave her cause new meaning.
Today, she fights against the depletion of the environment and works toward the cultural revitalization of indigenous people.
Mary Beard: Internet harassment
The amount of abuse girls and women experience on social media is astonishing. If a woman with a high profile dares to say something feminist, she will probably be viciously harassed.
Mary Beard, a scholar of classical literature, faces online bile all the time. Instead of ignoring it or blocking the trolls, she confronts them.
When she receives rape threats and other hateful messages, she broadcasts the messages to shame the person. Then she tries to convert him to a more enlightened perspective. Surprisingly, she’s pretty effective. The New Yorker dubbed her “The Troll Slayer” in a profile for her work in converting trolls.
Ultimately, her troll slaying is making social media a safer place for women.
Esther Ibanga: Women-led peaceful protests
Nigeria has seesawed between peace and conflict for decades. Different ethnic and religious groups have deep-seated resentments and often clash.
Esther Ibanga saw how destructive this tendency is and realized that empowered woman could be the drivers of change.
So she started the Women Without Walls Initiative that brings together women from different backgrounds to equips them with peace-building skills.
Over the years, she has led peaceful protests that number in the hundreds of thousands.
Her efforts also focus on developing poor communities, aiding displaced persons, and empowering the youth.
Obiageli Ezekwesili: #BringBackOurGirls
In 2014, nearly 300 girls were abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Obiageli Ezekwesili quickly mobilized her following of grassroots activists and international partners to launch the #BringBackOurGirls campaign which amassed a global audience.
While the campaign ultimately failed to achieve its mission, it was the latest example of Ezekwesili’s unflinching pursuit of justice.
In 1993, she co-founded Transparency International, an organization that has become essential in the fight against corruption.
Berta Caceras: Environmental activism
Demanding justice for indigenous & environmental activist Berta Cáceras in front of Honduran Consulate in DC pic.twitter.com/IFCYuXJDD4— AIUSA Women's Rights (@AmnestyWomenRts) June 15, 2016
This is a dangerous time for environmental activists.
In 2015 alone, 185 activists were murdered for their opposition to destructive industrial activities like mining and illegal deforestation.
Berta Caceras was one of the murdered. For years, she had opposed the construction of a dam on indigenous land in Honduras. For this, she was shot in her home.
Her efforts have inspired other activists and her death has rallied the support of the international community.
Climate change is arguably the most important issue in the world. Caceras was on the front lines of trying to save the planet from further destruction.
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