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10 Years of Global Citizen Festival: 10 Artists & Activists Who Stood Up for Gender Equality

Cyndi Lauper performs at Global Citizen Live in New York City on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. | Kris Lori for Global Citizen

The fight to achieve gender equality has united artists and activists on stage at the Global Citizen Festival since the annual event's inception in New York City's Central Park a decade ago. 

Since 2012, musicians, activists, and more have raised their voices to support women and girls on the festival stage, from New York to Hamburg to Johannesburg and beyond, to help create a more sustainable world for all by ending extreme poverty.

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Some spearheaded their own initiatives to dismantle sexism and discrimination, and others called on Global Citizens to take action and put pressure on world leaders to step up their commitments to fight big issues from child marriage to honor killings. Whether their day jobs required political activism or touring hit albums, activists and artists have encouraged their fan bases to join the effort to promote sustainable development without leaving women and girls behind.

The 2022 Global Citizen Festival campaign, which includes twin events hosted in New York and Accra on Saturday, Sept. 24, will continue to push an ambitious agenda that prioritizes adolescent girls. We’re calling on world leaders to make commitments to support girls’ education, alleviate the care burden exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and ensure access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care. 

As we gear up for this year's Global Citizen Festival, where we’ll see how the world will show up to empower women and girls, join us in looking back on some highlights from our stages and virtual events on the issue over the last decade.

Here are 10 of our favorite gender equality moments.

1. Michelle Obama 

Beyoncé introduced then-US First Lady Michelle Obama at the Global Citizen Festival 2015, where the two shared a hug before Obama called for the need to support girls’ education and announced the launch of the #62MillionGirls campaign.

The campaign aimed to raise awareness around the 62 million girls who miss out on school every year and pressure leaders to support girls’ equal access to education. 

“These are our girls,” Obama said. “They deserve the same chances to get an education as my daughters and your daughters and all of our children and make no mistake about it, giving them that chance is at the core of our work to end global poverty. It’s the only way to ensure that these girls can fulfill their potential, provide for their families, and contribute fully to their countries.” 

2. Malala Yousafzai

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai joined four other education advocates from around the world at the 2015 Global Citizen Festival to stress the importance of girls’ education.

“Up to 66 million girls are deprived of education and that forces me, that forces all five of us to ask here today that no world leader would want their children to be deprived of education so why ignore the rest of the world’s children?” she said. 

“Will you stand with those 66 million girls that are deprived of education right now?”

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3. Jada Pinkett Smith and 4. Salma Hayek

At the 2016 Global Citizen Festival, Gucci President and CEO Marco Bizzarri shared updates on the fashion brand’s Chime for Change global initiative to fight discrimination against women and girls. Actors Jada Pinkett Smith and Salma Hayek joined him on stage to highlight the need to continue promoting gender equality.

“Around the world, many women do not even own the right to own a home, to see a doctor without their husband or father’s permission. This discrimination has to end,” Smith said. 

Hayek, a Chime for Change co-founder, shared the realities of so-called honor killings

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“That’s right, in some countries, women are murdered by their own family members for marrying the man they love,” she said. “For refusing to enter into an arranged marriage or for having a relationship with a man not approved by their family and it is shocking that this day in age, the law often allows families to get away with such murders because the law has exceptions for these so-called honor killings or because legal procedures allow murderers to be pardoned.”

The actress introduced a short film about Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star killed in an honor killing. Hayek then brought on Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the director of the film who asked everyone to speak out against violence against women.  

“The world that we want to leave our girls and our daughters must be much safer than the world that we inherited,” Obaid-Chinoy said. 

5. Shireen Ibrahim

Yazidi activist and ISIS survivor Shireen Ibrahim shared her story with the crowd at the 2017 Global Citizen Festival. An estimated 3,000 Yazidi girls and women were sold into sex slavery by the militant group ISIS as part of mass persecution and genocide in 2014.

“ISIS still holds many Yazidis in captivity. We cannot stop fighting for their freedom and justice,” Ibrahim said. “I ask for you, Global Citizens, to not only hear my story, but to call on the UN and world leaders to end impunity for ISIS crimes.”

6. Dakota Johnson

Image: Global Citizen/ Ethan Judelson

Actress Dakota Johnson gave out her personal phone number on stage at the 2018 Global Citizen Festival. She asked women and girls around the world to call her and share their stories of sexual violence and harassment via voicemail. The following year, Johnson gave the crowd an update at the 2019 Global Citizen Festival.

Johnson reported that she received calls from six continents and 70 different countries, totaling around 60 hours of real stories. 

“These stories are from every age, and every gender, 95% being women,” she said. "The oldest called identified as 71, the youngest as 11. I listened to these stories. And I promised I would get them heard.”

Johnson used the audio messages to create the podcast The Left Ear. She said she wanted to “create a safe and compassionate conversation around sexual violence, and to bring awareness to the fact that we live in a time where gender-based violence affects over 35% of women around the world.” 

7. Cyndi Lauper 

Pop icon Cyndi Lauper dedicated an '80s classic to vulnerable women and girls in Afghanistan at Global Citizen Live in New York in 2021. Originally written and performed by Robert Hazard in 1979 from a male point of view, Lauper later put her own spin on the song "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" to communicate that women just want the same rights as men. 

“When I first recorded this song in 1983, I sang it to remind all women and girls that we deserve a joyful life, and we deserve to have true equality,” Lauper said. “It’s sad to think almost 40 years later, it's still not true.” 

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Lauper dedicated the song to the women and girls of Afghanistan, whose rights have been even more under attack since the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

“We see you and we will continue to do all we can to shine a light on what you’re going through. Don’t give up,” she said. 

8. Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex

VAX LIVE campaign co-chair Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, delivered a moving video speech calling for solidarity and a gender-responsive COVID-19 recovery.

“My husband and I believe it’s critical that our recovery prioritizes the health, safety, and success of everyone, and particularly women who have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic,” she said.

“If we work together to bring vaccines to every country and continent, insist that vaccines are equitably distributed and fairly priced, and ensure that governments around the world are donating their additional vaccines to countries in need, then we can begin to fully rebuild — not only to restore us where we were before, but to go further, and rapidly advance the conditions, opportunities, and mobility for women everywhere."

9. Rakaya Fetuga 

Poet Rakaya Fetuga performed her poem “When a Uterus Is a Burning Flag,” as part of Global Citizen Live in 2021.

“The revolution will not be televised / when revolution sits and grows inside and it can be missed by a male gaze and outside eyes,” she said. 

Later in the poem, Fetuga touched on how family planning can open up a woman’s world, the need to reduce maternal mortality, and what is lost when women’s health needs are ignored. 

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“The urgency of the moment is in stepping up for what she’s pleading, right now,” she said.

Dr. Natalia Kanem, executive director of UNFPA, followed the poem by reiterating why every girl deserves the right to choose when and how many children to have to build a better future for herself, her family, and her community. Kanem asked viewers to join UNFPA in helping girls realize their full potential by telling leaders to invest in women and girls’ health and rights. 

10. Gloria Steinem 

Activist, writer, and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem shared her insights on the state of women in the world on the “Women of Influence: The Power of Gender in Shaping Culture” panel during the inaugural Global Citizen NOW summit in May 2022.

Steinem weighed in on the overturning of Roe v. Wade and abortion rights in the US, with guests including philanthropist Pharrell Williams and Grammy Award-winning composer and vocalist Arooj Aftab.

When asked what she would like to see for the future of women and girls, Steinem said, “I want women and men and everybody to be able to do anything they fucking well please.”


Global Citizen Festival is calling on world leaders, corporations, and philanthropists to do more than they’ve ever done before to End Extreme Poverty NOW. Through our global campaign and with stages in two iconic locations — NYC’s Central Park and Accra’s Black Star Square — we will unite leaders, artists, activists, and Global Citizens around the world on Sept. 24 to achieve an ambitious policy agenda focused on empowering girls and women, taking climate action, breaking systemic barriers, and lifting up activists and advocates. Wherever you are in the world, you can join the campaign and take action right now by downloading the Global Citizen app.

Why we're writing

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What's at stake?

Women and girls are more likely to experience the shocks of conflict and climate change. The majority of the world’s poor are girls and women who lack the resources and tools to catch up to boys and men.

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What can we do?

Empowering women and girls can help us solve the world’s biggest problems. We cannot achieve a better future when half of the population is at a disadvantage. Join us and call on world leaders to help every girl achieve their potential.

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10 Years of Global Citizen Festival: 10 Artists & Activists Who Stood Up for Gender Equality

By Leah Rodriguez