17 Women Who Are Changing the World

   •    January 28, 2015

These 17 women leaders were among 21 who attended Inclusive Security’s 2015 colloquium. Not pictured, for security reasons, are four courageous Syrians who risk their lives to distribute food and medical supplies, provide psychosocial counseling, support democratic elections, build bridges between sects, and end bloodshed. Someday soon, when the world they’re working so hard for becomes reality, we hope to share the names and faces of those heroes with you. Until then, we honor their work and that of their sisters around the globe who have changed thousands of lives, including ours.

1. The Candidate

Martha for webThe Honorable Martha Karua says, “In leadership and politics, you don’t put your foot forward because you have an answer for everything, but because you have the ability to bring people together who have different types of expertise to solve problems.” Her long career in the Kenyan government—as a member of parliament, then as Minister of Water and, later, Justice—is a testament to this inclusive approach. She co-founded the League of Kenyan Women Voters and helped birth a new constitution. Though she didn’t win the presidency in 2013, the resilient woman known as Kenya’s “Iron Lady” declares firmly that she “is not done yet.”

2. The Educator

Bushra portrait for web“When terror comes to your doorstep, you cannot fear it; you cannot tolerate it anymore,” says Bushra Hyder. Living in Pakistan’s most remote and volatile region along the border with Afghanistan—Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK)—she’s experienced firsthand the effects of increasing extremist violence. In the face of this ideology, she established a high school that teaches a peace education curriculum of her own design—the first of its kind in Pakistan. While inculcating tolerance and understanding in the next generation, Bushra also engages parliamentarians, religious teachers, and police officers in countering extremism and planting seeds for peace.

3. The Visionary

A.Osori Photo for webAs CEO of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, a public-civil society partnership, Ayisha Osori has increased the number of well-qualified women in government. To raise awareness and electoral participation during the 2011 elections, she hosted and co-produced a radio show called “Women Talk Politics.” For five years, she also authored a weekly newspaper column on issues ranging from security to good governance. Ayisha lends her broad expertise to work on gender, social justice, and good governance, and has led dialogue sessions for the UN and World Bank. “My optimism,” she says, “lies in the things we haven’t yet done—getting more girls educated, getting more women into politics.”

4. The Bridge-Builder

Nang Phyu Phyu for webNang Phyu Phyu Lin grew up in a country with 135 ethnic groups, but her experience with discrimination was personal. She was treated as second-class by her extended family because her parents came from different ethnic backgrounds. “This upset me,” she says, “because, although I’m not 100% the same ethnic group, I am 100% human being.” Today, she chairs the Alliance for the Inclusion of Gender in the Peace Process, which promotes women’s involvement in Myanmar’s political transition. Though men have pushed back on their efforts, Phyu Phyu asserts that women have “experienced the pain of this war; we have many contributions to make.”

5. The Pastor

esther-01489 for webRegular bloodshed in rocky Plateau State spurred Esther Ibanga to abandon a lucrative 16-year career in Nigeria’s Central Bank to undertake a full-time ministry. Later, in response to a massacre of more than 500 women and children three miles from her home, she organized a march of Christian women for peace. The killing continued, so Esther reached out to a female Muslim leader, knowing that joint activity would be more powerful. “Society has always placed boundaries on us. But, you know, these boundaries are man-made. Cross the line; you just might be surprised,” she says.

6. The Practitioner

betty for webBetty Murungi has advanced human rights in places hardest hit by war, from Burundi to northern Uganda. She represented Africa on the Board of Directors of the Trust Fund for Victims at the International Criminal Court, utilizing 30 years of experience practicing law at national, regional, and international levels. At home in Kenya, Murungi was vice chair of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated abuses from the country’s founding in 1963 up to the post-election violence of 2007. In all this work, she’s witnessed the power of women to prevent, stop, and rebuild from conflict, stating that “women are the shock absorbers of their communities.”

 7. The Diplomat

Fauzia for webPakistan’s first female diplomat after women were permitted to join the foreign service in 1973, Ambassador Fauzia Nasreen was posted to embassies around the world, including in Iran, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Italy. As a pioneer, she was acutely conscious that how she handled the challenges – such as traveling alone over dangerous roads as a young woman during the Iran-Iraq war – would affect the future for all those who followed in her footsteps. She rose to become Ambassador to Nepal, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Since retiring from diplomatic service, Ambassador Nasreen has been teaching the next generation at universities throughout Pakistan.

8. The Icon

Jacqueline portrait for webJacqueline Pitanguy has led the struggle for women’s rights and democratization in Brazil for over 30 years, from both inside and outside the system. For her work, which includes co-founding the first feminist organization in her country, she was among 1,000 women collectively nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. As part of the president’s cabinet in the mid-1980s, Jacqueline was integral to ensuring 80% of women’s demands were included in the new constitution. It’s this legal and political leadership for gender equality that’s led many to refer to her, admiringly, as “the Gloria Steinem of Brazil.”

9. The Revolutionary

Thin Thin for webIn 1988, Thin Thin Aung joined peaceful protests against the military junta that ruled Myanmar. After seeing fellow demonstrators killed in front of her, she was forced to flee to India, where she spent 23 years in exile. “I didn’t want to be called a refugee, but a revolutionary,” she says. Dedicated to the cause of democracy, Thin Thin co-founded the Women’s League of Burma, an umbrella group comprising 13 organizations working across ethnic lines. At last able to return to her country in 2012, she has continued her lifelong activism for lasting peace, with women at the fore.

10. The Legacy

H.Abiola Photo for webIn 1993, Chief Moshood Abiola – the Nigerian President-elect – was accused of treason and imprisoned by the general who seized his office. His daughter, Hafsat Abiola, watched in horror from her studies at Harvard, as first her mother was assassinated and then her father died on the eve of his scheduled release. She founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, named for her mother, with the goal of continuing her family’s fight for freedom. Since Nigeria’s transition to democracy, she has continued to support civil society and women’s political involvement. As Special Adviser to the Ogun State Governor, she has also expanded access to essential public services and increased public transparency.

11. The Senator

Sadiq_best-01265 for webAs a member first of the National Assembly, and now the Senate, of Pakistan, Nuzhat Sadiq has advanced the role of women in ending violence and moderating extremism. She founded the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in 2008 and pushed successfully for a law creating the National Commission on the Status of Women, an oversight body with counterparts at the provincial level. Over the past decade, Senator Sadiq has championed bills to combat gender-based violence in Pakistan, including domestic abuse, harassment in the workplace, and acid attacks.

12. The Pioneer

Perola for webWhen Brazil’s former Ministry of War became its Ministry of Defense, it opened the door for young women like Perola Mourao de Abreu Pereira who wanted to make a difference for their country. Change has been slow—Perola is still an anomaly, as a female civilian, in a primarily male- and military-dominated environment. “Imagine how it is for me to sit at the table with 20 men, staring at these officials with medals on their uniforms,” she says. Yet, from her position on the newly-created Gender Commission and as overall coordinator for research on women, peace, and security, Perola is claiming space for herself, and for the women of Brazil.

13. The Strategist

Olufunke for webFor more than a decade, Olufunke Baruwa has helped formulate national policies and programs for women and vulnerable groups in Nigeria. In 2006, she led development of the National Gender Policy, which resulted in an increased percentage of women elected to political office. Grounded in a human security perspective, Olufunke believes that “First, women need to survive and be healthy; they need training and economic opportunities; and they need targeted support to run for office successfully.” To that end, she’s helped Nigeria cut maternal mortality in half and promoted gender-equitable distribution of farm loans, among other achievements.

14. The Forward

Fatuma for webFatuma Abdulkadir Adan grew up in volatile northern Kenya, the daughter of parents from two warring tribes. Seeing the cycles of division continue through generations, she decided to challenge the status quo via a universal language: sport. She says of her youth soccer programs, which engage boys and girls from different areas: “No blood is shed; only sweat. We tell the young people, ‘Shoot to score, not to kill!’” Through sport, Fatuma has found a channel to address sensitive issues, from female genital mutilation to child marriage. Long-term, she says there will be even more impact: “The youth of today will be the parents of tomorrow.”

15. The Defender

Joenia for webJoenia Wapixana grew up in two worlds: the Brazilian city where her mother relocated eight children so they could get a good education and the remote Amazon village where her father taught her to respect the traditional culture of her people. Joenia is also a woman of firsts. The first indigenous woman to graduate law school in Brazil. The first to argue a case before her country’s Supreme Court. Her legal prowess has ensured that thousands of indigenous people can remain on their ancestral lands. “Taking care of the rainforest is important not only because of what it means for indigenous peoples,” she says, “but also – given climate change – for the planet.”

16. The Negotiator

Zakhung for webNang Raw Zakhung didn’t expect to find herself—a career peacebuilder with a decade of experience working with ethnic, religious, and community groups on peace and state-building—assisting armed groups in their negotiations with the Myanmar government. But she reasoned that “lasting peace requires a level playing field.” Without her expertise, the parties would be unlikely to reach a sustainable settlement. After 60 years of conflict, including a movement for independence of Nang Raw’s own Kachin minority, her skills and expertise are vital to creating a better future.

17. The Champion

Thongori for webJudy Thongori believes that peace and justice start at the family level. As a family lawyer for more than 20 years in Kenya, she’s seen how societal expectations and domestic roles can affect access to justice, economic empowerment, and political participation, particularly for women. “Any cause, however small, needs a champion,” Judy says. By litigating cases, empowering women, and building awareness in the police forces, she’s mobilizing an army of champions who will transform Kenyan society from the microcosm of the family on up.

Photos by Mel Snyder (except #3 and #10)

Learn more about Colloquium 2015>>
Watch video of six participants speaking at Harvard’s JFK Jr. Forum>>

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