10 extraordinary women on the one woman who inspires them the most

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Stylist spoke to 10 activists and campaigners making a difference for women around the world.

Today is International Women’s Day – a day dedicated to recognising the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, and shining a light on the numerous inequalities women still face in countries all over the world.

The United Nations-backed event, which has its roots in the socialist feminist movements of the early 20th century, is a time to revel in all the wonderful things women have achieved, and discuss ways to make gender equality a reality.

Here, in the UK, lots of the discussion surrounding International Women’s Day (or IWD, for short) usually focuses on the work being done to tackle gender inequality across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – from inequality in the workplace to the issue of male violence against women and girls. 

But IWD is a global event, and across the world, there are plenty of incredible activists and campaigners working to make gender equality a reality for women and girls everywhere.

So, this IWD, Stylist has teamed up with Women For Women International to shine a spotlight on some of the inspirational fighting inequality in countries all around the globe – and ask them about the women who inspire them, too. Here’s what they had to say. 

Rachel Boketa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Rachel Boketa’s work focuses on promoting gender equality and involving women as decision makers.

Rachel Boketa is Women For Women International’s DRC country director. She’s a development practitioner and humanitarian worker with over 20 years of expertise in gender advocacy, committed to social justice and women and youth’s empowerment.  

Which woman inspires you the most?

“My biggest inspiration is Dr Diana B. Putman, the Assistant Administrator, Head of Africa Bureau at USAID who was my mentor and former supervisor. Diana involved me early on in strategic decisions, trusting me and helping me grow as a leader. Her fierce commitment to women’s rights continues to inspire me.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“My work in DRC focuses on promoting gender equality and involving women as decision-makers. While these are longer-term objectives, in the next 12 months with 2023 being an electoral year in DRC, I would like to see more women candidates participate in the upcoming elections to be able to influence decisions made at the policy level to bring change.

“I’m passionate about using my power to change by mentoring adolescent girls and youth – they are the future generation of change and I want them to grow up to be confident women who challenge patriarchal norms to achieve gender equality.” 

Maria Begum, Myanmar

Maria Begum works with Women for Women International and a local partner to provide education for women and girls.

Maria Begum is a doctor and Rohingya women’s rights activist in Myanmar who works with Women for Women International and a local partner, CSI, helping to provide education for women and girls. 

Which woman inspires you the most?

“My biggest inspiration is Vandana Shiva, an ecofeminist. Her work always inspires me in my work with rural women in Rakhine state. As a feminist and a person who cares about the environment and agriculture, I envision myself to be like Vandana in the future, to become a highly educated Rohingya woman who leads other women to fight against all forms of discrimination while preserving nature and the environment.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“Conditions for women in Myanmar have got worse since the coup, rolling back all the progress that feminists have made over the last decade. Our fight for gender equality needs a tremendous amount of work but we’re running out of options because of oppression by the junta [a form of government led by military leaders].

“Women’s efforts are so important in the fight for freedom and democracy. For this reason, I want to see the strengthening of women’s leadership and participation in peacebuilding, gender equality and our fight against all forms of discrimination and oppression.” 

Ema Camo, Bosnia & Herzegovina 

Ema Camo is a Sarajevo-based law student.

Ema Camo is a Sarajevo-based law student who took part in a Democracy Academy run by Žene za Žene, an affiliate of Women for Women International, which helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives. She feels passionately that people from different ethnic and religious groups must engage with each other to reduce tensions. 

Which woman inspires you the most?

“If I had to single it out it would be Kamala Harris – a person who went down in history as the first woman to become vice president of United States, as well as the first Black person and the first Asian American to hold the second-highest state office. It shows that every woman can achieve everything she wants no matter how impossible it may seem.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“In our country, there are a lot of people with conservative views. Women are the target of discrimination and they have to prove themselves more for certain jobs to be equal to men. Every woman is capable of achieving everything she sets out to do in her head. Change begins with ourselves, only when we change ourselves can we expect change from others.

“I want young women, women entrepreneurs, activists to become equal to men in the business sector, to be judged on the basis of their ability to work, not on the way they dress.” 

Latifa Faqirzada, UK, originally from Afghanistan

Latifa Faqirzada is Women For Women International’s global advocacy and policy advisor.

Latifa Faqirzada is the global advocacy and policy advisor for Women For Women International. She came to the UK as a refugee last year after Taliban forces took control of the country, but remains dedicated to advocating for women who are still in Afghanistan.

Which woman inspires you the most?

“All women who face challenges and difficulties inspire me to work hard, help them and bring positive changes in my own and other women’s lives, I wish one day that I will be a big inspiration for other women. I am delicate but I am not weak.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“I want peace for Afghanistan and I want all Afghan women and girls to have their human rights like other women in the world, for girls to continue their education in a safe and secure environment, and for women to have freedom of choice, to dress and work as men and other women in the world. I will use my power to change to speak up for Afghan women.” 

 Zainab Gbobaniyi, Nigeria

Zainab Gbobaniyi is a lawyer and human rights activist.

Zainab Gbobaniyi is a Nigerian lawyer, human rights activist and mother of two who is determined and I have been determined to champion the needs of those whose voices are silenced or ignored and to bring to the forefront the injustice of denying women their rights.

Which woman inspires you the most?

“My biggest inspiration is Leyma Gbowee, a Liberian peace advocate and a Noble Peace Prize winner. She is a very resilient and committed advocate who was very instrumental to the end of the war in Liberia. She mobilized the women and communicated so well that she got the needed support for the advocacy on ending the war in that country.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“The change I really yearn for and want for my country in the next 12 months is to see a reasonable number of women in leadership positions. I’d also like to see a country where women are consulted before decisions that concern the whole country are taken, treated with equity and justice and are able to take the lead in all facets of life. 

“I believe this will happen despite the enormous challenges of discrimination and lack of equity women face in my country. I will not relent and I am more resolute to advocate, promote and protect the cause of women than ever.”

Chro Mohammad Salih, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Chro Mohammad Salih works to support marginalised women in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Chro Mohammad Salih has a Masters degree in International Relations and works to support marginalised women. She believes that if you educate a woman, you educate a family and community. 

Which woman inspires you the most?

“My main inspiration is my mother, as she taught me the real meaning of freedom and being independent. She told me to believe in myself, to speak up and not stay silent.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“My dream is to see women not give up on their goals in life no matter what barriers or challenges they have and not to consider the cultural norms and everyone’s negative attitude towards women’s abilities. I also hope for women not to stay silent when faced with any kind of violence, not to be afraid of anything speaking up. 

“What makes me happy is that women keep trying to pursue their rights, in particular the women we serve at Women for Women International who have not been allowed to complete schooling or work outside of the house. The hope in their eyes makes me keep trying.”

Mina*, Afghanistan

Mina* works with women fighting for change in Afghanistan.

Mina* has dedicated her career to the advancement of women’s rights in her home country, and works with women fighting for change. 

Which woman inspires you the most?

“I would have to say that the person who has most greatly inspired me has been my mother, She is the only one in the whole world who has always supported, motivated me and stood by my side through thick and thin. She inspired me to achieve and endeavour to make a difference – she always says nothing comes in your hand without hard work.

“My mother always smiles, no matter what the circumstances are because she doesn’t want us to lose our hope and that gives me the strength and inspiration to face all problems. She has done more than every mother does for her child, and I try to live like her as much as I can.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months? 

“The change I would like to see in our society when it comes to women’s rights is to give women the power to makes decisions. Just like men, women have great talents. Therefore, we need to see them as equal when it comes torights. A woman is strong enough to face challenges and women’s shoulders are strong enough to tolerate life’s heaviest burdens.”

Bukola Onyishi, south-eastern Nigeria

Bukola Onyishi is Women For Women International’s Nigeria Country Director.

Bukola Onyishi is Women For Women International’s Nigeria Country Director. She works to ensure that women are afforded the same opportunities as men and not treated differently.

Which woman inspires you the most?

“There are many women that inspire me, but the more I think of it the more I want to present my mother, Mrs Rachel Oyeladun Asafa. Against all odds in her time, she struggled to get educated, became an educationist and an entrepreneur and raised different generations that are out in different parts of the world doing great things. 

“The world may not know her, but I recognize her resilience, commitment, and determination to make the world a better place.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“The struggles of women in my country are real. Presently, the gender bill presented to the National Assembly was rejected. Women are demanding five specifics, including equal citizenship rights for women, foreign spouses indigeneship rights, 35% representation in the leadership of political parties and 111 specific seats for women. With all the demonstrations going on, I hope to see more women in leadership.”

Khalida Khalo Lazgeen, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Khalida Khalo Lazgeen is committed to bringing violence against women to an end.

Khalida Khalo Lazgeen is a champion of women’s rights in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and is committed to bringing an end to so-called honour killings, rape, beatings and other forms of violence that women too often face.

Which woman inspires you the most?

“Many women have inspired me by their stories and strength. For example, I have seen ISIS survivors, like Nadia Murad the Noble Prize Winner, and so many women and girls in my community, that stood up again much stronger than before despite what they went through. I am inspired by how strong we are as women.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“The main challenge that women face in my community is that most women don’t have any income to depend on, because even educated women and girls are not free to choose to work. As a result, women need another person to take care of them. Most of the time that person is a man, and if he is violent, the women cannot get divorced because they have no income. 

“So, the change I want to see are projects like ours at Women for Women International that help women increase their skills and give them strength and the ability to support their family and their community with an income.”

Nozi Samela, South Africa

Nozi Samela works with women to eradicate paediatric AIDS.

Nozi Samela works in communications for the African charity mothers2mothers (m2m), which unlocks the power of women to eliminate paediatric AIDS and create healthy families and communities. She also lives with HIV and is an HIV activist.

Which woman inspires you the most?

“My biggest inspiration is Elaine Maane, m2m’s founding Mentor Mother. At the height of the HIV epidemic 20 years ago, Elaine modelled the way for thousands of African women, like me, to be the heroes our communities desperately needed, by supporting women and families to overcome stigma and discrimination and access lifesaving health services. 

“Today, I am able to use my voice to advocate for universal health coverage because other women before me had the courage to speak up against stigma towards people living with HIV.”

What change would you like to see for women in your country over the next 12 months?

“In South Africa, adolescent girls and young women are disproportionately affected by HIV. I hope we can invest in women and put them at the centre of solutions to address the challenges they face.”

Women For Women International is a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping women overcome the horrors of war and work towards a better future for themselves and their families. You can find out more about the charity’s work on the Women For Women International website. 

*name has been changed

Images: Women For Women International, Getty, mothers2mothers

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