Global Women Leaders to Celebrate in 2020

This year was supposed to be a landmark for gender equality and women’s rights. With milestones including the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and a decade since the establishment of UN Women, 2020 promised to be one filled with celebration, reflection and action.

Authors: Jece Shunmugam
  • Reading time: 6 min.
  • Posted on: March 27, 2020

Yet, fast-forward just three months and the world finds itself in an unprecedented crisis as the latest strain of coronavirus, COVID19, unfolds across the world. This pandemic promises to profoundly affect the health and wellbeing of women across the world, whether, amongst other reasons, that is through a rise in domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancy, unpaid labour or from shouldering the burden of healthcare systems that are already stretched.

But in the midst of this, there are glimmers of hope. This month, in light of Women’s History Month, we’ve chosen to highlight several women leaders, who are breaking barriers across the political, economic and social spectrum. Read on for these inspiring stories.


The first doctor to expose the tainted blood scandal in China in the 1990s that caused a HIV outbreak

SDG spotlight | Good Health and Wellbeing (3)

Many people struggle to see the appeal of whistleblowers, perhaps tainted by the idea that they often live a life of exile and luxury. But the story of Doctor Wang, which recently played out on the Hampstead Theatre stage, convinced many that whistleblowing is a matter of life and death. The blood-plasma scandal in Henan province could have played out entirely differently if it wasn’t for Doctor Wang’s brave intervention in the face of a corrupt system that was willing to silence her at every stage of her journey.

Dr Wang sadly passed away last September, but she will always be remembered for the sacrifices she made to save tens of thousands of lives.


The climate activist taking a stand against the environmental movements representation struggle

SDG spotlight | Climate Action (13)

Environmental movements are often criticised for being very monolithic. Loud, proud, white. Further to conversations at the tail end of 2019 discussing the environmental movement’s problem with diversity, and Extinction Rebellion’s tone deaf behaviour comparing their protests with the plight of Rosa Parks, Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of a photo by the Associated Press in January.

Instead of representing her in the photo, the AP opted to instead show four white climate activists. Unsatisfied with the empty apologies of the Associated Press, Vanessa has been pushing for climate reform, whilst ensuring the voices of underrepresented communities are heard in the environmental sphere, a space often criticised for its inability to suitably represent the diversity of climate activists across the world.


Meet the activist shedding light on a forgotten aspect of war: the children born from it.

SDG spotlight | Good Health and Wellbeing, Gender Equality, Reduced Inequalities (3, 5, 10)

One of the biggest tragedies following war is that some of the most fundamental societal ramifications are rarely publicly discussed. Ajna Jusic is a voice starting to bridge that divide. Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a consequence of wartime rape, Ajna found her status as a citizen challenged and insecure, whilst she regularly experienced discrimination from a heavily patriarchal society. Children born of rape became known in Bosnia as ‘invisible children’, ending up in orphanages around the country.

Ajna set up the Forgotten Children of War Association to empower and educate this vulnerable group of society, helping them take a proactive role to improve their status. The association provides access to education, social protection and psychological support whilst protecting the rights of this marginalised and vulnerable group of people.


Improving access to and affordability of sanitary products for young girls in school

SDG spotlight | Good Health and Wellbeing (3)

Most girls have experienced their period appearing a few days earlier than expected, and had to pay the price by rushing out frantically to buy supplies. Many are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, but Lulu Ameir noticed that many of the women around her couldn’t afford to buy a whole pack, and so she created Be A Lady, a project that installs sanitary pad vending machines in schools across Tanzania.

Many students in East Africa miss school due to lack of access to sanitary pads and the shame that comes with experiencing an accident in public. Through dispensing pads in key points within schools, Lulu has been able to improve access to these essential products, as well as help more girls participate fully in education.


Developed the foundation for what could be a new weapon against cancer

SDG spotlight | Good Health and Wellbeing (3)

Leah Sibener, aged 26, was working in the laboratory of Stanford biologist Chris Garcia when she and Marvin Gee, also 26, developed the foundation for what could be a new weapon against cancer: new ways to teach a type of white blood cell, called a T-cell, to attack cancer. The first of such therapies, called CAR-T cells, were approved by the FDA in recent months. But current versions can only fight blood cancers like leukaemia and lymphoma, and then only by recognising a single protein on the surface of a single type of cell. What Sibener and Gee developed was a method to use machine learning to identify other proteins, to teach white blood cells to fight other types of cancer. They found support in Luke Lee, 28, a venture capitalist at Asset Management Ventures. Together they formed a company, 3T Biosciences, that has raised over  $12 million.


Sole dissenting voice in Congress against the Authorisation for Use of Military Force in 2001 – giving the Executive unprecedented power to use military force without congressional debate, approval, or oversight.

SDG spotlight | Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions (16)

This vote occurred on September 14th 2001 – three days after the 9/11 attacks – in a Republican dominated House of Representatives – which was 86% male, 84% white, with many holding more antiquated social views than today’s Republican party. An act of courage and wisdom, not only to give a speech on the floor of the House in an unmistakably hostile atmosphere for a 2nd term black Congresswoman, but to cast the only dissenting vote when the nation’s mourning was being directed towards immediate retaliation, is incredibly inspiring. Her reward at the time was to require 24-hour police protection for over a month in light of the tens of thousands of death threats accusing her of treason and attacking her based on race.

Nineteen years later and Lee’s reservations have been entirely vindicated: the AUMF has been continuously used by the executive as legal justification for acts of war, without congressional approval or oversight. Lee is no longer the sole dissenting voice on this issue, with the Republican-majority Senate and Democrat-majority House both passing recent bills to end the unauthorised use of military force in Yemen and Iran.


Fighting for human rights and justice in Somalia

SDG spotlight | Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions (16)

In humanitarian crises, food and medical aid are often prioritised, while responding to issues like escalating sexual violence are not high on the agenda. A study from the United Nations found that reported rape cases quadrupled during the famine in Somalia in 2010.  Ilwad Elman, 30 year old, Somali-Canadian activist started the first rape crisis centre in the Somalia in 2010. The centre was coupled with advocacy efforts to break the stigma around rape and sexual violence and start a conversation among women and girls, and men and boys. The centre is still running and has been scaled to nine regions in Somalia and all centers are sustained and run by local communities, supporting survivors of sexual violence. 

10 years later, the conversations around rape and sexual violence in Somalia have improved. In 2010, the President denied rape was happening and women reporting cases put themselves at risk of being arrested. In 2018, Somalia passed a sexual offences bill criminalising a wide range of sexual offence in the country.  

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