Women of achievement
This series of portraits spotlights women and girls who have made it in their respective fields — often in uncharted territories — by overcoming barriers and beating the odds to reach their goals. Although far from the limelight, their struggle, passion and work inspires all who know them and they are role models for many.
Forging ahead for free and equal elections
Christiana Thorpe is Sierra Leone’s first female Chief Electoral Commissioner. She serves as the Chairperson of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the entity with the sole authority to prepare and conduct all public elections. A former nun, school teacher, principal, and professor, she values education and freedom above all else. A former Minister of Education and the only female member of the Cabinet at that time, she launched an organization to promote women’s rights in education and the workplace during her tenure. Taking pride in her accomplishments, she inspires both women and men with her tenacity.
An Officer, and an activist
As the first female Sub-Prefect Officer in the Guinean Navy, Captain Bontou Soumah has risen above discrimination and challenges to achieve her dream of becoming a seafarer. Living through sometimes choppy waters both in her career and her life, she has risen above the tides to be a top leader in the Navy. Climbing up the ranks, she eventually won the appointment of Officer and Chevalier of the Order of Merit of the Republic in 2005, by order of the President.
Building peace, bringing hope
Zahra Abdelnaieem is the head of Niswa, a network of community, religious and political leaders that connects with conflict-affected groups to work towards peace and reconciliation. The group also supports survivors of gender-based violence by linking them to medical, legal and community services. Though she has lost the people closest to her and endured incredible struggle to sustain the network, she overcomes obstacles by keeping a positive attitude and tenaciously continues to reach out to her community for strength.
In the midst of war, a women’s rights warrior
In Afghanistan, she is known as the first female provincial governor, no small feat in a country that has weathered conflict and hardship for nearly 40 years. Through it all, Dr. Habiba Sarabi’s passion for human rights and education for women have grown every day. Recognized by Time Magazine in 2008 as a Hero for the Environment, and after several ministerial posts, she is currently the Advisor to the Chief Executive Officer on Women’s Affairs and Youth, a prestigious position in the new government.
Building peace through women’s leadership
A messenger of peace, a mother of ten children and leader of the first Peace Hut and Women’s Empowerment Centre of Liberia, Annie Nushann is a household name in peacebuilding in her post-conflict country. With 17 Peace Huts and Women’s Empowerment Centres now in operation, 425 women leaders have been trained on conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and economic empowerment, and some have even begun training others. Through training sessions on financial management and small business ownership, these Centres bring sustainable peace and a strengthened economy through women’s leadership.
Charting new territory on the minefields
Living in a country where patriarchy is deeply entrenched, Nazokat Begmatova, a 34-year old women from a village in southern Tajikistan took an unusual professional path as a humanitarian deminer. Delaying marriage and strapping on 25 kilograms of equipment on her body daily, she broke stereotypes of what a working woman looks like. Her desire to be active, to develop her personal skills and explore more opportunities for economic independence motivated her to overcome her immense fear of mines. She now works as part of an all-female demining team.
Galvanizing multimedia for multiple causes
A proud defender of human rights and known as one of the most creative people in the industry, Vesna Andree Zaimović is co-creator of Radio Sarajevo’s web portal, one of the most visited websites in the Bosnia and Herzegovina, and what many call the best news source in today’s new media landscape in the country. She was also the brain behind Manjine.ba, the first web project for the disadvantaged, highlighting triumphs in claiming rights and kick-starting an online community. A trained musicologist, she is a veteran of the Eurovision song contest, one of the longest running TV shows in history.
Breaking barriers, with the power of paper and pen
Aasha Mehreen Amin was one of the first female editors of the most-read English language magazine in Bangladesh, The Star, and is now the deputy editor of the Editorial and Op-ed section of the most widely circulated English newspaper in the country, The Daily Star. In her column “No Strings Attached”, in the paper, she provides insightful commentary on the news of the day. An emblem of courageous journalism, she is well-known in a media landscape where political commentary is a risky business, and the workforce, especially in the news media, dominated by men.
Wielding the pen for independence, and independent journalism
The founder and former editor of world-renowned newspaper, “The Namibian,” Gwen Lister has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. She established two newspapers, and is the winner of a long list of awards including the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Inter Press Service’s International Journalism Award. She was also honoured with the prestigious World Press Freedom Hero award by the International Press Institute. Using her media publications to advocate for Namibia’s independence, she has overcome attacks, slander and death threats to uphold her convictions.
“You aren’t defined by anyone else’s limitations on you”
Dr. Erna Takazawa is the first and only optometrist in Samoa, and is also one of the first winners of the Queen’s Young Leader Award for her transformative work in eye health. Practicing optometry at the National Hospital Service, she also works in partnership with an NGO to provide sight to children with disabilities. As Clinical Director for Samoa’s Special Olympics Opening Eyes Programme, she has screened over 200 athletes with disabilities and trains teachers to detect eye issues early in their students.
Charting a new path for women in medicine and healthcare
A true pioneer in the field of medicine, throughout her childhood she attended all boys’ schools to study science. Dr. Josephine Namboze is East and Central Africa’s first female medical doctor, and the first woman in Africa to head an institute of public health. As the first ever Representative for the World Health Organization in Botswana, she also wrote extensively about how race is not a determining factor in infectious and non-infectious disease. Also the first woman professor of medicine in East Africa, she didn’t just break the glass ceiling, but shattered it becoming a role model for many.
Creating history, building a rights culture
Experiencing a harrowing train accident that robbed her of an arm and a leg at 19, Şafak Pavey, chose to overcome her challenges by immersing herself in the dual causes of gender equality and the environment. As the first Turkish woman parliamentarian with disabilities, she is a role model for many. She has also worked for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in conflict zones, produced three books, and now contributes to law-making for her country. Her mission is promoting equal rights for people of all races, creeds and religions. Winner of the International Woman of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Saving lives through scientific research
Asel Sartbaeva is one of the first internationally recognized female scientists from Central Asia. Her research aims to discover a substance to aid in transport and storage of vaccines without refrigeration, a major issue in disease prevention globally. She was short listed for the L’OREAL-UNESCO Women in Science Fellowship for her work in vaccine preservation and is one of the 175 Faces of Chemistry, a prestigious professional organization in the UK. Successfully navigating the male dominated fields of chemistry and physics, she is currently a Royal Research Fellow at the University of Bath in the UK.
Leading scientific innovations, making history
Radia Perlman, scholar, technologist and author, invented the spanning tree protocol among a host of other technological advances that have enabled computers to communicate with each other on a massive scale. Due to these technological advances, the popularity and everyday use of the Internet is possible today. Often called the “mother of the Internet,” a moniker that she discourages because she says many different technologies and people created the Internet, she has also written books about routing and security in computer networks. The books are used as texts at top universities and as references for engineers globally.
Leading the way for women and girls with disabilities
At the young age of 30, Abia Akram of Pakistan has lived a life most people cannot imagine. She is not only the first woman with disabilities from Pakistan to win the prestigious Chevening scholarship for academic excellence and leadership from the United Kingdom, but has also started a widely known NGO, the National Forum of Women with Disabilities, which is training women and girls worldwide in leadership skills. She has earned two Master’s degrees, is the chair of the Youth Council of UNICEF, and works to promote education, training and leadership for women and girls with disabilities.
Climbing mountains, conquering new heights
Karla Wheelock of Mexico is the first Latin American woman to reach the top of the Seven Summits, the seven highest peaks on each continent of the globe. She is also the first Latin American woman to reach the top of Mount Everest by the death-defying northern slope route, a feat only accomplished by a handful of fearless mountaineers. Also a social entrepreneur, she is the President of the KW Foundation, which focuses on developing leadership through youth empowerment. A motivational speaker and educator, with a law degree, she speaks globally about the power of education and determination.
Scaling new horizons with daring dives
BASE jumping, as in leaping off buildings, antennae and bridges with a small parachute is considered one of the most extreme sports in the world. Archana Sardana, age 40, mother of two in India is the country’s first woman civilian BASE jumper, certified skydiver, and deep sea scuba diver. She has done 335 skydives, freefalling from heights of over 3,600 metres (12,000 feet), and multiple dives in every corner of the globe. She is also the first woman master scuba diver trainer in India. She unfurled the Indian flag at a depth of 30 metres and set a new record in the process.
Fighting for justice, for all
Florence Ndagire became the first visually impaired lawyer in Uganda, a country that though modern in many ways, does not often create educational curricula and materials for the visually impaired. She broke through many barriers and serves as a role model for many, including those with disabilities, standing up for their human rights. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Union of Women with Disabilities Uganda, and is also the Chair of the Regional Civil Society Advisory Group for East Africa, which provides guidance to UN Women.
A crusader of human rights and dignity
Angkhana Neelapaijit is a Thai human rights activist and winner of the prestigious Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, which recognizes those who have contributed to advancing human rights, democracy and peace. She has also been honoured by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. The disappearance of her husband, Somchai Neelapaijit in 2004, a human rights lawyer, changed the course of her life, and transformed her into a fearless defender of human rights. She is the Chairwoman of the Justice for Peace Foundation, and has been deemed "a leading human rights defender in Southern Thailand," by Amnesty International.
Leading the police service, ending violence against women her motto
Today, as head of the Palestinian Civil Police Family & Juvenile Protection Unit, Lieutenant Colonel Wafa Muammar is the highest-ranking female officer in the police, in spite of societal pressure to give up on her dream to serve the country through her work. Palestine, at just 17 per cent, has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labour force globally. Muammar, a proud wife and mother of four, has had the courage to build a successful career in parallel, leading the way for other women in the police.
Creating peace and safety, after the war
In the midst of the civil war in Tajikistan, while trying to endure the daily trials of living in a war-torn state, Kurbongul Kosimova established the first long-term shelter for women survivors of violence from the conflict as well as domestic violence, and their children. Her organization also supports survivors by forming sustainable self-help groups, training people in innovative ways to financially support themselves and their children after the war. With her leadership, hard work and persistence, her organization entitled Najoti Kudakon, which means ‘Save the Children’, initiated with four like-minded activists, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Leading change, paving the way for many
Major General Kristin Lund of Norway is the first woman ever to be appointed as Force Commander in United Nations Peacekeeping Operation, and is currently serving with the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). A role model for many, she has held several top leadership posts in a male-dominated profession. Breaking new ground for women in the military, she became the first female army officer to be promoted to the rank of Major General, and was later also appointed as Chief of Staff of the Norwegian Home Guard. Pushing for change, she been very active in civil and military networks. She says, “It has been crucial for me to meet women in similar situations. The fact that I finally have shattered several glass ceilings, and paved the way for many, is important. I believe it contributes to show other women that you can climb to the top, also in a military profession.”
A ray of light for many
Rafea Um Gomar, a brave Bedouin woman from a rural village has not only become the first female solar engineer in Jordan, but she has also set up 80 solar installations along with co-engineer Sahia Um Badr, providing electricity to her village. Today she is an elected leader, a role model and a teacher in her community, training many others how to use sustainable energy.
A passion for politics and the poor
One of youngest Members of Parliament in the country, dynamic, bold, and passionate, Graça Sanches, became a parliamentarian at the age of 30 through sheer force of will. With her current role, she is also the President of the Network of Women Parliamentarians, a group that collaborates with relentless tenacity to ensure that women are included in policy and legislation planning. Graça Sanches acts as a galvanizing force for the National Assembly to include women’s voices at every turn.
Scoring a goal for equality
A household name in Sierra Leone, Isha Johansen is the first female President of Sierra Leone’s Football Association and currently, the only female Football Association President in the world. From her passion of the game, another of her leading projects entitled FC Johansen, was born at the end of the country’s decade long civil war in 2002. This project aims to keep young boys in school through instilling in them a passion for football.
Breaking new ground, she rides ahead
Gulzhan Kokbayeva, age 27, is the only female engineer for the first subway system in Kazakhstan, a country known for housing the first space launch complex in the world, the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Becoming a female engineer in a male-dominated profession where very few women have ventured before, a profession that is also considered dangerous to one’s health, was no easy feat.
Young, and restless, to bring lasting change
Sanchaita Gajapati Raju is a success by any standard. At the young age of 30, she established an organization that won the coveted Google Global Impact Challenge in 2013, a distinguished honour for the award is based on votes, and given to the one that the public finds most promising. She is a lawyer, political scientist, filmmaker, and media professional who puts all her energy in finding sustainable ways to bring water and sanitation to those who need it most. Here, she talks about the path that brings her to the humanitarian work that she has come to value above the comfortable life she was raised to live.
The fearless seafarer
Growing up in the rural parish of Manchester, Jamaica, Commander Wemyss-Gorman says there was very little interaction with the military. A chance encounter with a retired defence officer encouraged her to consider applying for a post as an officer. That year, Antonette Wemyss-Gorman was one of two people who passed the Jamaica Defence Force selection board from among 34 applicants. At the time of her basic training, there were no women serving in the Coast Guard in a sea faring role. Today, 22 years later, she is the Commanding Officer of Jamaica’s Coast Guard, the first woman to attain the prestigious position in the island state, as well as the entire Caribbean region.
A brave crusader, opening many doors
Braving criticism and challenging discrimination and stereotypes, Georgina Beyer paved a new path when she became the world’s first openly transsexual mayor in 1995, as well as the first openly transsexual Member of Parliament (MP) in 2000. A long-standing human rights advocate, her legacy includes a long and powerful list of legislative reform in New Zealand. She worked with various marginalized and vulnerable groups, starting with indigenous groups, drafting one of the first bills for equitable natural resource management. She then played a key role in the passage of the Prostitution Law Reform in 2003, guaranteeing protection for minors and health services for all sex workers.
Trekking across the globe for environmental change
A self-described typical teacher and mother of three, Norwegian polar explorer Liv Arnesen knows what it’s like to make strides in male-dominated arenas. She is the first woman ever to ski alone, without the assistance of a guide or supplies, from the outside world to the south pole, has climbed within 1,900 metres of the summit of Mount Everest, and lead the first group of women over the Greenland Ice Cap, unsupported. Liv and her expedition partner, Ann Bancroft, have established Bancroft Arnesen Explore, an organization dedicated to motivating people, especially women and girls, to reach for their own dreams.
The sky's the limit
In 2014, Chanda Kochhar, the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of ICICI Bank Limited, India's largest private sector bank and the second-largest bank in the country, was named among Fortune's 50 most powerful women in business for the fourth consecutive year. She is widely recognized for her role in shaping the retail banking sector in India and for her leadership of the ICICI Group, as well as her contributions to various forums in India and globally.
Raising a glass to gender equality
At a winery at the end of a town in rural Herzegovina, a 32-year-old woman stands amid barrels of wine, staring across the vineyards. Her name is Sanja Juricic-Franic. Together with two more women, her sister and her mother, she leads the “Gangaš” winery in Citluk, Bosnia and Herzegovina. A wife, mother and successful entrepreneur, she is an enologist who has had to combat prejudice and stereotypes in this male-dominated profession.
"As a woman, gender equality means having the freedom to make my own choices when it comes to life decisions, without being affected by social prejudices."
Breaking stereotypes, reaching goals
Maha Almuneef understands, first hand, the challenges of standing against cultural taboos. As a 53-year-old mother of three and a Board-certified physician living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Maha has overcome criticism and broken stereotypes in pursuit of her goal of achieving equality for men and women. Maha established the National Family Safety Programme (NFSP), the first specialized institution to address the issue of domestic violence in the country. As Executive Director, she focuses her attention on prevention programmes and on training professionals, such as police or lawyers, to improve support for survivors of violence.
She builds bridges, schools and delivers results
Mother of three children and a home-maker for more than a decade, few in her sleepy village would have imagined that she would be planning bridges and schools today. But that is Vandana Bahadur Maida's life in Khankhandvi, in the populous state of Madhya Pradesh, India. Despite family opposition and cultural norms that define a woman's place in society, she was elected Head of the village council, the first woman Sarpanch. Her election was path-breaking for the village and also for Vandana's family—as she superseded her own husband who used to be a member of the village council but never the elected leader.
Fighting the spirits, to defend and protect
Accusations of sorcery are widespread in the communities of the highlands in Papua New Guinea. Often for deaths or illness, for theft or accident, the cause is believed to be sorcery, with the villain more often than not being allegedly a woman. Protecting many such wrongly accused women is human rights defender Monica Paulus. Fearless, determined and outspoken, she rescues women and girls accused of sorcery, preventing many from violent punishment, or death.
Forging a new path, she flies high
She creates an unfamiliar sight on the tarmac, as she goes about her daily job. At the age of 25, she flies planes, serving as a pilot for one of the biggest airline in Central Asia. One among a handful of women in a male-dominated field is how she is known not only in Kazakhstan where she is based, but also in the region. Yevgeniya Goncharova has broken numerous barriers and climbed many mountains to get to where she is today. The road travelled was not an easy one. With gender stereotypes still strong in Central Asian societies, flying aircrafts is not considered a woman's job in Kazakhstan, nor is her young age considered an advantage.
She gets a kick out of helping people
Every time she heard someone say that she should be doing something else, Caroline Amasis Maher's determination grew and she trained even harder. She ignored the naysayers and the cultural barriers by not only playing a male-dominated sport but also excelling in it. Recently she became the first Arab-African female to be inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame – the highest and most prestigious award in the sport. This meteoric rise to the top makes her extremely proud. In 2011, Caroline was ranked 11th on the World Taekwondo Federation's World Athlete Ranking.
Malian lawyer builds peace and hope
The stories of gang-rape, forced marriage and fathers being forced to rape their own daughters at gunpoint keep her awake at night. Saran Keïta Diakité has listened to countless women recount the atrocities that the people of her war-torn country (Mali) have endured at the hands of armed groups since a military coup d'état in March 2012. In April 2012, she was one of only a handful of women who took part in peace talks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – as women have slowly been making inroads at peace talks around the world. "During that time, I can assure you most sincerely, our voices were clearly heard. All the concerns that we raised were taken into account in the resolution, in the final Ouagadougou Declaration," she recalls.
Making the invisible visible
When Marcelina Bautista Bautista left her indigenous Mixtec community in Nochtixtlan, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, at the age of 14 with only a primary school education and no knowledge of Spanish, she didn't dream that one day she would end up contributing to the development of an international treaty for domestic workers' rights.
Driven by her experience which she shares with many other women, Marcelina made the invisible visible by revealing the conditions of millions of domestic workers who do not have a contract, fixed working hours, benefits or social security.
Creating history is herstory: a local girl turns public leader
In the landlocked Himalayan nation of Bhutan, Namgay Peldon never thought she would make history, but she did. She was elected the first women Gup, the block leader, as the nation voted for the first time, transitioning from monarchy to democracy in 2008. Gewogs are official administrative units in Bhutan, each headed by a Gup. From Tashiding sub-district in central Bhutan, Namgay Peldon's story is unusual in a country which is beset with societal taboos and where women's representation in politics is extremely low, with only 8.5 per cent women in the National Assembly.
From Costa Rica to Mars
Growing up impoverished in Costa Rica without even a roof over her head, few could have predicted the career and life Sandra Cauffman has today. She is the Deputy Project Manager on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States, devoted to understanding Mars' upper atmosphere. The daughter of a domestic violence survivor who escaped her abuser and had to take three jobs to support her children, Sandra's mantra was her mother's words "not to repeat the same story". Today she is a role model, a mother and a NASA employee, who is supporting NASA's quest to explore de red planet.
The unstoppable police officer of Timor-Leste
The petite lady in uniform is a familiar sight. Although she doesn't drive a car or ride a motorbike, long distances cannot deter Sergeant Amelia de Jesus Amaral. She will walk on foot, no matter how long it takes, when she gets a complaint from survivors of domestic violence. Winner of the prestigious 2014 Gender Equality Advocate Award of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality in November 2013, Amelia, a police officer with the Vulnerable Person's Unit of the National Police of Timor-Leste, is a powerful voice and a role model.
The Good Doctor
Death threats are common, so are dangerous environments in Asia and Africa, where she works. There are some victories, many failures, lives saved and some lost. But Dr. Krisana Kraisintu of Thailand, the 'Gypsy Pharmacist' as she is popularly known, continues relentless. Her mission: to ensure affordable health care for all, which she considers a basic human right. "My life is dedicated to bringing about local pharmaceutical production by formulating and manufacturing affordable generic drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases to improve people's heath," she says.