By Jaimee A. Swift
What makes a hero? Someone who walks toward a problem, not away from it. Someone who puts others before themselves even if doing so puts themselves at risk. Someone who translates their own pain or hardship into solutions and salve for others. Someone who digs deep beneath an issue to find the root cause, and who is innovative, brave and tenacious enough to dream up, and implement, solutions. Someone who takes on the hardest stuff, who doesn’t ignore the suffering in front of them, who soldiers on with few resources. Someone who goes there.
Each year, Safe celebrates a fresh crop of global heroes. This year, to highlight the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which was initiated by Rutgers University and begins on November 25, we introduce you to 16 remarkable heroes.
They live and work around the world in diverse fields and settings but are linked by a common goal: to support those at risk for, and who have suffered, violence of all kinds so that they may live healthy, comfortable lives free of fear and trauma and so others are spared similar fates. Some are survivors themselves, others, selfless supporters who saw a need and jumped in head first. They are young, and older, women and men, people who leverage their public platforms to push for policy reform. People who stir it up on social media, who let strangers into their homes, who get up from helicopter crashes and get on with it on their crutches, who keep going though they know they are on an ISIS hit list.
Collectively, their efforts offer a broad spectrum of best practices delivering powerful results. We hope you will be inspired by their stories, and their success. We hope you will consider supporting, or even better yet, emulating, their courageous, tireless, creative and world-changing work.
No list could ever encapsulate all the wonderful heroes making the world safer, especially for children. But this list introduces to you some of the brightest stars in the constellation of heroes. The heroes are listed in alphabetical order; all their stars shine equally bright.
We salute them. We hope you will, too. Consider sending them a note, or highlighting their work via your social media networks. Follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook, connect them with other heroes you know around the world. And in this moment when the world is focusing on fighting back against gender-based violence, think about what you can do to make the world a safer place for children.
Meet our 16 Heroes
Eleanor Bumpers. Tanisha Anderson. Kendra James. Kathryn Johnson. Aiyanna Stanley-Jones. Sheresse Francis. Miriam Carey. Michelle Cuseaux. Gabriella Nevarez. Yvette Smith. Shelly Frey. Rekia Boyd. Tarika Wilson. Shantel Davis…
These names above represent only but a few of the numerous African-American women who have been killed by law enforcement or while in police custody. Although some names have gained more media attention than others, there is one organization that is making sure that the legacies and dreams of these women do not fall into obscurity.
The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) is ensuring that the world never forgets to say their names.
In conjunction with the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) at Columbia Law School—led by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Director of CISPS and the African American Policy Forum and Andrea Ritchie, a Soros Justice Fellow and expert on policing of women and LGBT people of color—the #SayHerName campaign was created to highlight the pervasiveness of police brutality against black women. In 2015 alone, six African-American women were killed by the law enforcement. Another case in question is that of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer during a traffic stop in Waller County, Texas. She was found dead in a jail cell three days later. Her death was labelled a suicide; however, questions and concerns arouse surrounding the suspicious nature of her death. Most recently, in October 2015, Americans were shocked by a video showing a South Carolina school resource officer violently throw a young female student from her desk and drag her around the classroom.
The campaign, emerged from a report released by the AAPF and the CISPS, in May entitled “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” The report documented stories of black women killed by police, shining a spotlight on forms of police brutality experienced disproportionately by women of color. Intended to serve as a resource for the media, organizers, researchers, policy makers, and other stakeholders to better understand and address black women’s experiences of profiling and policing, the campaign also aims to be inclusive of other forms of police violence, including sexual assault by police, police abuse of pregnant women, profiling and abusive treatment of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming black women.
#SayHerName has brought communities together to honor the women who have been lost. It has effectively raised awareness of the issue, especially inside the police and justice systems, putting pressure on officials to conduct more careful monitoring of practices and sensitizing police and law makers. Various protests across the country drummed up much-needed dialogue on the intersections of race and gender in regards to the issues of gender-based violence and racialized state violence. In the continued quest for racial equality and gender equity, the African American Policy Forum refuses to let the lives of these women fall to the wayside; never allowing their dreams—or their names—to be deferred.
photo courtesy of African American Policy Forum
Founder and Executive Director, Maiti Nepal, Nepal
Anuradha Koirala, the founder and executive director of Maiti Nepal, a non-profit that works to end domestic violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation in Nepal, especially on the Indian-Nepali border, has welcomed more than 12,000 “daughters” into her house in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Many of the girls have been trafficked and sexually exploited.
“Maiti” means “mother’s home”; Koirala, who founded the organization in 1993 in her small house with her own savings, helps the girls rehabilitate from their traumatic experiences by giving them a place to rest and regroup.
Supporting survivors, however, is not enough for Koirala who also advocates for criminal justice against their perpetrators and works to prevent the trauma through a program of border surveillance involving 12 intervention outposts. These outposts serve as safe houses, providing temporary shelter and care until the girls can get to Kathmandu, to Koirala’s home. The volunteers running the safe houses are survivors themselves, having been rescued from Indian brothels by other Maiti workers. At the outposts, they coordinate with Nepali law enforcement to watch for suspicious activity and to help identify traffickers. Because of their work, hundreds of offenders have been sent to jail. The work of Maiti Nepal has prevented an estimated 45,000 children and women from being trafficked.
For those girls and women who have been rescued, the rehabilitation process can be agonizing. Some are pregnant. Others have the scars and complications of sexually transmitted infections and abortions in the brothels. Rates of HIV among survivors at Maiti Nepal are as high as 60 percent in the youngest girls and many have infants who have been infected in pregnancy. A large population of the survivors are also infected with and/or at a high risk for tuberculosis. Because of the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV, tuberculosis and sexual abuse, it is difficult to find doctors and specialists to give medical attention to survivors. When the girls are reconnected with their families, some family members shun them—deepening their pain and increasing the chances they will die from their untreated conditions.
Maiti Nepal created two hospices to shelter survivors of trafficking suffering from emotional trauma and a variety of illnesses, including hepatitis, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. For those who can heal and move forward after receiving psychosocial services, Maiti Nepal offers vocational education, where young women can learn food service, carpentry, mechanics, security guarding and handicrafts.
Working for Maiti Nepal is dangerous. Maiti Nepal’s main office in Kathmandu has been destroyed twice and workers must travel with a bodyguard when conducting rescue missions in India. As if they hadn’t already done enough, in the wake of the earthquake that ravaged Nepal this past April, Koirala and Maiti Nepal worked on the frontlines, providing refuge to earthquake survivors who were homeless, and therefore, at heightened risk for being trafficked.
At 66 years old, Koirala is a fearless matriarch of the Nepali people. A mother superior, indeed.
photo courtesy of Anuradha Koirala
Co-Founder, “Know Your IX,” United States
In 2011, during her sophomore year at Amherst College, Dana Bolger was raped. When she felt the school officials in whom she confided did not take her rape seriously, she dropped out. Unfortunately, Bolger’s experience is not rare; according to the White House report on sexual assault, it is estimated that one in five women on college and university campuses have been sexually assaulted.
A semester later, Bolger returned to Amherst, joining a support group of women who had experienced similar trauma. Hearing others’ stories and realizing her experience was all too common, she resolved to address the epidemic of rape and sexual violence at institutions of higher learning nationwide.
She confronted the issue head on, telling her story and the stories of other women who had also been sexually assaulted at school. When Amherst officials remained reticent to speak about the widespread problem and enact reforms to protect women, Bolger and fellow classmates Sonum Dixit, Kinjal Patel and Nancy Yun Tang took action—creating an online magazine in 2013 to highlight the violence taking place at Amherst.
Called It Happens Here, Bolger’s webzine features content including an article about sexist T-shirts worn by fraternity members and a photo essay of students and alumni from various institutions of higher learning—all of whom are survivors of sexual violence—holding signs emblazoned with heartless comments they heard from other students and faculty when they shared their experiences of assault. The publication garnered much attention and jump-started critical dialogue that led to reforms designed to keep students safer. In 2012, Amherst instituted several reforms to its sexual assault hearing process, such as allowing parties to submit personal statements and hiring a trained investigator to meet with survivors.
Bolger continued her work post-graduation. In 2014, she co-founded, with Alexandra Brodsky, “Know Your IX.” The national, grassroots organization is run by survivors of sexual violence and their allies. It aims to end sexual assault on campus by educating students across the country about their civil right to an education free from sexual violence under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments—an anti-discrimination law that requires colleges and universities receiving federal funding to combat gender-based violence and harassment and to respond to survivors’ needs to ensure all students have equal access to education.
By enlightening college students about their right to be protected and teaching them to push for policies that ensure better enforcement of laws tied to the issue of sexual violence on campus, Know Your IX is making a significant impact. Since the founding of Know Your IX, several students have either cited the law as grounds for filing federal complaints or for initiating civil lawsuits, especially when the colleges and campuses refused to take action.
Today, as a contributor to Feministing.com, Bolger continues to bravely advocate, telling her story again and again in the hopes that those who hear it will be spared a similar experience, and possibly, become part of the growing number of young people bonding together to make it safer for students to pursue higher education.
photo courtesy of Dana Bolger
Founder and Executive Director, Cure Violence, United States
A physician, an epidemiologist, and an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Gary Slutkin spent more than a decade fighting tuberculosis, cholera and HIV/AIDS in Africa and Asia. After years abroad, Slutkin returned to the United States and realized that there was another epidemic spreading like an infectious disease, moving from person to person, delivering grave harm to individuals and communities. That epidemic was violence.
Slutkin’s premise is that the best way to fight the epidemic of violence is to treat its spread as one would that of a viral pathogen to stop it, before it’s too late.
As founder and executive director of Cure Violence, a scientifically-proven, public health approach to violence reduction that uses disease control and behaviour change methods, Slutkin applies his expertise in the transmission and prevention of infectious diseases to reduce the incidence of violence. The Cure Violence method is being applied in 15 U.S. cities and in countries on three continents, including programs in the United Kingdom, Trinidad, South Africa and Iraq. He highlights three approaches used to reverse the transmission of violence: 1) detecting and interrupting conflicts, 2) identifying and treating high risk individuals and 3) changing social norms surrounding violence.
Cure Violence’s model has been statistically demonstrated to reduce shootings and killings by 41 to 73 percent in two independently-funded and performed studies—one by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the other by Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is endorsed by the Institute of Medicine, the National League of Cities, the National Governors Association and the White House.
By training outreach workers or “violence interrupters” and actively engaging community leaders and members, the implementation components of the model include data and monitoring as a catalyst to identifying and preventing conflicts in communities. Many times, violence interrupters will follow up with communities that have quelled violence to make sure that it does not ignite once again. An award-winning documentary, “The Interrupters,” features Cure Violence workers as they protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. It tracks the early days of Cure Violence, which was founded by Slutkin at the University of Illinois’ Chicago School of Public Health.
Slutkin’s ongoing work to recognize and treat violence as a public health issue gives the world a hopeful solution to end its spread.
photo courtesy of Gary Slutkin
Director of Programs and Development, the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center; Director, Sister Somalia, Somalia
Ilwad Elman’s path to helping her mother establish Sister Somalia, the first center to provide care and support for survivors of rape and assault in Mogodishu, Somalia seems embedded in her DNA. Her father, Elman Ali Ahmed, was a revered activist for peace in Somalia, known for coining the popular Somali peace mantra, “Put down the gun and pick up the pen.” He was shot in the back in 1996, in the wake of the Somali civil war. His murder (some suspect it was an assassination) was never solved. Her mother, Fartuun Adun, is a human rights activist who created several community organizations in the city of Mogadishu to care for orphans and young children suffering in the midst of sectarian violence. Hoping to escape the strife and violence in Somalia, her mother took Elman and her two sisters to Canada three years after Elman’s father died. But the needs of her people called Adun home; she returned to Somalia in 2007 to continue her late husband’s work.
A few years later, Elman travelled to Somalia to visit her mother. She quickly realized she too had a responsibility to support her father’s legacy. So, in 2010, Elman permanently relocated to Somalia. Al-Shabaab, a sect of Al-Qaeda, was controlling Mogadishu at the time, but like her father, and her mother, Elman refused to let terrorism deter her from helping her people.
Today, Elman, who is 25, works beside her mother as the director of programs and development at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, a non-governmental organization her mother founded to uphold the legacy of advocacy for peace her father championed. She also runs a subsidiary of the Elman Center, called Sister Somalia, a refuge for Somali women and children who have been internally-displaced due to the constant violence, many of whom have survived sexual assault. Sister Somalia offers free post-prophylaxis treatment for the prevention of HIV transmission and emergency contraception, connections to safe-houses, emergency grants for relocation, psychological counselling, education and business starter kits.
Elman brings comfort to women like Nadifa (her last name is not given to protect privacy), a young mother who was tortured and brutally beaten after fighting off a militia member whom she found raping her 11-year-old daughter in front of her other children.
Stories like these fuel Elman to speak out against rampant gender-based violence in Somalia. As the Youth Ambassador for Somalia on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, Elman speaks publicly on sexual and reproductive rights, female genital mutilation and cutting and identity and culture in post-civil war Somalia. Like her father and mother, she plans to advocate for peace and human rights until they are an inextricable part of the fabric of life in Somalia.
photo courtesy of Ilwad Elman
Co-founder and Project Director of Hacey’s Health Initiative, Nigeria
His Twitter handle is @great_impact10. And that is precisely what Isaiah Owolabi is doing—having great impact on the lives of boys and girls in his native Nigeria and beyond.
He serves as the co-founder and project director of Hacey’s Health Initiative, an organization that supports children, women and young people in Africa who are most disadvantaged, to live healthy and productive lives. Owolabi uses his expertise as a development professional with experience in public health and corporate sustainability to foster a better life for young Nigerians. Hacey’s vision, which Owolabi shares, is to strengthen health and community systems in Africa and to ensure that the organization’s interventions are relevant and sustainable.
The organization, based in Nigeria, prides itself on using the CARE approach, which includes capacity building, advocacy, research, and education to support its beneficiaries. Hacey’s programs focus on sexual and reproductive health and advocacy; the promotion of the rights and inclusions of persons with disabilities; environmental education and action; HIV/AIDS; youth leadership; women’s empowerment and sanitation and hygiene.
One of the programs, the Hands Up for Her Initiative, highlights the unique challenges that African girls face growing up, which hinder them from achieving their potential. By putting girls’ issues on the forefront of the local and global development agenda, the initiative seeks to stop violence against girls and women and educate them on their health and rights.
Owolabi is also on a mission to end malaria. As the Program Manager for GBCHealth’s Corporate Alliance for Malaria in Africa (CAMA) initiative, he helps to increase business engagement in the multi-sector collaboration to fight malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.
Owolabi recently received a prestigious award from Queen Elizabeth II. One of the four Nigerians to be presented with the Inaugural Queen’s Young Leaders Awards, he was recognized by the British monarch for inspiring change. In addition, Owolabi is an alumna of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young Leaders, which is a program in conjunction with The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Launched by President Obama in 2010, YALI seeks to support young African leaders as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance and enhance peace and security across Africa.
Owolabi is absolutely living up to his Twitter handle; there is no doubt that his work will continue to have great impact for generations to come.
photo courtesy of Isaiah Owolabi
Founder, Women of Wonders, Sierra Leone
In March 2014, the World Health Organization declared there was an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Fear spread around the world as quickly as the virus ravaged entire communities. The virus first appeared in Guinea, in the town of Guéckédou. Then it moved to Liberia and Sierra Leone, with cases reported from Nigeria to Senegal, and from Spain to the United States.
By October 2015, the death toll was 11,312. The World Health Organization notes that given the challenges of collecting data in areas of outbreak, as well as the stigma surrounding the disease, the actual number is likely much higher. The 2014 Ebola epidemic stands as the largest of its kind in its history.
The Ebola virus destroyed many lives, and had a profound impact on survivors, especially those children who lost their parents, caregivers, families and friends. According to the British charity, Street Child, an estimated 12,000 children in Sierra Leone alone are orphans because of Ebola; many are starving to death and have turned to sex work to pay for food.
Seeing the pain of her fellow Sierra Leoneans, Josephine Kamara, who founded Women of Wonder Sierra Leone (WOW-SL) in 2013, knew that something had to be done, especially for the children.
WOW-SL was established to promote the involvement of young women and girls in community and nation-building and advocate to end child marriage, teenage pregnancy, rape and sexual harassment in Sierra Leone. Since the start of the Ebola epidemic, Kamara and members have rallied to support children impacted by the epidemic. Her organization leads numerous Ebola response efforts including feeding hungry children and providing necessities, such as toothpaste, soap, and sanitary pads to the St. George Foundation orphanage in Grafton, a village in Sierra Leone. When visiting the homes of child survivors not living in orphanages, WOW-SL uses play and theatre as a therapeutic technique to help children heal.
Though the spread of Ebola has been stopped for the moment, Kamara’s work continues to heal.
photo courtesy of Josephine Kamara
@ lesleeudwin @IndiasDaughter
Producer and Director, India’s Daughter, United Kingdom
The story of Jyoti Singh, an Indian college student who was brutally gang-raped and tortured by six men on a bus in India in 2012 and her subsequent death is one of the most brutal, highly-publicized accounts of such an incident in recent times. The nature of the crime and the media attention it garnered ensured many were aware; the incident led to a public outcry and mass protests. While returning from an evening movie, Singh and her male friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey, were attacked on a bus in South Delhi. Six men who were on board beat up her friend and savagely raped Singh and tortured her with a pipe. Afterwards, they dumped both of their naked bodies on the side of the road. The trauma of the rape was so severe that expert surgeons in Singapore where she was flown for critical care could not save her. Singh died two weeks later from her injuries.
Singh’s death sparked outrage in India and across the globe. Riots and marches led to the arrest and convictions of her attackers. Four of the men were sentenced to death, but the youngest rapist was sentenced to only three years in prison. The sixth man hung himself while in jail. Singh’s death illuminated the lack of social equity, lack of protection and vulnerability faced by women and girls in India every day.
When British filmmaker Leslee Udwin set out to tell the story of 23-year-old Singh, she did so intending to use the film to highlight the conditions in which Indian women and girls live. Through the examination of this tragic case, she hoped to underscore the need to address the core values that made such an event possible—as well as the need for rigorous changes in laws and their enforcement.
The release of her film, “India’s Daughter,” in 2015 was met with wide acclaim but also criticism, especially from Indian government officials who banned its screening. Dubbed by members of India’s parliament as an instrument to defame India, Udwin’s documentary elicited a domestic and global discourse on sexual violence against women and gender inequality, calling into question the statuses of India’s other numerous daughters and how they are treated by its sons.
During the documentary, Udwin interviewed one of the rapists, Mukesh Singh, who showed absolutely no remorse for his heinous crime. Mukesh blamed Jyoti for her rape because she was out with a male late at night and even said “she should [have just been] silent and allow the rape.” His defense lawyer, M.L. Sharma also agreed with Singh’s sentiments, stating, “We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.”
Facing backlash for her interview with Mukesh, Udwin defended her decision to conduct the interview. Thanks to her uncompromising spirit, Udwin’s film serves as an indelible memory of Singh’s plight, ensuring her tragedy can serve as a catalyst for a better future for women and girls in India and beyond.
What’s next for Udwin? To change the misogynistic mind sets that were displayed in “India’s Daughter,” she is partnering with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to develop an education curriculum to teach elementary students the value of women and girls—with the aim of launching it globally. “It’s such a no-brainer,” she told The Independent. “The amazing thing is why we have not already done it.”
photo courtesy of Leslee Udwin
Director, The Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), United States
“To whom much is given, much is required.” Those eight words are ones Malika Saada Saar lives by. A human rights lawyer, she leverages her professional expertise to protect women and girls from efforts to trick them using false online ads into situations that result in sex trafficking.
In 2010, Saar, led the shutdown of Craigslist’s sex ads, which had served as a highly productive medium for the sexual trafficking of young girls. As the former executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, an organization that she founded while at Georgetown University, Saar teamed up with other organizations to draw public attention to the exploitation fuelled by the website’s “adult services” section. Her efforts with Craigslist led Saar to realize that online sex trafficking was a bigger story that needed to be highlighted and addressed.
Now as the director of the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), a human rights organization focused on gender-based violence against vulnerable young women in the U.S., Saar launched a campaign called “No Such Thing.” In every U.S. state there are prostitution laws used to arrest and detain underage girls bought and sold for sex, further victimizing them. Because most girls who end up being sold into prostitution rings are not of legal age to consent to sex at all, let alone to commercial sex, the campaign calls for the eradication of the term—child prostitute—in both language and law. Rights4Girls also is calling on the Associated Press to stop using the term in its news reports through a Change.org petition that has been shared by celebrities including Sean “Diddy” Combs and Julianne Moore.
Saar was also a pivotal force in a victorious lobby to ban the practice of shackling incarcerated women in U.S. prisons during labor, child birth and post-delivery care. She is also the founder and creator of Crossing the River, a written and spoken word workshop for mothers in recovery from substance abuse and violence.
By dismantling the notion that the U.S. market for the trafficking of children for sex is dissimilar from the global human trafficking market, Saar is paving the way for better child protection in an environment people mistakenly think is safe.
photo by Brook Kraft at Time
Feminist author; anti-female genital mutilation and cutting advocate, Egypt
A prolific feminist writer, sociologist, psychiatrist, professor and medical doctor, Nawal El Saadawi has published more than 50 books on various topics, including: ending female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C), sex work, feminism, sexuality and Islamic fundamentalism. She has also authored short stories, essays and novellas. She was fired in 1972 from her position as the director general of public health for the Egyptian Ministry of Health when she shared her views on FGM/C in her book, “Women and Sex.” Nine years later, in 1981, she was charged with “crimes against the state” and was imprisoned for three months. While in jail, she wrote “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.” She wrote it on toilet paper, using an eyeliner as her pen; it detailed women’s resistance to state violence. Having been identified as a target for assassination by many religious groups, she sought asylum in the United States in 1991.
Born in 1931 to a middle-class Egyptian household in a small village in Cairo, as a young girl, El Saadawi noticed the differences between the attitudes toward and treatment of herself and her sisters—and her brothers. Her grandmother told her “a boy is worth 15 girls at least…girls are a blight.” Enraged by the notion that women were not considered of equal value to men, El Saadawi determined to break free of hurtful cultural traditions and societal repression. She refused to be a child bride and convinced her parents to let her pursue her education.
Now 84 years old, El Saadawi has dedicated more than half of her life to ending FGM/C; along the way, she has inspired many others to join her to stop the procedure. At the age of six, El Saadawi was cut. She relays her experience of FGM/C in her autobiography, “Daughter of Isis.” Her experience mirrors the innumerable ones of other girls and women who have also suffered the pain and side effects of FGM/C.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 125 million girls and women to date have experienced FGMC in 29 countries in the parts of Africa and the Middle East where the practice of FGMC is concentrated. Young girls, sometimes between infancy and the age of 15, have parts or all of their clitoris and labia removed—often in terrible conditions, affecting sexual pleasure and providing no health benefits. Intended to keep women chaste and faithful, FGM/Chas many negative consequences—including problems with urinating, cysts, infections, increased risk of premature birth, complications in childbirth and death from either the procedure or its aftermath(s).
Egypt outlawed FGM/C in 2007, but a law does not change a deeply engrained cultural practice and considerable work is needed to ensure enforcement and address the underlying values from which this barbarous practice emerges. El Saadawi remains a strong leader against the practice in other parts of the world, as many women still endure its trauma. Clearly, El Saadawi’s fight to improve the status of women and girls around the Arab world—and beyond—is far from done.
Advocate for youth empowerment, United States
It all started with her high school debate team, with whom, in 2008, Shinjini Das won first place in the State of Georgia’s Original Oratory competition. This experience helped Das find her voice. Now, 23 years old, Das is a professional speaker and media personality focused on the empowerment of young people. Through public speaking engagements and her columns on Elite Daily and Huffington Post, Das works to help young girls and boys find their voices as she once found hers.
When Das first told friends and family members she wanted to become a speaker focused on youth empowerment, few understood her vision. People asked, “Why?” Those closest to her expected Das, who graduated with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Georgia Tech, to pursue an engineering job. But she stood up for herself and carved her own way forward.
And it is a good thing that she did. Das’ first article published by the Huffington Post in January 2015, entitled “5 Secrets of a Go-Getter,” generated a massive global response. The article encouraged young women to achieve their goals and relish in their own successes. She has also written about the importance of education and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as roads to empowerment for young girls. Next year, Das will go on a 10-city tour focused on the “Secrets of a Go-Getter.”
A daughter of Indian immigrants, Das attributes her upbringing and her parents’ pro-women’s rights views to her desire to build a career based on the empowerment of young people. Das teaches the importance of pursuing goals even in the face of unfavorable circumstances and to never let anyone deter one’s dreams. In a world where the futures of many young women and girls are limited because of gender, Das sees a critical need for coaching to develop skills to realize ones fullest potentials. Now a millennial spokesperson for the Ad Council, Das is an exemplary role model for young people around the world, teaching them how to live the best lives they can imagine.
photo by Picture People
Founder, Grupo Ruas e Praças, Brazil
Brazil’s fifth largest metropolitan area, the coastal town of Recife, is home to four million people. But not all of its residents have a safe place to lay their heads. Recife is riddled with hundreds of homeless children who have run away from situations of domestic violence or who have been abandoned by neglectful parents. Some left behind parents with substance abuse issues or mental illness. Treated like outcasts by those who notice them eating and sleeping among the garbage, they wander endlessly, lonely, hungry—and desperate for security. They are hunted by members of paramilitary groups hired by shop keepers and residents to remove the children; the groups taunt or murder them. Many of the children sniff glue to get through the pain of the days and the restlessness of the nights. They don’t go to school.
But there is one place in which they can find sanctuary: the house of Grupo Ruas e Pracas (Group of Streets and Squares). The organization was started in 1987 by Solange Bezerra, a retired school teacher, who wanted to give the street children a place to eat, sleep and feel safe—to remember what it is like to be a child who is well loved. The Grupo house is a place where kids can safely be kids.
Since Grupo first opened its doors in 1987, it has helped more than 6,000 children. Not all come to the headquarters and none can stay through the night; Grupo’s limited budget means they must close their doors each evening. But even having a safe place to play and be with other children each day helps the kids. Grupo offers the children a chance to explore their creative sides through singing, acting or dance classes. While the children are with them, Grupo’s staff tries to help them get off drugs, or stop sniffing glue, and encourages them to go back to school.
Bezerra founded Grupo Ruas e Praças to provide temporary shelter, comfort and food. The organization’s services have evolved and become more holistic. Today, Grupo also focuses its efforts on street outreach, family reunification and advocacy for the children’s well-being. Children who are in need of medical attention, therapy or more than temporary shelter are assisted at a farm Kinderhof’s “Centro Educacional Vida Nova” in Capim de Chiero, about an hour north of the city.
Because many of the children Grupo serves have suffered violence at the hands of their mothers and/or fathers and have fled from hostile conditions at home, in order to succeed in their outreach, Grupo’s workers must earn the children’s trust. They are good at doing so. Grupo’s outreach workers have convinced more than 700 children to return to school. Although Bezerra is no longer the standing director of the organization, her vision continues to infuse its work and she goes to Grupo’s headquarters daily. Thanks to Bezerra’s care and concern, thousands of homeless children who once wandered down dark Brazilian streets are walking into bright futures instead.
Founders, Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro, Colombia
The metamorphosis of larvae into butterfly is a metaphor for growth, strength and beauty. The process of becoming a butterfly is not easy; it is an arduous transition. Although appearing to be dormant while cocooned, the butterfly is actually digesting itself; a rigorous self-destructive effort is required for the caterpillar to transform into a winged creature, capable of emerging from the cocoon and flying free.
This amazing transformation is embodied by three Colombian women, Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina. In 2010, Amparo, Cruz, and Medina created “Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro” (Butterflies with New Wings Building the Future), an organization focused on aiding women and children survivors of sexual abuse and displacement.
Their work is focused in western Colombia, in places like the city of Buenaventura, which is engulfed in violence. Drug-trafficking and ongoing battles between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist vigilantes create communities where violence is the norm and women and children are often targets of brutality. Domestic violence, sexual violence and abductions are part of the daily reality in Buenaventura. The organization offers women and children comfort and counsel; it empowers women and children survivors to report crimes; connects survivors to local clinics that offer medical attention and psychological care; organizes marches and protests; and teaches those it helps about their rights.
A support system for care, the network comprises about 100 core volunteers and 19 coordinators. Since 2010, the network has helped more than 1,000 families in the area. As the violence continues, membership in the Mariposas’ network grows. The courageous trio and their co-workers press on even in face of death threats from gangs in the city.
In September 2014, the Butterflies network was honoured at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland.
Like caterpillars, many members of the Mariposas use their challenging experiences as a catalyst for self-transformation. Aided by Amparo, Cruz and Medina, they can emerge from trauma, like the butterfly, to flutter freely into beautiful futures.
Member of the Council of Representatives of Iraq
Seventy-two. That is the number of times that the Yazidis, Iraq’s minority group which is non-Arab and non-Muslim, have been subjected to attempted genocides. The hunting of the Yazidi people dates back to the times of the Ottoman Empire. Most recently, the Yazidi people have been under attack by ISIS.
When the Islamic State group attacked the town of Sinjar in northwest Iraq in August 2014, they had one goal: to ethnically cleanse the area by removing the entire Yazidi population living there. Labelling the Yazidis’ religious beliefs “devil worship,” ISIS jihadists killed and displaced tens of thousands of Yazidis; some fled up Mount Sinjar where they hid for days without food or water in brutal summer temperatures.
Since the start of the humanitarian crisis, Dakhil has been working on the frontlines—aiding Yazidi survivors who have suffered at the hands of the terrorists, helping them to recover from the violence they have experienced. She uses her political platform to call attention to the needs of her people. Vian Dakhil is one of two Yazidi members of Parliament in a legislature where 25 percent of the seats are held by women.
In an impassioned plea during a televised session of her Parliament, Dakhil said, “We are being slaughtered, our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth. I am begging you, in the name of humanity.” She broke into tears. Two days later, the plight of the Yazidi people as highlighted by Dakhil was cited as one of two reasons U.S. President Barack Obama authorized U.S. military airstrikes on Iraq.
The 40-year-old uses crutches to walk; she was injured when the helicopter she was riding in to deliver aid to Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar crashed. The siege on Mt. Sinjar ended, but thousands died or are missing. Many of those who are missing are women; human rights groups working in the area claim ISIS abducted and enslaved thousands of Yazidi women and girls, taking them as malak yamiin, or spoils of war.
Many of the Yazidi women imprisoned by ISIS have suffered numerous rapes, were sold in public markets, were given as “gifts” to other jihadists or have been forcibly married. Dakhil, who has allowed several young girls who have escaped to take refuge in her home, estimated in October 2015 that about 5,800 Yazidi woman and children have been captured by the Islamic State and some 2,100 have been freed.
In her acceptance speech for the 2014 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Dakhil said, “It is rare to see a Yazidi person who can feel happy from the bottom of their heart, due to the fact that our girls, women and children are in captivity as hostages of the most dangerous organization in the world.”
When Dakhil is not visiting Yazidis who are living in refugee camps within Kurdistan, she lobbies passionately for domestic and global international interventions to help free Yazidi women and children from their ISIS captors. She is an ISIS assassination target. But in spite of multiple threats to her life, Dakhil gets on with her work.
A year after ISIS’ invasion of Sinjar, it is estimated that 400,000 Yazidis remain displaced and 65,000 are refugees— nearly 75 percent of Iraq’s Yazidi population. Given her irrepressible determination, it seems unlikely Dakhil will stop speaking up until her people are properly protected.
Artist, activist against honour based killings, United States
Zainab Zeb Khan is an artist, an activist, a licensed clinical therapist and a recipient of awards such as the YWCA Chicago Racial Justice Award. She was also the United Nations Association delegate for the 59th Commission on the Status of Women and is dedicated to ending honour based violence (HBV) against women and girls in South Asian communities. She is the President of MALA: Muslim American Leadership Alliance.
The Honour Based Violence Network defines the problem as violence committed within the context of the extended family, by people who are motivated by a perceived need to restore their family’s standing within the community, which is presumed to have been put at risk by the behaviour of the person against whom violence is conducted. Common triggers of HBV include refusal of an arranged marriage; having an unapproved or culturally inappropriate relationship; unplanned pregnancy outside of marriage; reporting domestic violence to people outside the family or to authorities; seeking divorce or refusing to divorce when ordered to do so. In certain countries or cultures, it is not uncommon for women to be abused and/or murdered if they do not abide by their families’ customary rules.
Born in the United States to Afghani/Pakistani parents, Khan knew how HBV, considered a normative cultural practice within that region, undermines the autonomy of women and girls—and perpetuates a chronic system of gender inequality. Khan, who is based in Chicago, decided to work through national and international organizations to address these issues.
Khan was one of nine women’s rights advocates featured in the 2013 documentary, “Honor Diaries.” The film’s tagline was “culture is no excuse for abuse;” in it, Khan and the other activists engaged in a dialogue about gender inequality and violence in largely Muslim societies.
In addition to working to end HBV, Khan addresses various social justice issues, attempting to remove barriers faced by people because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability. Khan, an award-winning visual artist, also uses her artwork as a vehicle for activism. Inspired by the works of Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Rene Magritte and Pablo Picasso, much of her artistry showcases women, their struggles, and their empowerment. Her work has been used to raise funds for various organizations, including UNICEF.
Khan can be described many ways. But if there is one word that captures her most accurately, it is: unapologetic. That quality has proven useful to someone focused on changing centuries-old cultural traditions that bring pain, not honour, to those who experience them.
photo by Zainab Khan
In September 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced the “It’s On Us” campaign to put an end to sexual assault on college campuses. The campaign, led by the White House Office of Public Engagement, asks supporters to be part of the solution and not look the other way.
The Obama administration has taken several steps to end sexual assault on college campuses, including providing guidance on the legal obligations of school districts, colleges and universities that receive public funding to prevent and respond to sexual assault; creating the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to develop best practices on how to respond to and prevent cases of sexual assault; and reviewing laws to ensure that they provide adequate protection to survivors of sexual assault.
An estimated 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted, but only about 12 percent of college women report the attack to the police. The coupling of tolerance and a lack of reporting has allowed sexual abuse on campus to proliferate across the country. Through the “It’s On Us” campaign, the White House hopes to inspire students, especially male students, to step up and intervene to reverse this trend.
“It’s on us— all of us—to create a culture where violence isn’t tolerated, where survivors are supported, and where all our young people—men and women—can go as far as their talents and their dreams will take them,” President Obama said in his message at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
Many celebrities have lent their support to “It’s On Us,” including John Hamm, Kerry Washington, Joel McHale and Common. Lady Gaga recently released a music video for her new song, “Till It Happens to You” in support of the campaign. The video serves as a public service announcement for sexual assault on college campuses. This issue resonates with Gaga, who revealed last year that she is a sexual assault survivor herself. She reminds viewers of both the physical and emotional trauma that comes from sexual abuse. It invites viewers to empathize with the survivors as they are transported into their world.
Kudos to the Obama Administration for highlighting this alarming trend that is currently a significant barrier to higher learning.