Courageous women and girls around the world are fighting for their right to self-determination. Join them.
Yeri Sali YoulAGE: 45
HOMETOWN: Gaoua, Burkina Faso
When Yeri Sali was 16 years old, her father died, and she was taken out of school and forced into an arranged marriage. She soon had three children. When her first husband died, Yeri was forced to marry his brother, a common practice in her village. “I was so unhappy,” she says. Then, Yeri went to an awareness-raising event held by Global Fund for Women grantee partner Association for the Advancement of Women in Gaoua (APFG), where Yeri was taught about women’s human rights. “I finally realized I could wake up and do something,” she says. “I was able to gather up the money to repay the sum of my dowry, and become free. My courage to do this – in fact, the knowledge that it was even possible – was due to the education, awareness, and legal help I received from APFG. It was upheld. I repaid the dowry and was free.”
When Yeri was young, harmful traditions were common. “When I grew up, most girls were given away in forced marriage by their parents, and infant girls circumcised—what we now know is female genital mutilation, or FGM,” says Yeri, who is passionate about raising awareness around FGM, and has led a successful campaign to end it in her community. “It’s a huge health issue for women, both physically and emotionally. It hits the core of their self-worth, is a disempowering practice, and it needs to stop.” She feels that these harmful traditions denied her of essential human rights to choose who she wanted to marry and have control over her own body, and caused her to miss her youth and her happiness – something she wants to change for the next generation of women. For Yeri, women’s rights means that every woman “can make decisions on her own, that she is a human. Women’s rights are human rights.”
Since beginning her involvement with APFG, Yeri has become a bold force for empowering herself and other women in order to drive social change: Yeri learned to read and write and taught other women in her village as well; she studied solar energy in India and brought solar power back to her village; she taught women about agriculture for food security; and she has led awareness campaigns to help end FGM and arranged marriage. After many years of campaigning, Yeri says there are now no longer any female circumcisions or forced marriages in areas where she works. “My life has changed a lot since my involvement with the APFG. I am enlightened and I am respected in my village community. I think I’ve been able to get the village enthusiastic about women’s empowerment,” she says. “I want to awaken knowledge and awareness, just like I was awakened. Children need education and information to be able to grow into adults who can have economic security. Girls especially.”
Wasna Sali MahdiAGE: 24
HOMETOWN: Kurdistan, Iraq
Wasna is a 24-year-old mother of three. After being abused by her husband and trying several times to formally divorce him (a request which the local courts denied), she boldly left him, despite threats from him and even from her own family. With no support, Wasna went on a difficult journey alone from Baghdad to Kurdistan. “I feel everyone needs freedom. In my previous life, I saw an imbalance in power between men and women,” says Wasna. “I can’t accept it. That’s why I escaped it.”
When she arrived in Kurdistan, Wasna connected with Global Fund for Women grantee partner Asuda: Combating Violence Against Women in Iraq. Asuda gave Wasna shelter and supported her as she began to recover from her traumatic experiences. The group also provided crucial legal support to Wasna in her continued fight to divorce her husband and gain custody of her children. Without any social support system, including from her family, Wasna states that the organization has been her only source of protection, and that with them, she feels safe. “Honestly, my life was hell. I was harmed, beaten every day. Every day there was humiliation. There are scars on my body,” says Wasna. “Now, there is a difference. When I came to Asuda, I got rested. All the fear went away from me. My personality came back to me. I was not that destroyed girl that every day was getting beaten and humiliated. I felt relieved.”
“I didn’t have any freedom in my life. Even for the smallest things, I had to ask for my husband or family’s opinion to go outside. Everything was limited in my life,” says Wasna. “Asuda helped me to understand how human beings should live.”
Apart from gender-based violence, Wasna sees many other ways women in Iraq are oppressed, including not being allowed to go to school and being forced to continue the traditional practice of early marriage. She says learning about women’s rights with Asuda has opened her eyes to what women and girls in Iraq are missing. “The rights of women are everything. I won’t stop fighting for my rights. I know how to defend myself and I know how to act,” says Wasna. “In comparison [to my situation before], now I know what a woman needs in her life. Now I feel free. I feel how humans are respected.”
Wasna is still recovering from her trauma, and says “it’s been months since I have seen my children or heard their voices.” While she continues her legal fight for a divorce and custody of her children, she hopes to eventually leave Iraq and start a new life for herself. Looking forward, Wasna is determined to work for a humanitarian organization, like Asuda, to protect women against violence and raise awareness about women’s human rights. She says, “Asuda helped me to not feel afraid. They helped me to finally know that there are other options in my life. They helped me to rebuild my personality in a strong way and now I believe in myself. That’s why I said if someone needs my help, I will try to give them those rights or support. I want to build something better for myself and for others, for the sake of all the women who face this violence.”
HOMETOWN: Dehradun, India
THE FUTURE: Continue to represent women’s interests in local politics and encourage other women to participate in school, politics, and women’s rights trainings
Rufa grew up in a conservative Muslim family. She was never sent to school and didn’t learn to read or write, and she was forced to wear a burqa whenever she left the house. “I never even saw a school. I was never able to see the world and how it was,” says Rufa. “I was scared of everything, innocent and uneducated. I used to be afraid of talking and saying something to anyone. I would always feel frightened.”
That changed for Rufa when she became involved with Global Fund for Women grantee partner Disha Social Organization Uttarakhand, which works in predominantly Muslim and lower-caste villages in India to raise awareness about critical issues facing women, including violence against women, education, and political involvement. With the encouragement of Disha and of her husband, Rufa learned how to read and write and completed fifth grade. Rufa soon began to do more leadership trainings and campaigns with Disha, and she emerged as a strong leader for women’s rights, especially for advocating for the rights of Muslim women and girls in her community.
Rufa is especially passionate about working with Muslim women and girls to share information about women’s human rights. Muslim women are often made to wear the burqa in her community, and aren’t allowed to leave the house. “With our Muslim sisters, there is oppression. At every moment, they are forced to stay at home. I don’t want them to be forced to stay at home. They should at the least be able to experience their freedom,” says Rufa. “Everyone deserves freedom.”
While she works specifically with Muslim women and girls, she is determined to advocate for women regardless of their religious or cultural background. “My goal is that whoever the woman, whether she is Muslim or from a different caste, is respected. All women are the same.”
Rufa is now a well-recognized figure in Dhaki village for fighting for the rights of women and girls. In addition to being selected as the leader of the women’s committee of Dhaki village, she unanimously won the panchayat election, a local self-governance system in India. In this role, she has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of women and girls. For example, she had toilets installed for 50 poor women and helped over 100 women get jobs as part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. She has also connected hundreds of women to a banking system and helped open bank accounts for them, organized self-help groups for women below the poverty line, and worked with women who have experienced domestic violence in her village.
Rufa says she loves her life now, and that helping women in her village makes her happy. She hopes to teach every woman she meets about her rights. “I’ve learned that women should realize their rights and they should talk to each other about their rights,” says Rufa. “They should only make decisions from their hearts, not from outside pressure. The biggest thing is that women should have equal rights because women are not inferior to men.”
Rose CassyAGE: 45
HOMETOWN: Jiwaka Province, Papua New Guinea
Rose’s husband abused her for almost 20 years of their marriage. After decades of emotional and physical suffering, Rose took her husband to court and won her case against him. He was fined for his abuses and warned to stop his violent behavior. This victory empowered Rose, and she wanted to help other women in similar circumstances win their right to freedom from violence. She joined Global Fund for Women grantee partner Voice for Change, which works in rural communities in Jiwaka in Papua New Guinea to fight for women’s rights and safety, and stop gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices like polygamy.
Rose now escorts other women to court, providing moral and legal support for women testifying in cases of domestic violence and polygamy. In these situations, Rose often finds herself face-to-face with a woman’s abuser, and she stands up to him on her behalf. “Many women don’t know their human rights, the laws of the country, or how the courts work and how to access justice,” says Rose. “That’s why violence against women is a national issue. Violence against women is a normal thing.”
Rose also raises awareness about how traditional practices like polygamy are harming the community. Men who take several wives often don’t have the resources to care for all their children and don’t take responsibility for caring for their many families. “The kids don’t get an education, they get into drugs, they become criminals, and then they practice polygamy again themselves,” says Rose. Rose takes polygamy seriously because she has to face the issue in her own family; her only daughter married a man with other wives, despite Rose’s strong opposition.
Through Voice for Change, Rose has gained confidence and sees herself as a leader. She has earned respect and recognition from her community for raising awareness about violence against women and for confronting abusive husbands. Rose’s own husband is no longer violent towards her and has grown to respect and support her work, and is even beginning to advocate on women’s issues himself. “I’m really proud,” Rose says of her work as a women’s human rights defender. “It’s important to me, and important to my life to challenge the system.”
Rose’s belief in women’s equality is what fuels her passion for her work. “If men have got a right, I’ve got the same right. They cannot put me down, because everything they do, I can do. That’s why I feel that I have to do something to defend women and advocate for them.” she says. “All women—we all are fierce. We have all the same rights that men do.”
Rkia BellotAGE: 69
HOMETOWN: Kenitra, Morocco
LOVES: Traveling within Morocco and abroad and learning languages
Rkia is a Soulaliyate, a tribal group that has a stake in in Morocco’s commons or “collective lands.” Traditionally, Soulaliyate women aren’t eligible to use tribal land; land passes only from father to son. As a result, many Soulaliyate women have been forced off their land, with some Soulaliyate men selling tribal lands to outside developers, leaving women without any recourse or compensation, and often without a home.
Rkia has eight brothers, and was passed over for land use rights. She said she began to fight against this discrimination when she started to understand that excluding women from land ownership was “injustice, and simply against common sense, logic, and human rights.” For several years, Rkia struggled on her own to change tribal laws and win compensation for Soulaliyate women, with no success—until she learned about Global Fund for Women grantee partner Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM) in 2007.
ADFM supported Rkia’s cause from the beginning. “They did not tell me, as others had, that the case is complicated, or that it is not within their jurisdiction, or give me some other excuse to avoid me. Just the fact that they were willing to listen to me reassured me, as I was one who was sailing alone!” says Rkia. “Even from that first contact with ADFM, I gained confidence and was sure deep inside that despite the difficulty of the situation and the strength of those who have an interest in keeping the status quo, we could persevere and succeed together—in our fight against the exclusion and injustice of women.”
With ADFM’s help, Rkia spearheaded the Soulaliyate Women’s Movement, a public demonstration that quickly gained traction in her community and led to protests in the street, where thousands called for greater democracy, both in land rights for women and more broadly. The movement has had some important wins, including the right for women to benefit equally with men from the sale of collective lands and the right for married women to receive a share of collective land for farming. Women are also allowed to act as representatives in community assemblies—a right they did not have before. However, there is still work to be done. As Rkia says, “We are still fighting for the development of a new law on collective lands that will provide total equality between men and women.”
Rkia has spent years of her life on this cause because she believes winning land rights for Soulaliyate women could change everything—from empowering women economically, to shifting gender dynamics entirely. “The right to land, the right to the fruits from the rental or sale of collective lands—having these rights undoubtedly could change the lives of women who are in precarious situation[s] financially. For me, the recognition of women’s rights is first and foremost a recognition of the woman as a human being who should benefit from the same rights as men, without any discrimination.”
Perla AlmadenAGE: 50
HOMETOWN: Mindanao. Philippines
LOVES: Cooking and baking
When Perla started her first small business, she didn’t know anything about business planning or managing finances—she just knew she needed to earn money, because her husband had lost his job at a large steel company. With few options, Perla began to sell roasted peanuts based on a special recipe from her grandmother. Soon, she connected with Global Fund for Women grantee partner Unlad Kabayan Migrant Services Foundation. Unlad works to empower the Filipina women migrant population by providing funding and training for entrepreneurs. Unlad has kickstarted more than a thousand micro and small enterprises, creating more than 15,000 jobs.
Through Unlad, Perla learned how to grow and manage her own business. Her business thrived, and Perla’s income supported her family and allowed her to put her three children through school. Perla now shares her experience and lessons in being an entrepreneur with other women, through Unlad. Perla said becoming financially independent has improved her life drastically, and she wants the same for other women in her community. “If a woman has income, she can support her family and herself, and she can also help other women. For me, I can really help other women through my skills and my experiences,” says Perla, who firmly believes that economic empowerment is a fundamental human right. “To me, it is very important that women are economically dependent on themselves, not on their husbands. It is very important that she has her own means of deciding.”
After starting as a beneficiary of Unlad in 2003, she now works for them as a finance officer. Perla also volunteered with Unlad during their relief efforts after Typhoon Bopha in 2012 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. During this volunteer work, Perla said she felt deeply connected to the women who were affected by the typhoon, many of whom worked as coconut farmers, and lost their livelihoods due to the destruction of coconut trees. She came to feel even more strongly about how important it is for women to have job skills and be financially independent, so that they don’t need to rely on their husbands for income during difficult times. “I saw women victims in Haiyan, [and saw] that they are trying to bounce back to their lives. That’s the time I felt I am a strong woman, because I was helping them.”
Nilce Naira NascimentoAGE: 63
HOMETOWN: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
LOVES: Teaching classes and writing cookbooks on Afro-Brazilian cooking
Nilce is a leader of a terreiro, a community of black women who practice Afro-Brazilian religion and traditions. In 2005, she got involved with Global Fund for Women grantee partner CRIOLA, a women’s rights organization led by black women who work with other Afro-Brazilian women and girls in the poorest areas of Rio de Janeiro to empower them to combat racism, sexism, and homophobia, and improve living standards for the Afro-Brazilian community.
There is a strong racial divide in Brazil, and black people often make far less money, have less access to resources and education, and face discrimination on a daily basis. “People still have that stereotype that being black means we can only be domestic workers or street workers. People don’t believe that black people can be lawyers or teachers,” says Nilce. “I have a daughter who is a sociologist but people don’t believe her. About any professional–a lawyer, or a doctor–they say ‘Imagine, a doctor? That black girl?’”
Terreiros like the one Nilce leads are an important resource for many Afro-Brazilians, offering help for anything from health issues to job training to simple social support. “In our community, many women seek out the terreiro,” says Nilce, who serves as a mother figure for many in her community. “They come for many reasons, and we try to welcome, orient, and guide them as much as possible… I talk to people. We talk about our lives. It’s very important to talk about what you’ve been through, the stories that you know. ”
Through CRIOLA, Nilce learned about women’s human rights, and she has become a passionate advocate in her community, giving lectures to other women and teaching them what she’s learned about women’s rights and basic legal protections. She says sharing this information with other Afro-Brazilian women is critical, because there is a “huge lack of knowledge, particularly around women’s rights.”
To Nilce, women’s equality “means that when a woman arrives at a job, she can occupy the same space as a man or a white woman. She can enter through the same door, eat the same food, receives the same salary, because she is just as capable as the white woman or the man. Equal rights. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rights should be the same.”
Nilce is deeply connected to—and proud of—her community, and that is what motivates her to continue working to educate others about their rights. “I need to keep doing this, to tell people that we are capable—that we, black women of African roots, know how to make beautiful things. We take on huge projects and we accomplish them.”
Nela PamukovicAGE: 55
HOMETOWN: Zagreb, Croatia
LOVES: Working every day for social change and meeting the next generation of women leaders
Nela, who has been an activist since the 1980s, co-founded the Centre for Women War Victims (ROSA) in 1992 during the Bosnian war, when rape was used as a weapon to terrorize communities and intimidate women. Now, more than 20 years later, women survivors of rape are still healing from the trauma and stigma of their experience. ROSA provides a safe space to share stories and meet other survivors, as well as legal services and psychological and medical counseling sessions led by other survivors of gender-based violence.
“These women have been living in silence, at the margins of our society, surrounded by their painful memories,” says Nela, who says that some women admit to being rape survivors for the first time during meetings led by ROSA. “They did not speak at all, or spoke very rarely about their hard experiences. It is so important that we have an open space where they can share, and they can speak, and feel empowered.”
ROSA also works on policy changes, including advocating for national and international legislation that protects women. In fact, earlier this year the Croatian parliament passed the first law in the country recognizing rape as a war crime, which will compensate war rape survivors with a monthly stipend and access to free counseling, legal assistance, and medical aid. ROSA has been a strong supporter of the law since 2009, and was also part of the group created to draft the legislation.
Nela says that although the struggle for justice, equality, and peace can be disheartening, she deeply believes she must continue the work she’s doing as an activist and a supporter of women’s human rights movements. She believes collective action—working together with other activists and supporters of women’s movements—is the most effective way to create positive social change, and says ROSA’s accomplishments are a result of many people working together. “Our basic human rights are fragile, and we can lose them every day if we don’t fight,” says Nela. “If we fight, we have some satisfaction that we have done some good, for the benefit of women and the rest of the population. And for us, as well—we fight for our own lives.”
Natia GvianishviliAGE: 29
HOMETOWN: Tbilisi, Georgia
THE FUTURE: Become the first openly lesbian mayor of Tbilisi
LOVES: Playing guitar, studying languages, and taking pictures using real film cameras
When Natia was growing up in the conservative country of Georgia, she struggled with her sexuality. “As a kid, I always had crushes on women. When I hit puberty and I realized what was happening, it was scary because I didn’t know anyone who was gay,” she says. “All the negative stuff that I heard [about LGBTQI people], you internalize it when you’re isolated. You internalize all the stuff that’s being said and feel like it’s about you.”
Eventually, Natia decided to make a change. “I decided that it was time to stop hiding myself, and I really needed to meet people that shared similar experiences to me.” So, in 2009, Natia joined Global Fund for Women grantee partner Women’s Initiative Supporting Group (WISG). Through WISG, Natia met other members of the LGBTQI community in Tbilisi. Soon, her involvement with the group inspired Natia to become an activist fighting for human rights for the LGBTQI community in Georgia. She began to volunteer for WISG and even decided to further her education, applying to a master’s program in gender studies. Empowered to unleash her inner leader, Natia soon took her involvement with WISG to the next level: in 2013, she became a program director, and as of the summer of 2015, she is the director of the organization.
Natia became a leading activist in the LGBTQI community in Georgia, working to build solidarity within the movement and win more human rights for gay people in Tbilisi and beyond. While there are laws protecting gay and lesbian people in Georgia, they are rarely implemented, and the public attitude towards LGBTQI people is largely negative, in part because the powerful conservative Georgian Orthodox church campaigns aggressively against LGBTQI rights. Says Natia, “We have rights but we’re struggling to enjoy those rights because there’s always someone that wants to be violent with you.”
Natia is proud of the work she’s done as a bold human rights activist through WISG, including advocating for LGBTQI rights to live free from violence and discrimination. But Natia says she’s especially proud to now have the confidence to be true to herself and others about her sexuality and identity—which has helped other LGBTQI people come out, too. She says, “Lobbying, writing reports, and doing research is something you can learn, you can always do that—daring to be out, daring to be at the frontline, is a different kind of process. It takes a lot of emotional work.”
Editor’s Note: Since original publication of this story in October 2015, Natia has moved on from WISG to pursue her master’s degree in gender studies outside of Georgia, though she remains a passionate ally and advocate for the organization and the movement for LGBTQI rights in Georgia.
Milica PetrovicAGE: 23
HOMETOWN: Belgrade, Serbia
THE FUTURE: Continue her legal education and use it to advance the struggle for Roma women’s rights
LOVES: Education, playing piano, and attending activist gatherings, trainings, and workshops
Milica is a law student and activist working with Global Fund for Women grantee partner BIBIJA-Roma Women’s Center to end discrimination against Roma people in Serbia. BIBIJA provides community education programs, free legal services, counseling, and trainings on women’s human rights to Roma women in Serbia. Milica attended a workshop held by BIBIJA “and was immediately taken by the work the organization is doing. After, I realized I wanted to be part of it and do this work for life.”
Discrimination against Roma people is common in Serbia, and Milica says it’s the biggest problem Roma women face. Often this means that many Roma women are denied their basic human rights, including decent healthcare and job opportunities. Milica and her family have experienced these problems first-hand.
“Unfortunately, the biggest problem for Roma women is discrimination based on the ethnic and racial differences. Simply being Roma is a problem. Many Roma people, men and women, have problems in finding work or attending educational institutions,” says Milica. “It’s very sad for me to talk about this. We are all people. People need to realize that person’s beauty comes from within and not whether they have pretty skin, hair, and such. It is unbelievable to me that in 21st century we are still talking about discrimination, but unfortunately it is still present and very visible. When we look around we see it every day and that is a big problem.”
Milica acknowledges the diverse spectrum of Roma women in Serbia, and says that the problems each woman faces is different, but that one major issue is that many Roma women lack basic information they need to understand their rights to healthcare and education. “I would like for every women to be fully informed where and how to ask for help and guidance, no matter their situation,” she says.
Working with BIBIJA, Milica is determined to help women access opportunities that will support their empowerment. She believes that achieving women’s rights will lead to a healthier society and higher quality of life for everyone. “Women’s rights should not be ignored. Gender equality and freedom of speech are very important,” says Milica. “Women in 21st century shouldn’t have to experience being inferior in a society. To create a healthier environment we should have men and women, equally, participate and work for equality. That way a more broad advancement can be made.”
Maria Fernanda Pineda CaleroAGE: 16
HOMETOWN: Condega, Nicaragua
THE FUTURE: Graduate from university with a civil engineering degree
LOVES: Soccer, dancing, and reading books by the feminist writer Marcela Lagarde
Maria Fernanda is the 16-year-old coordinator of Nací para Volar (“Born to Fly”), an outreach group for girls organized by Global Fund for Women grantee partner Asociación de Mujeres Constructoras de Condega (AMCC). Maria joined Naci para Volar when she was 12 years old. At the time, she didn’t know anything about feminism, and felt the weight of living in a culture where “machismo” is very powerful. She felt bullied at school as a girl, and didn’t feel respected by her step-father, and not always heard by her mother, who dictated what she wore and where she went, and wouldn’t allow her to play soccer because they thought it was inappropriate for girls.
In Nací para Volar, Maria and other young women were introduced to topics like sexual health, gender, and feminism—things Maria says “no one was talking about.” After learning more women’s rights, Maria says she began to recognize gender discrimination in her daily life and to see herself differently. She says joining Nací para Volar gave her the courage and knowledge about her human rights to speak up for herself—both at home and with her friends. “My self-confidence was elevated,” says Maria. “Now they can tell me anything, but I know that it is not true. I am who I am—whatever they say, I won’t let it bother me.”
In 2015, Nací para Volar now includes 84 girls from urban and rural areas in Nicaragua. The group expanded its outreach to additional rural communities, where they noticed that girls as young as 13- and 14-years-old were getting pregnant. Maria says she knows how critical the knowledge Naci para Volar offers can be to a girls’ future. “Now, having a boyfriend isn’t a priority for me. Having someone to support me isn’t a priority for me,” says Maria. “I sometimes wonder how many kids I would have had by now, if I didn’t take these workshops. I would probably have had children by now.”
Maria currently studies civil engineering at the local university, a field dominated by men, which she says she chose very deliberately. “I studied civil engineering to break through stereotypes,” says Maria. “I want people to know that just because I am a woman doesn’t mean that I am less. I have the same capacity as a man to do things.”
Gözde DemirbilekAGE: 20
HOMETOWN: Ankara, Turkey
LOVES: Writing and telling stories
Gözde is a 20-year-old journalism student at Ankara University and an activist for the rights of LGBT people in Turkey. When she was 16, she participated in an event organized by Kaos GL called “Women to Women,” where openly gay women come to share stories. She won a special award for her story-telling, and soon became more deeply involved in Kaos GL’s work raising awareness about LGBTQI issues and ending violence and discrimination against the LGBTQI community. She started writing stories on the Kaos GL website and managing the group’s social media.
In Turkey, gay people often face open discrimination and even violence, and there are no laws protecting LGBTQI people from discrimination. “I want to see our legal rights to be approved by the constitution…such as punishment for hate crimes. Everyone should be punished because of hate crimes.”
As a college student, despite the university’s restrictions and discriminatory practices, Gözde started an LGBTQI organization at her school called LeGeBIT, which organizes activities like coming out events, conferences about sexuality, and mental health workshops, as well as marches to convince the school to legally accept the organization and LGBT community.
Gözde says her work with Kaos GL has helped her understand the value of collective action and movements as a way to become empowered and make lasting change. “I understand how a community that is organized really works, and I had a chance to understand what collective consciousness really means,” she says. “In every moment that we are trying to do activism, I feel powerful and safe. It’s like home to me.”
Gözde, who is bisexual, says that she is also especially invested in raising awareness about discrimination bisexual individuals experience, including from within the LGBTQI community. “My concerns and my thoughts about it has opened up other issues,” she says. “Other bisexuals like me have become more aware and have tried to create much more voice in terms of being bisexual and what that means.”
Gloria Marina Icu PulucAGE: 32
HOMETOWN: Comalapa, Guatemala
LOVES: Learning about nursing and women’s rights
Gloria grew up without her father, and her mother was handicapped and abused by Gloria’s paternal grandmother. As the oldest child, Gloria had to raise her younger siblings and has worked since she was seven years old, sometimes in abusive environments. When she was younger, Gloria dreamed of studying nursing, but she wasn’t able to go to school because she had to work and support her family.
Now, Gloria is a member of Global Fund for Women grantee partner the Asociación Civil de Comadronas Tradicionales de Chimaltenango (ACOTCHI), a group of midwives that offers health and professional training programs and teaches lessons about women’s human rights. Through ACOTCHI, Gloria has learned nursing and midwifery skills, and she now brings her knowledge to her family and community, who often come to her first when they aren’t well.
Gloria has also learned about women’s human rights through the group, including the right to be free from violence and the right to be paid equally to men—concepts that she didn’t know about before. “At ACOTCHI they often talk to us about human rights. I didn’t know about them. I didn’t know what a right was. But now I know,” says Gloria. “Even though in our municipality these rights are not are a priority, we have to start doing something about this. I would like to live in a world where ‘women’s rights’ are not only words written on a paper, but are actually a reality.”
In Guatemala, many women deal with gender-based violence, and Gloria says that domestic abuse is often considered normal. Gloria is determined for this to change, and she encourages women in her community to report domestic violence and even meets with abusive husbands to teach them about women’s human rights. “Many people don’t talk about violence, about abuse. I also used to be ignorant of these things; I didn’t know what these were. For me, they were normal. For me, this is how life was supposed to be here. There were arguments, there were humiliating moments, and one says, that is normal for me. But it is not. And slowly one can see this better; that is how I have learned so much. Now if one is abused, if somebody treats us badly, one learns to say that is not ok.”
Gloria has become a passionate, outspoken, and brave advocate for women’s equality in her community, and says the lessons she’s learned through ACOTCHI have changed her life. “It is very important for me because it is like someone opened my eyes. That is how I think about it, and that’s how I imagine it,” she says. “It is like I was sleeping for a long time. And it is not like there were not good things behind that dream, but there are better things. Throughout my life experiences I saw many abuses and I suffered a lot. Today I don’t accept that anybody abuses me, or that somebody yells at me. I don’t allow it.”
Gloria is proud of the work she’s doing and hopes to continue to provide health services and raise awareness about women’s rights. Gloria says, “All this that I’m learning helps me a lot, because I live it and I practice it. Everything I do is helping me grow. Now I look for solutions and I am practicing what I’m learning. But that’s not all. I would also like to help other people and let others understand that women don’t have to be abused, and that women and men are equal. They have the same capabilities and we all are as valuable. There is so much machismo here, and people believe that only men are capable. I tell you, we women are capable!”
Cynthia MuhonjaAGE: 19
HOMETOWN: Nandi Hills, Kenya
THE FUTURE: Heading to university to study business and computer science, and then hoping to work for the United Nations
LOVES: Playing cricket, traveling, sharing stories
When Cynthia was 11 years old, she lost her mom to HIV/AIDS and went to live with her grandparents in the small village of Nandi, taking care of her brother and their household all while going to school. Even though Cynthia loved school and wanted to get an education, she had no one to look up to as a successful role model, and was often overburdened by chores at home. She says, “They would tell me to stay back at home and do housework because I am a girl and education doesn’t matter for me—being a mother matters for me.”
Despite her high ambitions, Cynthia struggled to balance housework and school and received a C-average, until she became involved with Global Fund for Women grantee partner Akili Dada. Through Akili Dada’s scholarship and leadership program, Cynthia rose to be a top student, finishing high school with an A-average. She also learned about women’s human rights through Akili Dada and is now a strong advocate for women’s equality. “If women understand their rights and work for them, then they will grow a society that has a different mindset about the sexes,” says Cynthia. “They will grow a society where the same value is placed on all genders. Whether you are a boy or a girl it doesn’t really matter—you are a human being.”
Cynthia fervently believes in the power and importance of empowering women and girls, and has created a youth program that brings role models from Nairobi to her hometown of Nandi so that that other kids in her community can see examples of positive role models and hear success stories that might inspire them to do well in school and pursue professional careers. Cynthia says, “I believe in stories, and I believe if I tell my story to one person I can empower someone through my story.”
Christine KibuukaAGE: 62
HOMETOWN: Kampala City, Uganda
LOVES: Being an entrepreneur and supporting her family with what she earns
Seventeen years ago, Christine’s husband was unemployed and her family was very poor, living in a tiny house, and unable to afford to send three of her eight children to school. Then, Christine became connected with Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Ntulume Village Women’s Development Association (NVIWODA), which promotes economic empowerment of grass-roots women through skills training and education on gender equality, business skills, and women’s rights. Through the group, Christine met other women entrepreneurs who shared their knowledge about building their own businesses.
Christine started a wine-making business, which quickly grew and allowed her to expand into other markets, including farming, which also supports all of her family’s food needs. She says she now lives in a beautiful house on land she owns and is the main breadwinner in her family. Through NVIWODA she has encouraged other women in her community to follow her lead. She says the women in the group are “like sisters” who support each other, even with financial loans. “I think we have no barriers here,” says Christine.
Christine says that although her husband has always been kind and respectful, this is not the case for most women in her area. Learning these crafts through training sessions helps these women gain the respect of their husbands and allows them to have some autonomy. Christine wants women in her community to be able to make personal decisions, and believes that women’s rights means women being able to do something that is theirs, something that their husbands cannot take from them. She believes entrepreneurship, enabled by NVIWODA, reaches these goals, and she encourages women in her community to take risks to become empowered. “Risks are important because if you don’t risk, you can’t start,” says Christine. “You have to be brave.”
Christine has seen how much she has helped her village, and has made her family and herself proud along the way. She says, “You become very busy, but empowering women, you feel good afterwards.” In the future, she hopes to expand her business, and help to empower more women, both in their work and independence.
Aurelia Martina ArzúAGE: 50
HOMETOWN: Santa Rosa de Aguan, Honduras
THE FUTURE: Win rights to land for the Garifuna people and help end domestic violence and patriarchy in her culture
LOVES: Dancing and coaching an all-male community soccer team
Aurelia experienced first-hand the devastation climate change can bring when Hurricane Mitch hit her small village in Honduras in 1998. “Forty-two people died because of the hurricane,” says Aurelia. “I’ve always been a fighter in my community and after Hurricane Mitch, we were in a time of need. We had many problems with climate change that are still affecting us today.”
Motivated to do something, Aurelia became involved with Global Fund for Women grantee partner Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH) after a friend brought her to one of their meetings. OFRANEH works with the Garifuna people—descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib, and Arawak people who live in Central America—to demand their social, economic, cultural, and territorial rights. Aurelia was interested in OFRANEH’s dedication to protect Garifuna land, and she began working with them to try to win land rights for the Garifuna in territories that are inland and more protected, and to change policies and laws to address the impact climate change was having on the Garifuna. “It was amazing to see so many Garifunas and so many people united in the fight for their land and community,” says Aurelia.
Aurelia soon became an even more passionate defender of the Garifuna land, especially because climate change has destroyed many of their natural resources. Garifuna traditions connect them deeply to the land, through agriculture, fishing, and farming. But because of climate change, all 46 Garifuna communities in Honduras (most of which are coastal) are at risk of disappearing. Through OFRANEH, Aurelia has learned more about the Garifuna women’s struggle, and how to fight for the Garifuna community and protect them from the “broken system” in Honduras. “OFRANEH has opened a pathway to so many things for me. Above all, it’s shown me the importance of defending our land, because it is everything to us,” she says. “Money comes and goes, but our soil and land will last a lifetime. OFRANEH taught me that.”
Aurelia says that Garifuna women are exceptionally strong, and are stepping up to help lead the community through the struggle for land rights. “When it comes to claiming your rights, the Garifuna woman is there. When there are meetings, the Garifuna woman steps up. When it comes to raising children, Garifuna women are there,” says Aurelia. Still, Aurelia says women in her community experience domestic violence, lack economic independence, and are “repressed because of machismo. Women should have their own rights–the right to freedom, and the right to do what she wants in her life because she can. She should have the right to choose her partner. Patriarchy and machismo need to be put to an end, and women should be themselves and act upon that, not according to the patriarchy and machismo that they have imposed on us.”
Asipa MusaevaAGE: 68
HOMETOWN: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
THE FUTURE: Help strong women leaders in Kyrgyzstan build even more support for women with disabilities
LOVES: Spending time with her family, including her brothers and sisters who she helped raise
When Asipa was 17 years old, she was involved in an accident that severely injured her hip, leaving her permanently disabled. She found that her disability affected her life more than she had anticipated; after she graduated from college, she had trouble getting hired, and when she finally did find a job, her colleagues treated her differently because of her injury. “I thought I was the only person with a disability in Kyrgyzstan, because I didn’t see anybody else like me,” says Asipa. Eventually, she began to meet other people with disabilities, and soon learned about the lack of laws and programs in Kyrgyzstan to aid and protect them. “Once I became disabled, I started thinking about what it means to live with a disability. I realized that I can fight not only for myself but also I can fight for others. I feel strong.”
In 1996, Asipa founded the Republican Independent Association of Women with Disabilities of Kyrgyzstan. One of the group’s biggest projects was to push for a local law that would make public spaces accessible for people with disabilities. After the law was rejected several times, Asipa took matters into her own hands and built a wheelchair ramp for her husband (who was also disabled) to their first-floor home. “As soon as I made a ramp, the police came and broke our ramp,” says Asipa. “They said that we had no right to build it.” As a result, she organized a protest with other people with disabilities and alerted the media. During the protest, Asipa was arrested. Although she was freed soon afterwards, she continued to publicly demand her human rights, until eventually the law was adopted.
Since then, the Republican Independent Association of Women with Disabilities of Kyrgyzstan (where Asipa still serves as the director) has helped create more laws protecting people with disabilities, including a new requirement that political parties must include deputies with disabilities. The rights Asipa helped win for women with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan changed her life in more ways than one. “When I became involved in public affairs, it felt like I was born again,” she says. “Before, I was embarrassed, but then I realized that I can teach others by my example.”
Amina Marie Grâce SafiAGE: 26
HOMETOWN: Uvira, Democratic Republic of Congo
LOVES: Reading, music, and talking with friends
A bold and unapologetic advocate for women’s human rights, Amina is passionate about defending the rights of women to be free from gender-based violence and to participate equally in peace building, decision making, and politics – two major issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I fight for the dignity of all people, specifically women whose rights are trampled upon,” she says. “My obsession is the struggle for the promotion of women’s rights so that they can win back their dignity.”
Amina is Program Manager for Global Fund for Women grantee partner Solidarity of Women Activists in Defense of Human Rights (SOFAD), a women’s organization dedicated to the defense and promotion of the rights of vulnerable women and girls, including widows, women abandoned by their husbands, and women survivors of rape and sexual violence. SOFAD also works on building peace in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
In her “dream job” at SOFAD, Amina supervises local community groups and workshops that include both men and women. The workshops raise awareness about women’s human rights, peace-building strategies, and more. Amina says that by including men and women together, “we’ve been able to offer men and women a space for discussion and meeting, and enable women to gain confidence and experience in public speaking. This helps to dissuade the formal tradition, which prohibits women from speaking in front of men. Including women in the community conversation has allowed the silent conflicts suffered by women to be heard, including disputes over inheritance rights or domestic violence.”
Amina believes that women’s human rights are not an issue just for women, but for everyone, and she hopes through her work at SOFAD she’ll be able to lead others in her community to feel the same. “Anyone of us who espouse the values of freedom and fairness cannot tolerate women in our region being subjected to rape, sexual violence, and the deprivation of rights,” says Amina. “It is time that we all invest in the business of gender rights promotion. I think our fight every day is explained in these few words.”
Alupo Engole CeciliaAGE: 67
HOMETOWN: Teso Region, North Eastern Uganda
LOVES: Spending time with her husband and seven children
In 1998, Alupo was a district counselor in the Katakwi district of northeastern Uganda, an area that had long been plagued by conflict. Leaders from Global Fund for Women grantee partner ISIS-WICCE saw Alupo’s leadership in the unstable region, and asked her to participate in peace-building trainings and to interview women about their experiences during the conflict. Alupo has had first-hand experience with the instability in her region: during a trip to interview women, Alupo was part of an ambush. She and the group she was with fled to safety, but 22 people were killed.
After learning more from ISIS-WICCE about human rights and conflict resolution, Alupo co-founded a local NGO called Teso Women, named after the region where she lives. ISIS-WICCE provided early support to help Teso Women document women’s stories about their experience during the conflicts in Uganda. “Women have messy and terrifying stories of how they have been gang raped or tortured. Some of them have become traumatized, others have lost husbands and their children,” Alupo says, adding that Teso Women collected these stories to better understand the women in their communities and start programs that would be of the most use to them. “When you don’t know what happened in the community it is very difficult to know how to help. So the information that we got from the women helped us know which programs to start to advocate for women’s human rights, and how to speak to the donors, communities, and local governments about the problems,” says Alupo.
Through ISIS-WICCE’s training, Alupo learned to speak up and put herself and other women in leadership roles, including during important peace negotiations in Uganda. “There were so many peace negotiations going on, but only men used to attend those forums. I said ‘But women know what is happening to them, they suffer the experiences, so it should be women advocating for those women!’”
Alupo says women in Uganda are still unable to realize basic human rights. “There is sexual and gender-based violence, domestic violence—it actually makes women lose their dignity. Women are fighting for equality but it is still a long way,” she explains. “Women, according to our culture, are not supposed to be coming out from the kitchen and having discussions with the men. We must break this kind of culture. We want these women walking side by side with men, not behind men.”
Ugandan women are struggling with some important issues, including economic empowerment, access to education, and land rights—a right that Teso Women is working hard to help secure by leading a coalition of 14 women’s groups that are advocating for women’s land rights. “I’m determined to see women succeed and get their land rights. Land grabbing is a problem. That is one of the most crucial issues we have now in Teso and Uganda.”
Swastika TamaNgAGE: 25
HOMETOWN: Dhapakel, Nepal
Swastika came out as a transgender woman about five years ago. She says that at the time, she had little support from her family, and knew nothing about LGB and trans rights. “When I came out, my father didn’t accept me and I had to go live on my own,” says Swastika. Then, she joined Global Fund for Women grantee partner Mitini Nepal, an LGBTQI support and advocacy group. “At that time Mitini Nepal was there and they helped me with transitioning and taught me about the LGBT community,” she says.
When Swastika was in school, she said she was often teased and didn’t do well because “it wasn’t a good situation.” She was unable to go to college, so with little education, no support from her family, and no job prospects, Swastika became a sex worker. Since becoming involved with Mitini Nepal, Swastika quit sex work and learned about the LGBTQI community, women’s rights, and human rights. She began to understand her gender identity and even began to open up about being transgender to the people around her. She says of this change, “I used to think that I couldn’t wear what I wanted to wear, that I shouldn’t lead the life I’m leading right now. I was afraid of being harassed by people around me. I don’t fear anything anymore.”
While there are laws protecting the rights of LGBTQI people in Nepal, they are not often enforced, and Swastika says she encounters abuse every day. “Being a trans woman, you have to deal with people in public who bully you everywhere,” she says. “If you go shopping, if you go anywhere in public, you have to face verbal abuse each and every day.”
While her biggest goal is to achieve rights for women and LGBTQI people, she says that ultimately, she wants all people to be treated with dignity, and for everyone to have freedom and choice regardless of their identity. “I don’t want anyone to judge just because of my sexual orientation or gender identity,” says Swastika. “I want people to judge me based on my work and my qualifications.”
“The stories of these brave and determined women inspire us everyday to redouble our efforts until true equality is achieved.” – Musimbi Kanyoro, President & CEO, Global Fund for Women
Self-determination is a right, not a privilege. The circumstances into which you’re born should never pre-determine your destiny. No matter where you come from or your parents’ income, everyone is entitled to the same human rights.
#Determined shares the inspirational stories of courageous women and girls around the world who are fighting for power over their own lives, a right that many of us take for granted.
It shows us that when activists, local communities, donors, and supporters come together, they’re unstoppable. Global Fund for Women gets money and support to these fearless women-led groups who are demanding and defending equal human rights for all of us.
How much longer can we wait? Last month, global leaders met at the United Nations to commit to 17 Sustainable Development Goals that build on the Millennium Development Goals. It’s been 67 long years since the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now is the time for human rights to become a reality for women everywhere. Join us and raise your voice in the fight for gender equality.
We’re determined to create a world where every woman and girl can be strong, safe, powerful, and heard. No exceptions. What are you #Determined to do?
Be a champion for women’s human rights
Courageous women and girls around the world are demanding power and resources to realize their rights. Join them and raise your voice in the fight for gender justice.