Women leaders you should know and the causes they champion

With the global pandemic, 2020 proved to be a tough year for everyone — especially girls and women.

But many leaders stepped up to help. As we mark Women’s History Month, here’s a look at some women making a difference around the globe — and the ways you can help, too.

Dr. Alaa Murabit — Equity in health care

Dr. Alaa Murabit is a Libyan-Canadian medical doctor, women’s rights advocate and United Nations High-Level Commissioner on Health, Employment and Economic Growth.

The Canadian government named her one of Canada’s 100 most influential women in history. Her TED Talk about her Muslim faith, “What my religion really says about women,” has been viewed more than 5 million times.

And while she holds degrees from the London School of Economics and Al Zawiya University, she says her most important education may be the one she received at “The Murabit School of International Affairs,” otherwise known as her family home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

With 10 sisters and brothers, Murabit says she learned early how important diplomacy and forming alliances can be.

So, as an adult, Murabit aligned herself with the UN, where she can combine her interests in medicine and helping women around the world.

“From engaging with countries on Covid vaccine delivery … to supporting women’s rights activists, working through dual challenges of pandemic and conflict, the UN has been at hand throughout.”

For Murabit, equity is a key part of public health. She points to the pandemic’s disruptions of the global supply chain, limiting the availability of contraceptives in low-income countries.

To find out more about Murabit’s charity, visit UN Women USA.

Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice — Gender equality

Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice is president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine and the first woman at its helm.

She entered medicine because she wanted to use her love for math and science to impact people. Becoming a doctor, she says, “seemed like an obvious choice.”

Armed with a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, Montgomery Rice had a successful career as a fertility specialist and researcher before moving into medical leadership.

While Montgomery Rice says more women and women of color are getting into medical school, there’s still not enough representation when it comes to the highest levels of medical leadership. “When we get to the level of dean, we still see a significant gap,” she says.

Diversity matters in medical leadership (and board rooms everywhere) she says, because people with different life experiences help organizations see the big picture and make better decisions. “Those life experiences, combined with your formal education and your career, allow you to solve problems.”

As part of her efforts to raise gender equity in public health, Montgomery Rice serves on the board of CARE.

“CARE thinks about not just that a woman is living in poverty but what put her in poverty? Does she need an education?”

That specificity allows the organization to really help people, Montgomery Rice says.

“I would say one of the most important things is to try to direct more intentional resources — resources based on specifically what the person needs — so that they can be empowered to create a sustainable change for themselves.”

Gloria Aguilera Terry — Ending gender violence

Gloria Aguilera Terry calls domestic violence “the scourge in our society” and the common thread in homelessness, mental health and maternal mortality.

Terry is the CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence and is the board chair of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Terry was the chief financial officer at the El Paso Chamber of Commerce when she took a tour of a homeless shelter, an experience that would change the trajectory of her life. After seeing entire families trying to live out of cardboard boxes, she concluded that she hadn’t done anything “particularly meaningful” with her own life.

“I felt I could leverage my expertise in more impactful ways. I also felt compelled to be the voice for women who couldn’t use theirs.”

In Terry’s home state of Texas, research found an increase in domestic violence after Hurricane Harvey.

“We are finding the same is true of Covid. Comparing the six months preceding Covid to the first six months of the pandemic, calls to law enforcement increased by 9%,” she says.

“Further, the use of firearms at family violence incidents grew by nearly 42%.”

And what do you do if you’re in a violent situation, in the middle of a pandemic?

“Imagine you, your sister, mother (or) friend making a decision to either stay in an abusive relationship or seek basic human safety within a communal shelter during a global pandemic.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence operates 56 coalitions across the United States. Terry says that means a survivor can quickly be connected to the closest resources.

Malala Yousafzai — Education for girls

Malala Yousafzai was a schoolgirl in Pakistan when the Taliban took over her town. Among other things, they banned girls from going to school. Encouraged by her father and the rest of her family, she began speaking out about the need for girls’ education.

In October 2012, a gunman boarded her school bus, asked, “Who is Malala?” and shot her in the head.

When she woke up 10 days later in a hospital room in England, she was famous around the world. She used that notoriety to advocate for girls’ education.

In 2014, she established the Malala Fund, a charity striving to ensure every girl can pursue an education. That same year, she became the youngest-ever Nobel laureate, winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2020, she graduated from Oxford University.

“Although a global pandemic meant I spent my final months as a university student in my parents’ house, I’m grateful that I was able to complete my education,” she says on her official website.

“After taking time to relax, I am more dedicated than ever to my fight for girls.”

Faith Mwangi-Powell — Ending child marriage

Faith Mwangi-Powell is the chief executive officer of Girls Not Brides, an organization that partners with more than 1,500 groups working to keep girls in school and out of early marriages.

Mwangi-Powell was previously the global director of an initiative working to end female genital mutilation.

“I grew up in a small rural village in Kenya. I was inspired at an early age by watching my own mother, a leader in our community, making a positive change in my world back then. I always knew I wanted to do work that empowered women and girls, and I was lucky to have had opportunities that set me on a path to do just that,” Mwangi-Powell says.

“I feel privileged to be CEO of Girls Not Brides, where every day I am working to make sure girls and women everywhere can achieve their dreams — and be free to make choices about their own lives and futures.”

“Before Covid, every year, 12 million girls are married under the age of 18. Yet the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is projected to result in 13 million additional child marriages in the next 10 years alone because of social distancing and the economic impact on households,” she says.

“Covid-19 threatens to undo decades of good work to end child marriage and achieve gender equality. Changing practices takes a long time. When something this big and with this scale of impact comes along, it puts that work under threat.”

Faith Mwangi-Powell and the other activists profiled here are not working alone.

“I would like people to think about celebrating women, particularly those who are everyday, unsung heroes among us, who are within our own communities — the ones who wake up every day and do something to make a positive change in their own community. We all know them — the woman who goes the extra mile to help, to heal, to educate, to nurture,” Mwangi-Powell points out. “Let’s not celebrate the women leaders we know. Let’s celebrate the ones who are unsung, everyday heroes who carry on regardless during this pandemic.”

Maybe you can join them to advance women’s equality around the world.