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12 Women (And One Man) Who've Inspired Change

To mark International Women’s Day we’ve compiled a list of 12 women and one man who’ve inspired change and helped to improve the lives of women either in their community or at a global level.

From Monday 3rd March we’ll be adding names to the list in the build up to International Women’s Day on Saturday 8th March.

Suraya Dalil

Afghan Health Minister


Afghan Health Minister, Dr Suraya Dalil, is battling to reduce the shocking number of women still dying as a result of pregnancy.

She was forced to leave Kabul – and her medical work – because of insecurity in the early 90s and began working with refugees and displaced people in the north of the country, setting up health clinics and large scale immunisations programmes.

When the post-Taliban government was established in 2002, Suraya Dalil returned to her home country and began working to ensure Afghan women were fully involved in the development of their new healthcare system.

During her time as Health Minister the country’s rate of maternal deaths has already halved. But there is still much to do. And despite all the cultural and political obstacles she is continually pushing the message that birth spacing and access to family planning lead to fewer women dying as a result of pregnancy.


Esther Worae

Ghanaian Nurse and Midwife


Esther Worae runs a project in Accra helping improve the lives of vulnerable female market workers. 

She has worked as a nurse and a midwife for over 30 years in the UK and Africa, and is now dedicating herself to supporting some of Ghana’s most desperate women: market head-porters, known as the Kayayei.

Women and girls as young as 10 travel to Ghana’s capital to try and escape poverty and find a better life. Esther explains “They are so vulnerable, sleeping outside on the streets. They have no one, so I tell them: I’m their mother; I’m here to care for them. My phone is always on and I do whatever I can to help them.”

Largely through Esther’s efforts, Marie Stopes International Ghana, the Ghana Health Service and Police Service have joined forces to help these women access health insurance, better sanitation, and safer living conditions.

Meaza Ashenafi

Lawyer and women’s rights advisor


Meaza Ashenafi is a lawyer who has dedicated her life to protecting the rights of Ethiopian women.

Meaza’s achievements are astounding. She became a High Court judge at 25, helped to draft the Ethiopian Constitution (ensuring women’s rights were included), was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and established Ethiopia’s first bank exclusively for women.

But Meaza is best known for setting up a legal aid centre for poor women fighting injustice. More than 100,000 women have used the service to fight cases such as child abduction and domestic abuse.

She now serves as a Women’s Rights Advisor to the UN.

H.E. Chantal Compaoré

First Lady of Burkina Faso, women’s rights advocate and philanthropist


Chantal Compaoré is the First Lady of Burkina Faso and a staunch advocate and philanthropist for women’s rights and empowerment as well as health, education and child protection.

Mrs Compaoré founded the SUKA foundation in 1987 which strives to eradicate illiteracy and malnutrition among women and children in some of the most impoverished areas of Burkina Faso. And in 2005 she established a women’s house in Balé which provides a safe haven for women who have suffered abuse, forced marriage and genital mutilation.
She is committed to improving the lives of women and children and supports numerous organisations that work in these areas including being the Honorary President of the African Synergy against AIDS and Suffering, Burkina Faso’s National Committee on Female Genital Mutilation and the Red Cross.
She represented Burkina Faso at the London Summit on Family Planning in 2012 and through her leadership and advocacy, the country pledged to maintain family planning as a central priority of its development policies.


Melinda Gates

Family planning advocate and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


Melinda Gates has lent her voice to the global movement to provide family planning information and contraceptives to an additional 120 million women in some of the world’s poorest countries, by 2020. 

A co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she is never afraid to “dream big dreams and make big plans” and has taken on ambitious challenges, working to support the fight against malaria, HIV and most recently, to promote family planning.

She has stepped forward to become a global champion for women and girls and a leading figure in family planning, helping to galvanise the global community and increase momentum towards empowering women with the ability to decide when to have children.

Describing her motivation she said: “Why have women not been at the heart of the global health agenda? It’s because we’ve not had enough women speaking out. We need to give a voice to women all over the planet.”


Afsana Babli

Grassroots politician in Bangladesh


Afsana Babli is a grassroots politician in Bangladesh who’s campaigning and raising money for better maternal health in her community. 

She lives and works in the flooded Kishoreganj region of Bangladesh, where many poorer women can’t give birth with any form of medical assistance and as a result many still die. She has been working tirelessly to change that.

Afsana has been campaigning to make sure that all women are able to have medical care on hand when they give birth. She’s set up a fund to pay for poorer women’s transport to medical facilities and has been raising money from wealthy community members to pay their costs.

Afsana is now pushing the regional and national governments to make sure that they pay for trained maternal care within the community.

Thanks to her efforts many more women will be able to give birth safely and won’t die bringing new life into the world.

Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristof

Journalists and co-founders of the Half The Sky movement

Sheryl-Wudunn-Nick-Kristof-12-Women Pulitzer prize-winning journalists and authors, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, have shone lights on justice and human rights abuses throughout their careers.

The 2009 book which they co-authored – Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide – highlights the oppression faced by women around the world.

Through the stories of inspiring individuals, they showed the reality of the myriad of issues affecting women around the world, from maternal mortality and obstetric fistulas to sex trafficking.

Following the success of the book, they started the Half the Sky movement – to “ignite the change needed to put an end to the oppression of women and girls worldwide, the defining issue of our time”. The movement has attracted global support and has been successful in raising awareness of women’s issues and empowerment.

Kristof said, “When you invest in and target women and girls, it helps everybody.”

Anna Macauley (Mama G)

Family planning pioneer in Sierra Leone


Anna Macauley (affectionately known as Mama G) is a pioneer in family planning in Sierra Leone 

She has not only helped take much needed family planning services to the most remote parts of the country for the last 15 years, but has also trained many healthcare providers – both in the private and public health system on long term family planning methods.

Anna Macauley has tirelessly fought all odds to pursue her mission single minded – she has worked in very difficult physical terrains and social environments to raise awareness of the importance of family planning, not just amongst potential users but also amongst service providers and policy makers.

Spanning a distinguished career over two decades, Anna has worked at all levels – from the grassroots to the highest policy making levels; in direct service delivery, in training and in quality assurance – to scale up family planning services and build the capacity of the health system in Sierra Leone to provide family planning services.

Graça Machel

International advocate for women’s and children’s rights 

Graca Machel, World Economic Forum on Africa 2010

Former freedom fighter Graça Machel is an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

As Mozambique’s first Minister of Education and Culture after independence – and the only woman in cabinet – Graça Machel doubled primary school enrolment from 40% to over 90% amongst boys and 75% for girls.

She said: “It is the meaning of what my life has been since a youth – to try to fight for the dignity and the freedom of my own people.”

With her late husband Nelson Mandela she is a founding member of the Elders, a group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights. Graça has been particularly involved with their work to prevent child marriage, including setting up Girls Not Brides.

She is a UN independent expert on the impact of armed conflict on children and has spent time in Darfur highlighting the issue of rape and gender-based violence.




Fahma Mohamed

Campaigner against female genital mutilation

Fahma Web slider

Fahma Mohamed is spearheading a national campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM). 

The petition – urging schools to train teachers and parents about the horrors of the practice  – has been signed by hundreds of thousands of people and the general secretary of the UN, Ban Ki-moon has called her campaign “deeply inspiring”.

Education Secretary Michael Gove met with the Bristol teenager last week, and the Scottish government has already agreed to send a letter to every teacher in Scotland asking them to be proactive about teaching the risks and warning signs of FGM.

Fahma said, “Teachers are smart people; they can teach this difficult issue sensitively and delicately. I should know: I’ve seen it happen. The quicker the message gets to schools, the quicker the cycle will be broken.”

Grace Kodindo

Chadian obstetrician-gynaecologist and reproductive health campaigner

Photo via

Grace Kodindo is an obstetrician-gynaecologist from Chad who campaigns for reproductive healthcare as a basic human right. 

Dr Kodindo spent many years as the head of the maternity unit at the Central Hospital in N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad. Her daily battle to save the lives of pregnant women and their children in the face of poverty and a lack of basic medical supplies was featured in a 2005 BBC film, Dead Mum’s Don’t Cry.
Since then she has taken her campaign even further, speaking at the United Nations and to governments across the world to highlight the tragic fact that women in poor countries are dying needlessly because they cannot access quality reproductive healthcare.

Nafis Sadik

Leader of landmark global conference on women’s health and rights

UN Photo/ Eskinder Debebe

Dr Nafis Sadik led the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), a defining moment – sponsored by the UN – for women’s health and rights. 

Dr Sadik brought world leaders together and got them to commit to: universal education for women; reducing child and maternal mortality; and increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services.

She’s been a courageous and tireless advocate for women for more than 60 years, talking about the difficult issues that impact their lives: education, contraception, abortion, as well as rape and other forms of violence against women.

She worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in rural Pakistan before running the country’s national family planning programme and then becoming head of the UNFPA and the first woman to head a major UN organisation.

Nafis Sadik is truly a woman who has inspired change.


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