By Sheila Kinkade
Her vision: A South Africa where women engineer solutions to social and environmental problems.
In recognition of International Women’s Day, YouthActionNet honors the vision, perseverance, and courage of its Fellows who are working on the front lines to advance the rights and opportunities of women.
Below are ten Fellows whose social innovations are improving the incomes of rural women in Cambodia, promoting the rights of women and girls in Pakistan, strengthening the leadership skills of women in Nigeria, enhancing the self-esteem and self-protection of young women in Jordan, and more.
We applaud the efforts of these and other YouthActionNet Fellows who are championing the cause of women in an effort to build a safer, more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable world.
1. Naadiya Moosajee, South Africa
Her vision: A South Africa where women engineer solutions to social and environmental problems.
Naadiya Moosajee co-founded South African Women in Engineering (SaWomEng) as a platform to advocate for the advancement and education of females entering the engineering industry. Why encourage more women to pursue engineering degrees? "We have enthusiastic young women who want to change the world,” says Naadiya, pointing to the more 2,000 high school girls who participate in SaWomEng’s programs, including a mentorship match where high school students are paired with university mentors who act as big sisters. “These young women realize that engineering could be the vehicle to reach their goals,” adds Naadiya. “What’s more, women tend to pursue more collaborative approaches to problem solving,” which is why SaWomEng’s annual innovation challenge focuses on identifying solutions to the toughest challenges facing developing countries. Says Naadiya, “With more young women taking up the mantle of leadership, we can create a collaborative space to engineer a more prosperous Africa.”
2. Ana Moraga, Guatemala
Her vision: To develop spaces of empowerment with women sex workers in order to build community, emotional and economic well-being, and political voices for the advancement of their human rights.
Soon after graduating from college, Ana Moraga moved with her roommate from her home in the U.S. to Guatemala City to meet a group of women sex workers featured in a documentary. These initial meetings grew into long-lasting relationships based on trust and dignity. In time, the women from this community shared with Ana their dreams and goals about learning how to read and write or practicing a trade. These conversations led to literacy and vocational workshops using a popular education methodology. Through MuJER - Mujeres por la Justicia, Educación y el Reconocimiento (Women for Justice Education and Awareness), Ana facilitated spaces of empowerment for women to become socially and politically active through programs that range from literacy and vocational training to emotional well-being and violence prevention. Since its founding, MuJER has created a multifaceted support system for over 500 women sex workers throughout Guatemala.
3. Therese “Reese” Fernandez-Ruiz, Philippines
Her vision: To be a life and livelihood partner for our artisans so that poverty becomes a part of their past.
Reese co-founded Rags2Riches (R2R), a social enterprise, in 2007 to empower low-income women to make high quality goods out of discarded cloth from garment factories. R2R believes that style and environmental sustainability can come together to create fashionable products and trends. R2R uses upcycled fabric scraps purchased from garment manufacturers, as well as organic and native weaves sourced from indigenous communities, and transforms them into unique home and fashion accessories. To date, more than 800 community artisans have benefited from training and increased incomes. Says Reese, “My vision is for our artisans to get out of poverty and not just to get by. We believe that our amazing, hardworking, and compassionate artisans deserve this big audacious goal and all the perseverance that comes with making this happen.
4. Alia Whitney-Johnson, Sri Lanka
Her vision: Use jewelry making as a tool to empower young women survivors of abuse while raising awareness of their needs.
It was while traveling to Sri Lanka in 2005 that American Alia Whitney-Johnson was moved to address the plight of young women survivors of sexual violence. Eight years later, Emerge Global, the organization she founded to meet their needs, has reached more than 300 young women in that country. Through its efforts, survivors of abuse rediscover their personal beauty, develop their self-sufficiency, and become leaders in their communities. Jewelry making is used as a tool to enable beneficiaries to organize themselves; develop financial, business, and leadership skills; and build a community of support. Jewelry created through Emerge Global is sold both in Sri Lanka and the United States, with revenue from sales returned to the girls and reinvested in materials to sustain the program.
5. Khalida Brohi, Pakistan
Her vision: To change the lives of a million women over the next ten years through empowering them economically and as leaders.
Khalida Brohi began her career as a woman’s rights advocate at the age of 16, striving to put an end the practices of honor killing, child marriage, and arranged marriage in the tribal communities of southwest Pakistan. In 2009, she launched the Sughar Women Program, a social enterprise that empowers tribal and rural women by giving them training, skills, and opportunities to use their embroidery talents to generate income. The Sughar (a local word meaning skilled and confident woman) Program aims to unleash women’s potential by giving them opportunities that they deserve. Refusing to stand against the traditions and values of tribes, Sughar instead promotes their customs and traditions, such as music, language, and embroidery. This positive approach to fighting a crime like honor killing has contributed to Sughar’s popularity among rural communities, with more than 700 women in Sindh and Balochistan supported to date.
6. Lina Khalifeh, Jordan
Her vision: To empower as many women as possible through self-defense training and SheFighter franchise studios in the MENA Region, Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Lina Khalifeh founded SheFighter as the first women’s self-defense training center in Jordan and the Middle East. With a passion for the martial arts, Lina sought to create a space where women could learn physical and mental techniques that they could use to defend themselves and build their self-confidence. SheFighter also offers workshops and seminars about sexual harassment, bullying, women’s rights, honor crimes, and more. “I started SheFighter to stop or reduce violence against women,” says Lina. “I believe passionately that women have the right to learn how to defend themselves.” Since 2012, Lina has taught nearly 500 women and reached nearly 40,000 more through her appearances on TV. After receiving SheFighter training, women start feeling more confident and secure,” she says, sharing the story of one beneficiary who no longer fears taking a taxi.
7. Gökden Ipek Yosunlu, Turkey
Her vision: To enable low-income, rural women in Turkey to create their own cooperative through which they produce, market, and sell rugs.
Through My Mother’s Rug, Ipek empowers low-income, rural women to make rugs out of recycled fabric and links them to urban markets. The women earn an average of US$430 per month – contributing not only to their family income but their sense of self-worth. With leftover curtain fabric used to make the rugs, the project pursues both a social and environmental mission. “The women now feel like they can do something by and for themselves,” says Ipek. “They don’t have to feel like the weakest part of society. They can actually feel a part of it.” Watch the video.
8. Vanntha Ngorn, Cambodia
Her vision: To economically-empower rural women in Cambodia, while preserving a time-honored silk-weaving tradition.
When she set out to lift rural women in Cambodia out of poverty, Vanntha Ngorn had other complementary goals in mind. Members of her collaborative would not only learn high quality silk-weaving techniques and gain access to markets but they would preserve a centuries-old tradition at risk of disappearing. An added benefit was educating consumers about the value of purchasing handcrafted, fair trade goods that promote environmental sustainability. Four years later, Color Silk, the social enterprise Vanntha created, is a resounding success, having boosted the incomes of more than 400 rural women, while being lauded by the national government as one of the country’s top silk producers.
9. Elisabet Pérez Costas, Spain
Her vision: To ensure the equal rights and full integration of lesbian and bisexual women in Spanish society.
Elisabet Pérez Costas created the Asociación Nos Mesmas to support, empower, and advocate for lesbian and bisexual women while combating prejudice and discrimination against them. The Association provides a meeting place for lesbian and bisexual women to gather and support one another; offers counseling; advocates for improved policies; and hosts discussion groups, workshops, and outdoor activities. An important part of its work is promoting the visibility of lesbian and bisexual women in Spanish society so that they are able to exercise their full rights as citizens.
10. Fego Isikwenu, Nigeria
Her vision: To empower young African women to be leaders.
Recognizing that women are often not accorded the same protections, rights, and roles as men – and are frequently denied opportunities for employment and education – Oghenefego Isikwenu founded Women-LEEP. Its goal: to empower young women with leadership and life skills to strengthen their decision-making and ability to take charge of their lives. Participants, ages 14 to 22, participate in a three-month training and mentoring program focused on developing their self-esteem and skills in such areas as decision-making, communication, negotiation, and goal-setting. At the end of the training, participants are supported in pursuing a vocational path and/or furthering their educational goals. Sixty percent of program beneficiaries have gone on to institutions of higher learning, with a majority of graduates volunteering their time as program facilitators and mentors.