The daughter of a Sierra Leonean woman with no formal education, Zainab Hawa Bangura became known for documenting sexual violence against women and speaking out against the atrocities and corruption during that nation’s decade-long civil war.
Despite threats to her life from groups opposed to her work as a civil society activist, Bangura advocated for more government transparency and greater democracy in the country that had been under one party rule for several decades. In 1996 Sierra Leone held its first democratic election in 25 years, with its success partly attributed to Bangura’s work.
Since 2012 Bangura has been fighting to increase the safety of women during conflict as the United Nations special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict.
A graduate of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College, she received a fellowship to study insurance management at the Chartered Insurance Institute of London. There she not only learned the insurance business, she developed an appreciation for democracy and she returned home as an activist.
"I learned about the government and came back with a strong passion for democracy. I knew this was right for my country," she says.
A personal tragedy ignited Bangura’s dedication for women’s rights. After she was prevented from burying her mother because of laws leaving burial rights to a woman’s husband, Bangura knew she wanted to help other women in her country.
In her early 30s, she became vice president of Sierra Leone’s largest insurance company. In 1996 she also co-founded the Campaign for Good Governance in Sierra Leone, which promotes human rights, encourages the public to participate in politics and advocates for transparency in government.
In 2006, the United Nations appointed Bangura as the head of civil affairs, responsible for the reconstruction of 16 Liberian ministries and 30 government agencies following that country’s civil war. She was subsequently appointed as Sierra Leone’s foreign minister, and later its health minister. In September 2012, the U.N. secretary-general appointed her as his special representative on sexual violence in conflict.
The endorsement by 137 countries of the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict "is what makes me proudest," Bangura says. "We have established the necessary tools to put a stop to these atrocities."
Once she completes her assignment at the U.N., Bangura would like to work on breaking down cultural stigmas against educating girls and establish counseling to reduce the effects of peer pressure, which is a major factor in teen pregnancy and school drop-out rates for girls.
"If I had not gone to school, I would not be where I am today," she says. "Education is the golden key not only to the empowerment of women, but for our whole culture."
–By Crystal Lewis
After graduating at the top of her IBM training course, the only woman in a group of 50, Carmen Barroso felt confident as she applied for a job as a programmer in Fortran computer language.
"We only hire old women and as secretaries here," she was told by a male interviewer at the technology company. "Young women in the middle of male programmers will cause trouble."
That experience decades ago marked the abrupt end of her budding technology career, but also sealed her lifelong commitment to advocating for social justice, a mission that has led her to a global leadership position in the field of reproductive rights and women’s health.
A native of Brazil, Barroso rebelled against gender constraints from her early years. Although her parents encouraged her to pursue an education, she says, they were also firm believers in different roles for boys and girls. "My brother had much more freedom. I was protected all the time. I didn’t think it was fair that boys had all the fun," she recalls.
Barroso’s feminist views took full shape during her college years when she became acquainted with the writings of early Brazilian feminists and was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir.
Her list of outstanding achievements and contributions is extensive, including the establishment of Brazil’s first women’s study center, consulting stints for international and intergovernmental agencies and service on many boards and international commissions dealing with various aspects of women’s and children’s health.
In 1991 she became the first non-American woman to be appointed director of a major U.S. foundation when she took on the role of director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Population and Reproductive Health program. She left that position in 2003 to become the regional director of International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region.
"I love it," Barroso says of her role. "It allows me to follow my goal of changing the world in a pragmatic way. It is not just preaching, but it is also offering solutions." Under her stewardship, the organization currently provides nearly 33 million services annually through its 41 member associations in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Occasionally, the sheer size of the challenge brings frustration, but Barroso quickly pulls herself together. As on a recent morning, when she was informed of the case of a pregnant 13-year-old.
"A crazy judge forbid the abortion," she explains. "That kind of injustice and terrible destruction of human life keeps me going. This is a dramatic example but there are thousands and thousands of young girls whose horizons are limited by restrictions that are unnecessary and damaging. We help them overcome it."
–By Liza Gross
As she helped out with her grandmother’s lay midwifery work in Arkansas, then 12-year-old Kimarie Bugg found her life’s mission: to support mothers and infants, including advocating for breastfeeding.
The founder and president of Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere Inc. (ROSE), Bugg has dedicated her career to decreasing breastfeeding disparities in the African American community.
Formerly a nurse practitioner for Emory University’s School of Medicine’s department of pediatrics, Bugg received her nursing degree from Central Texas College in Killeen, Texas. In her last semester of nursing school, when she was five-months pregnant with twins, Bugg asked the instructor when they would learn about breastfeeding. She was told it would not be covered. Without the support of health care professionals, Bugg committed to breastfeeding her new infants, and was well on her way to becoming an advocate.
"I took a year and I read everything I could get my hands on about breastfeeding. They started to call me ‘the breast nurse,’" she says.
Bugg has served as a bedside breastfeeding counselor for the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, managed perinatal and breastfeeding projects and programs at the state level and has served as a national faculty to Bestfed, a program that helps U.S. hospitals become officially Baby Friendly. (These hospitals must demonstrate they have incorporated policies and practices that support breastfeeding.)
"I heard so much about African American women not breastfeeding, I had to go full force to change this trend," she says. Adversity, low self-esteem and stress are associated with poor health outcomes. Breastfeeding decreases health disparities.
ROSE trains breastfeeding peer counselors and health care providers throughout the United States. Operating since 2011, the organization works in cooperation with strong health care provider networks, community organizations and churches to provide encouragement, support and clinical care to increase breastfeeding rates and sustain a mother’s breastfeeding experience.
Bugg has also completed a three-month fellowship at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, which has given her renewed passion for eliminating disparities.
In addition to this work, she is on the board of directors of the United States Breastfeeding Committee, on a task force for the National WIC Association and travels throughout the country training health care providers and community organization to provide culturally appropriate breastfeeding care to underserved families.
When asked what message her work sends to all women Bugg says: "You don’t have to start out an expert. You just have to start."
–By Lauren Trapanotto
Raising money is always a challenge. Many shy away from it. But not Carol Kurzig, a trailblazer in corporate philanthropy, whose work at the Avon Foundation for Women uniquely puts generous support from a public corporation to work as a catalyst to dramatically increase both public support for and awareness of critical women’s issues.
Now president of the Avon Foundation, Kurzig’s nonprofit career began when she left advertising to join The Foundation Center, where she provided information to the public on how to secure grants for causes of all kinds.
"I became interested in increasing good work by improving access to funding for all nonprofits," Kurzig says.
She used that fundraising experience in her next role as president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s New York City Chapter. Since MS is an autoimmune disorder that’s more prevalent among women, Kurzig developed insights into some of the special health challenges faced by women.
In 2004 she joined the Avon Foundation, which focuses on women’s health through its long commitment to the breast cancer cause. Her experience with both foundations and fund-raising nonprofits was uniquely suited to guiding that foundation’s transition from a private company foundation to a public charity, in order to better engage the public in The Avon Breast Cancer Crusade. Fifty-five Avon markets around the world now sell products and conduct events to combat breast cancer, and as a result, Avon global philanthropy has donated more than $815 million to breast cancer programs.
In 2004 Avon determined it should use its unique resources, especially its global army of millions of Avon sales representatives, to tackle another cause important to women. A pro bono study by McKinsey found that women around the world overwhelmingly ranked domestic violence as one of the top three issues that concerned them.
"That’s easy to understand when you realize that 1-in-3 women worldwide will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime" Kurzig says.
In 2004 the Avon Foundation launched its "Speak Out against Domestic Violence" initiative, both to educate and to improve prevention and direct service programs. Speak Out programs are now conducted by over 50 Avon markets around the world, which have donated almost $60 million to programs aimed at reducing partner abuse and violence.
At the end of 2013, during the U.N.’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, the Avon Foundation launched a groundbreaking global social media campaign called "See the Signs" in 26 countries.
"While people want to help victims of abuse and violence, they are uncomfortable talking about it. Kurzig says, "But it is only when we all recognize the signs and speak out, that change can be possible."
–By Reshmi Kaur Oberoi
Born in a small Midwestern town in Kansas, Jennifer Rawlings decided she did not simply want to believe what people said about war. She wanted to see it with her own eyes.
A mother of five teenagers and a stand-up comic, for 11 years Rawlings has traveled to war zones to entertain the troops, having done over 300 shows around the world.
She returns with stories of war, soldiers, family and motherhood from her travels and incorporates them into her theater show "I Only Smoke in War Zones," which brings attention to what happens to women and men in war zones across the globe.
"I use comedy as a way to start a conversation on something serious," Rawlings says. "Because if you can get people to laugh, you can get them to listen."
When in Iraq, she met a young male soldier arrested with a large cache of weapons. When questioned by the military, Rawlings tells her audience, "the prisoner explained that he needed all the weapons because just last week the neighbors had kidnapped one of the women in his house. And when she returned, they decided that she had dishonored the family by being raped. So he killed her."
Back at home Rawlings read a published account of the starvation in Darfur and a quote from a mother who said if the fighting ended, she could return to growing food for her family. Noticing her mother was weeping, Rawlings’ teenage daughter challenged her to take action.
"It is women that live with the poverty and corruption that continue to devastate society," Rawlings says.
Focusing on the toll war takes on women after the last bullet is fired, she cobbled together the money to buy a camera and a plane ticket from two friends and flew to Sarajevo, the center of the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II.
In her documentary "Forgotten Voices: Women in Bosnia," she interviews Nablita, who became a mother "a few minutes" after the war ended. Nine years later, Nablita’s son was killed by land mines while playing soccer in a field that was supposed to be safe. "I only have the love and loss of my child," Nablita told Rawlings. "I have no space in my heart for anger. If anyone can help stop these things, please help."
In March 2013, Rawlings shared her experiences with TedTalks for TEDx, which brings people together to share "ideas worth spreading." During her talk, "The Courage to Forgive," she stressed the importance of not remaining passive at the sight of a conflict-ridden world and taking steps to make change.
"I do believe in the power of storytelling," Rawlings said.
–By Darina Naidu
On Jill Sheffield’s 27th birthday while volunteering at the Pumwani Maternity Hospital in Nairobi, she met a Kenyan woman, also 27, who had six surviving children from 11 pregnancies. The meeting changed the course of Sheffield’s life, who now changes the lives of women across the globe.
Sheffield traveled to Kenya with a Columbia University master’s degree in international education, set to teach at a university there until political unrest closed the school down indefinitely.
Instead, she worked in a family planning clinic in Nairobi, where she met many women who could not afford contraceptive care or were not permitted to use birth control by their spouses, a legal requirement in the 1960s. As a birthday present to herself, Sheffield decided to pay for the reproductive health care of one particular woman. Since then, she has been committed to a single mission: providing women the power to choose.
"You have to make choices, and the choices you make are what shape your trajectory," she says.
Sheffield became a co-founder of Family Care International in 1987, the first international organization dedicated to calling attention to the half-million women dying each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. The organization convened a global conference in its founding year that spun off into the Safe Motherhood Initiative, an initiative that lasted 20 years and advocated across the globe for funds and policies that would reduce maternal deaths.
Maternal mortality rates are dropping worldwide, with the exception of the United States; globally, an estimated 287,000 women died during pregnancy and childbirth in 2010, a decline of 47 percent from levels in 1990, according to the World Health Organization.
"Looking back, one lesson is crystal clear: When we finally put girls and women at the center of our development agenda–instead of on the sidelines—we will see exponential progress," Sheffield wrote in the Huffington Post.
After 20 successful years, Sheffield created Women Deliver. The organization’s message is that maternal health is both a human right and a practical necessity for sustainable development. It works globally to generate political commitment and resource investments to reduce maternal mortality and achieve universal access to reproductive health.
Women Deliver hosts an international conference on the health and well-being of girls and women every three years. The 2013 event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was attended by 4,500 maternal health experts, advocates and journalists. A Young Leaders Program was incorporated into the conference, for people 30 and under who have shown exceptional dedication to the progress of maternal and reproductive health.
"It pays to invest in women. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do." Sheffield says. "For women and girls, this is their time — now."
–By Reshmi Kaur Oberoi
America’s preeminent and innovative Muslim female comedian, Maysoon Zayid is also the best known international stand-up with cerebral palsy.
Given her status, she is a leading international advocate for women and children with disabilities. Zayid’s activist work took off when she founded Maysoon’s Kids in 2001, a nonprofit that addresses the educational needs of children with disabilities in Palestine. The organization funds education scholarships and brings teachers and technology to children who need it the most. As part of Maysoon’s Kids, Zayid also counsels mothers of children with disabilities.
"I think my greatest weapon against oppression is the fact that I have a brain and I can write, communicate and speak… without my intellect I would have nothing," Zayid says.
"These kids are not given the chances I was given."
Zayid was born in New Jersey and studied theater with an emphasis in women’s studies at Arizona State University. After graduation she tried to land a television acting role but says she found it difficult for a Palestinian-American woman with cerebral palsy to get cast.
As a result, she pursued stand-up comedy, eventually becoming the first person to perform stand-up in Palestine and Jordan.
"I didn’t realize it was groundbreaking…but I got to create a space where comedy wasn’t a man’s game," Zayid says. "It was really fun to be kind of a leader in the Arab comedy movement."
Through her stand-up career and the founding of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, Zayid has inspired other women to get into comedy, and she advocates for the media to feature more disabled women to act as role models.
"It became really important to me that women with disabilities knew that they didn’t have to be treated as sub-human," Zayid says. "Part of what I do onstage is show you can have a disability and be a full-grown woman. This doesn’t make us less female or less human."
Through her work, she also hopes to bring the issues faced by women with disabilities to the attention of the feminist community to help bridge the gap between disabled and able-bodied activists.
Zayid has been an on-air contributor on "Countdown with Keith Olbermman" and a regular columnist for The Daily Beast. She is now working on getting a screenplay made into a movie that features a capable and strong disabled girl as its main character. She is also continuing to pursue her original dream of being cast in a role on a television show where she can be a role model for women and girls with disabilities.
"I want to get out there in the mainstream and show a broader audience that we can be functional," she says.
–By Amy Rubinson
For more information: