The theme of this year's International Women's Day, a holiday now more than a century old, is “Be Bold For Change.” It's a message intended to push people toward concrete action on gender equality. Here are the stories of five women from around the world who are doing just that in their communities.
England | By Karla Adam
You either just give up, or you think, 'one life at a time'
Sarah Fane is an optimist, a smile never far from her lips. Ask her about educating girls in Afghanistan, a nation where the literacy rate for women is among the worst in the world, and she beams.
“If you have a massive problem like Afghanistan, you either just give up, or you think, ‘one life at a time,’” says the blonde 54-year-old.
Fane lives in Aldworth, a village about 50 miles west of London. It's a world away from Afghanistan, where she has previously worked as a doctor. She remembers working at a women’s clinic in 2001 and being struck by how many children, especially girls, were not in school. Before the American-led invasion, the Taliban prohibited girls from getting an education.
When Fane returned to England, she started giving talks to raise funds for work in Afghanistan, first for health projects and later for schools. She set up Afghan Connection, a charity that has raised more than 6 million pounds ($7.3 million) to fund the construction of 44 schools — often in remote, mountainous areas.
Fane travels to Afghanistan twice a year and says there’s still much to do. According to UNICEF, only half of the nation's children are in school. But she has seen steady progress since she established her charity in 2002.
“It’s incredible to see girls say, ‘We want to be doctors and teachers, we want to change our country,’” she says. “One life at a time. ”
India | By Swati Gupta
'Why am I tolerating it?'
Vimla lost her father when she was 14. A year later, she was married to a man 16 years older than her. He began beating her on the first night of their marriage. “When a lion attacks a lamb, that is how my first night with him felt like,” she said.
After years of abuse, Vimla, 64, who goes by just her first name, asked herself, “Why am I tolerating it?”
She started attending a workshop held for women and eventually began working in the slums. “The first time I saw a slum, I thought, how do people live here?” Vimla said. “It is so dirty, but I had this thing in my heart that I have to do something.”
She started the Women Progress Council to educate women across 12 slum colonies in Delhi about domestic violence, health and their rights. “Once they get support, it gives them confidence,” Vimla said. “They understand the unfairness and then they stand up for themselves.”
Vimla lives with her husband but no longer allows him to hit her. “I am grateful to him,” she said. “Because if he was not like this, then I would not be what I am now.”
Russia | By Andrew Roth
'Everyone has a story'
Women facing the threat of domestic abuse or sexual assault often don’t have free use of their hands, are under immense strain, and may not be able to access their telephone to call for help. Kathy Romanovskaya, 42, a co-founder at the Russian start-up Nimb, says her company’s product has those women in mind. It's fashionable ring that doubles as a panic button, allowing the wearer to discreetly send a distress signal to a support circle, including friends, parents or the police.
The product is partially inspired by personal experiences, including attacks against some of the founders and their friends.
“Everyone has a story,” Romanovskaya said in an interview at the co-working space in Moscow she shares with co-founders Nick Marshansky and Leo Bereschansky. In a viral Facebook post calling for Kickstarter donations last year, she described a near-lethal knife assault 16 years earlier that she was lucky to survive.
“That episode shaped me,” she said in the interview. “I literally had to scream. I was lucky my neighbor heard me. We hope this will increase the chances that the call for help will be heard.”
Romanovskaya was already a well-known anti-Kremlin satirist before going into business. But she was dispirited, having exhausted all of her words and seeing no change, and was excited to make a product where you can see the result.
Nimb, which received more than $290,000 in crowdfunding, will release the rings this year.
China | By Emily Rauhala and Xin Jin
'Women around the whole world should unite'
It was March 2015, two days before International Women’s Day, and Wei Tingting was preparing to mark the occasion. She and a small group of friends wanted to raise awareness about sexual harassment on public transportation. They planned to hand out stickers on the bus — but they never got the chance.
Instead, Wei and four other women were taken to a detention center on the outskirts of Beijing and held for 37 days. They were interrogated again and again about their plans to organize for LGBT and women’s rights.
The Chinese government’s campaign of intimidation did not work. Word of their arrest spread quickly and spurred global campaigns to #freethefive, turning them into feminist heroes. Two years later, Wei is still working for gender equality as the founder of the nonprofit Guangzhou Gender Education Center. She is also preparing a report on sexual harassment.
In China, International Women’s Day has for the most part been commercialized — it’s about buying flowers, not building a movement. This year, Wei hopes people will take the day to reflect on the fight for gender equality. The day is “not for sales in shops, not for roses, not for vacations,” she said, “It’s for women’s rights and human rights.
Women around the whole world should unite.”
Egypt | By Sudarsan Raghavan
'Now, it’s a critical time for Muslim artists'
Deena Mohamed is not your typical 22-year-old, and neither is her creation: Qahera, a Muslim Web-comic superheroine who wears a hijab, or headscarf, wields a sword and can fly. Her mission, in part, is to help women who face sexual harassment.
In real-life Egypt, harassment is widespread. According to the United Nations, 99 percent of women in the nation have been sexually harassed. Mohamed is seeking to change thoughts and perceptions through the stories of Qahera. Her work has gone viral on the Internet and social media, with her stories being discussed in academia as a way to alter deeply ingrained societal mind-sets.
Qahera is the Arabic name for Cairo. It also means “conqueror” or “vanquisher,” appropriate for a character who is combating Islamophobia. Like many Egyptian artists, Mohamed was inspired by the 2011 populist revolts that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Mohamed was 16 years old then.
“It was very formative for me,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have been interested in doing an Egyptian character if it wasn’t for the revolution. Even though Qahera is largely satirical, the concept of someone actually trying to protect Egypt, a superhero that stays, is definitely part of the atmosphere of back then.”
Mohamed is planning to launch more Web comics featuring Qahera. She also wants to create a comic with Qahera as a young girl to address “the way Egyptian girls are controlled within their families, and have no autonomy.
“Now, it’s a critical time for Muslim artists in general,” she added. “With art, you get your opinions out there in many ways.”