Women and girls are the hardest hit by climate disaster and social injustice. They are also leading the fight for change.
While Greta Thunberg has brought global attention to what activists can achieve, she is only one of many women who have successfully taken matters into their own hands.
“Women stand at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organisers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic,” the UN press said in a press release about International Women’s Day. “The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.”
According to UN Women’s data, women serve as Heads of State in only 21 countries and only four countries have 50 per cent or more women in parliament. This, in spite of evidence that women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. For example, drinking water projects in Indian areas with women-led councils are 62% higher than in those with men-led councils. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about new social and economic barriers such as domestic violence and unpaid care duties.
Studies show that female economic empowerment boosts productivity. Moreover, increased educational attainment accounts for about 50% of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years. Yet only one in eight countries worldwide have measures in place to protect women against social and economic impacts according to the UN’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker.
Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany and New Zealand have been recognised as hugely successful in their response to the pandemic. What do they have in common? They are all led by women.
However, change isn’t just coming from policy positions and boardrooms. At a grassroots level and in local communities, women everywhere are using their voices, skills, and taking action. Whether through policy, law, education, social and environmental activism or arts and culture, take a look at these trailblazers who are fighting to reshape our world.
19 Female Activists Fighting for Equality and the Planet
1. Sonita Alizadeh, Afghanistan – Rap Artist
Born in Afghanistan, raised in Iran, Alizadeh wrote the rap “Brides for Sale” when her parents tried to force her to get married at age 16. In spite of it being illegal for women to sing in Iran, the rap video went viral on YouTube with over 1.2 million views. In 2017, Alizadeh was honoured at the Asia Society’s Asia Game Changer Awards and has spoken about education for girls at the UN. Currently living in the US, Alizadeh advocates for women’s rights through talks and music.
2. Christiana Figueres, Costa Rica – Diplomat
Figueres is an internationally recognised leader on global climate change. As Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010-2016, her “collaborative diplomacy” brought together governments, corporations, activists, financial institutions, think tanks and NGOs. The result was the unprecedented 2015 Paris agreement. Currently, she is the co-founder of Global Optimism and author of “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis.” In a recent Guardian interview, she made her thoughts clear on women in leadership, “Educating young women and empowering women to come to decision-making tables is the strongest thing that we can do for the climate. When there are more women in boardrooms and in high-level positions in institutions, you get decisions that are wiser and longer term.”
3. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Chad – Indigneous Activist
Ibrahim is an environmental activist working on behalf of the nomadic Mbororo people in Chad. Experiencing discrimination because she was both indigenous and female, in 1999 she founded a community-based organisation promoting the rights of girls and women and the climate. Her environmental advocacy stemmed from her firsthand experience of the effects of Lake Chad drying up, a vital source of water for Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. Ibrahim has ensured the legal right of indigenous peoples to own and manage the lands where they live is World Economic Forum and UNESCO climate policy.
In 2016, she was chosen to represent civil society at the Paris Climate Agreement signing. In 2019, she became one of 17 advocates of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
4. Mahira Khan, Pakistan – Actress
Born in Karachi, Khan started her career as an MTV VJ in 2006 and has won multiple awards for her acting. But Pakistan’s favourite superstar is also a vocal opponent of sexual violence, skin-lightening creams and racism. Determined to tackle social issues through film, tv and music, she recorded a women’s empowerment anthem for International Women’s Day 2020. Titled “Dua-e-Reem”, this translates to “prayer of a woman”. Currently, she is bringing attention to the issues of displaced Afghan in Pakistan as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
5. Helena Gualinga, Ecuador – Indigenous Climate Activist
Ecuadorian Helena Gualinga is an 18-year-old Indigenous activist committed to protecting the Amazon. As a spokesperson for the Sarayaku community, she educates Ecuadorian youth about the conflict between local communities and oil companies. In 2019, Gualinga held a sign that read “sangre indígena, ni una sola gota más” (indigenous blood, not one more drop) in front of the UN HQ. Plus, she accused world leaders of criminal negligence for allowing oil extraction in Indigenous land at COP25. Most recently, she founded Polluters Out, along with other 150 environmental activists, to refuse sponsorship from fossil fuel companies for COP26.
6. Ridhima Pandey, India – Climate Activist
Tired of seeing her home province Uttarakhand battered by heavy rains, floods and landslides, 9-year-old Pandey filed a suit against the Indian Government. She claimed they had not taken the steps to alleviate climate change as per the Paris Agreement. Following this legal action, Pandey filed a complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2019. Along with Greta Thunberg and other youth activists she accused Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France and Turkey of violating the Rights of the Child by not adequately responding to the climate crisis. Her aim is clear. “I want to save our future,” she told Amnesty International. “I want to save the future of all the children and all people of future generations.”
7. Chu Kim Duc, Vietnam – Architect
Chu Kim Duc’s mission is to give every inner city child a place to play. In 2014, she co-founded Think Playgrounds. This social enterprise has created over 180 play spaces from recycled materials all over Vietnam. Slides, zip lines and see saws are refashioned from discarded tyres, metal and wooden furniture. Duc was honoured on the BBC’s list of 100 most influential women in 2020. Her current projects are building therapy outside spaces for the Vietnam National Children’s Hospital and the first low-carbon playground in Hanoi.
8. Tessa Khan, UK – Lawyer
Recently named one of TIME magazine’s fifteen women leading the fight against climate change, Australian-Bangladeshi Khan litigates to change policy. In 2015, she fought on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens who claimed the government were failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough. The court agreed and ordered emissions slashed by 2020. Since then, Khan heads the Climate Litigation Network, which uses human rights law to litigate for climate change. Khan believes women are in a unique position to make change happen, as she explains to Feminista, “Women’s lived experience of economic, social and political inequality positions us closer to the solutions. Where that experience is intersectional, on the basis of race or class for example, our understanding is even more acute.”
9. Anne Simpson, UK – Finance
Simpson used the $350 million investment power of America’s biggest pension provider to make the business world accept that climate change is a huge risk for investors. Currently, Simpson helps lead Climate Action 100+. This coalition of investors negotiate for reduced emissions from the world’s worst GHG offenders for example, oil-and-gas giant Royal Dutch Shell. Being raised by a single mother and educated at a convent school informed her outlook. “There’s nothing like being brought up by a group of nuns to make a young girl feel like anything is possible,” she explained in a Barron’s interview. “Here were women praying for world peace and the banishment of evil.”
10. Rashmi Misra, India – Education
Struck by young girls playing in sewage as they had no school to go to, university lecturer Misra started teaching them at her house. From these small beginnings, she has grown 3 successful schools providing education in the slums of New Delhi, Mumbai and Goa. Vidya students have graduated from MIT and excel at engineering. As Misra explains to Global Citizen, “If you have an education there is nothing stopping you in the world from being whomever you want to be. Every dream a person has can be possible. It doesn’t matter where you are from, you can work and succeed.”
11. Ella and Caitlin McEwan, UK – Climate Activists
These British sisters were 7 and 9 years old when they learnt about the environmental impact of plastic waste at school. “It made us very sad to see how plastic harms wildlife and pollutes the ocean, “ they explained on their website. “We want to change this.” So they started an online petition demanding Burger King stop giving away plastic toys will children’s meals. Their campaign received over 500,000 signatures. Whilst McDonald’s didn’t agree to stopping Happy Meal toys, the sisters’ petition ensured that children are at least able to swap the plastic toy for a fruit bag.
12. Miranda Wang, USA – Inventor
In high school, Wang was looking at how to solve the plastic problem for a science fair. By 2017, she had invented a chemical process to recycle waste plastics. Now 25, Wang’s start-up company collaborates with city governments, waste management companies, material manufacturers and schools. As well as a TED Speaker and CNN Tomorrow’s Hero, Wang is a United Nations Young Champion of the Earth (UNYCE). As she says in her UNYCE bio, “By connecting the waste and chemistry worlds, we’re enabling a circular plastic economy.”
13. Liya Kebede, Ethiopia – Safe Childbirth
Kebede is an Ethiopian-born model and maternal health advocate. As well as gracing the cover of Vogue three times, she has been the World Health Organisation’s Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health since 2005. Alongside this, her Liya Kebede Foundation aims to reduce maternal and child mortality in Ethiopia and globally. Focusing on advocacy, awareness, community-based education and medical training, the success of maternal health projects is evidential. Live hospital deliveries increased by 50% in 12 months at one delivery unit the Foundation worked with. During the same period, the foundation trained 45 workers who went on to assist more than 10,000 mothers.
14. Nanfu Wang, China – Filmmaker
Wang is a Chinese-born American film-maker. Her debut “Hooligan Sparrow” premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2017. It follows Chinese activist Ye Haiyan and the censorship she faces from the Chinese government for speaking out against the sexual abuse of young women in a Chinese school. Wang continued to document the activist, even when she came under government surveillance and received death threats. Wang’s latest film, One Child Nation, explores China’s draconian one-child policy, and the propaganda used to enforce it. It won the grand jury prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and debuted on Amazon in 2020.
15. Agnes Denes, USA – Artist
A pioneer in conceptual, environmental, and ecological art, Denes’ work aims to analyse, document, and ultimately aid humanity’s relationship with the planet. “Rice/Tree/Burial” is considered to be the first work of the Land Art movement in 1968. The piece involved planting rice seeds in a field, chaining surrounding trees and burying a time capsule. “It was about communication with the earth,” Denes explains on her website, “and communicating with the future.”
16. Nzambi Matee, Kenya – Inventor
The piles of rubbish littering the streets of Kenyan capital Nairobi inspired 29-year-old data analyst Matee to quit her job and create sustainable construction materials out of discarded plastic waste. The “paver” brick she designed out of waste plastic and sand is eco-friendly, cheaper, and stronger than cement bricks. The aim is to tackle Kenya’s inadequate housing problem. Plus 20 tonnes of plastic has been recycled since the launch of her company Gjenge Makers, which employs over 112 women and young people. Named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2020, Matee urges other young people to tackle environmental challenges. “The negative impact we are having on the environment is huge,” she explains. “It’s up to us to make this reality better. Start with whatever local solution you can find and be consistent with it. The results will be amazing.”
17. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, USA – Social Justice Activist
Frustrated by George Zimmerman’s acquittal after shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2011, Cullors and her community leader friends Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi founded the Black Lives Matter movement. Garza had used the phrase in a Facebook post but Cullors decision to create the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 took the legendary movement global. Her 2018 book “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” appeared at number 12 on The New York Times Best Seller list. An artist and activist, Cullors also advocates on prison abolition in Los Angeles. This stems from seeing her 19-year-old brother being brutalized in the LA County jail system.
18. Mya-Rose Craig, Britain – Naturalist
Craig is a British-Bangladeshi naturalist and equal rights campaigner. Also known as “Birdgirl”, she was writing an ornithology column for a local newspaper at age 12. By age 14, she had set up Black2Nature, a charity running nature camps for BAME children. For this, she received an honorary doctorate in science in 2020, the youngest British person to receive such an award. Determined to expose the racism in nature conservation, she is an avid blogger, and has spoken alongside Greta Thunberg and wildlife broadcaster Chris Packham.
19. Waad al-Kateab, Syrian – Filmmaker
Al-Kateab (a pseudonym to protect her family) is a Syrian journalist, filmmaker, and activist. Her documentary, “For Sama” won Best Documentary at both the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards in 2020 . The film is both a love letter from mother to daughter and an illustration of the devastation of war. Al-Kateab has also won an Emmy for her reporting of the siege of Aleppo and made the Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2020. For her, film-making is a vehicle for change. “Every day, people are being killed by the Assad regime and the Russians,” she explains in a Vogue interview. “I struggle with whether what we’re doing now is the right thing, but at the same time there is nothing else we can do. We are trying to shed light on this situation, to ask people to try to do something for these children – to consider them as your children.”