Meet some inspiring grass-roots women leaders who are bringing lasting change to their communities, supported by the United Nations
The data is clear. Despite women’s increased engagement in public decision-making roles, equality is far off: women hold about 21 percent of ministerial positions globally, only three countries have 50 percent or more women in parliament, and 22 countries are headed by a woman. At the current rate of progress, gender equality will not be reached among Heads of Government until 2150, another 130 years.
What’s more, violence against women in public life is widespread. Women in leadership roles struggle with lack of access to finance, online hate and violence, and discriminatory norms and exclusionary policies that make rising through the ranks even harder.
Yet, women persist, and continue to prove that when they lead, they bring transformative changes to entire communities and the world at large.
Inclusive and diverse feminist leadership is key to sustained global development as the world continues to confront urgent challenges – from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change, deepening inequalities, conflict and democratic backsliding. The United Nations is working around the world to enable more women to take their rightful seats at decision-making tables.
Here are the voices of just seven women and girls who, with UN support, have led transformative processes that are creating change.
Mayerlín Vergara Pérez champions the rights of children and teen survivors of sexual exploitation in Colombia
Mayerlín Vergara Pérez sleeps with her phone on the pillow.
As the director of a home for dozens of children and teens who have survived sexual violence and exploitation in Riohacha, on Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela, she never knows when she might get called in to resolve a crisis.
“Sexual violence has all but destroyed their ability to dream. It’s stolen their smiles and filled them with pain, anguish and anxiety,” said Pérez, a vibrant 45-year-old. “The pain is so profound, and the emotional void they feel is so deep that they simply don’t want to live.”
Throughout a career that she regards as a calling, Pérez has assisted hundreds of the roughly 22,000 children and teens that the Colombian NGO Fundación Renacer (or “Foundation Rebirth”) has served since its founding 32 years ago.
In recognition of her work, UNHCR named Pérez the laureate of the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious annual prize that honours those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support forcibly displaced and stateless people.
“For me, the prize represents an opportunity for the girls and boys,” said Pérez, adding she hoped it would show that “it is possible for survivors of sexual violence to change their lives and undertake life projects that are positive for them, for their families and for society.”
Read more about Pérez’s work in this story by UNHCR.
Elena Crasmari, the only woman in her local council in Moldova
Thirty-five-year-old Elena Crasmari was fed up with not being able to access the medical centre in her village of Dolna, a rural community of 1,155 people in Moldova. She couldn’t take the stairs and had to get on her hands and knees to enter the building, because of her disability.
“I went to the town hall to ask them to help me do something about the stairs of the medical facility,” Crasmari recalls. “The mayor handed me a bag of cement and some sand and told me I had to do it myself. After this, I decided to run for office.”
Crasmari learned new skills and gained more confidence as she participated in the training sessions on women’s political participation and civic engagement supported by UN Women and its partners. She built a successful grassroots election campaign and ran for local councillor as an independent candidate.
“I wanted to make the first step in proving that people with disabilities have a chance… People need to know that we have equal rights, not only in theory but also in practice.”
Women make only 25 per cent of parliamentarians, 22 per cent of mayors and 27 per cent of district councilors in Moldova. Today, Crasmari is the only woman in a nine-person team, as the local councillor. Since being elected, one of her first projects was to renovate the village medical centre.
“I also hope that I’ll be able to make all the state institutions – including our museum, the kindergarten and the town hall – accessible to people with disabilities,” Crasmari says, “and to mothers with small children and senior citizens who come and pick up their pensions.”
Read more about Crasmari’s story on UN Women website.
Amina Mirsakiyeva paves the way for women in science in Kazakhstan
“I broke the system,” says Amina Mirsakiyeva, a researcher for Karzeis, the largest manufacturer of optical systems in the world.
Her journey to a career in chemistry was not easy in her home country Kazakhstan, where being a scientist has low prestige and women are expected to opt out of their careers to start and take care of their families.
Not quite ready to choose between her studies and starting a family, Mirsakiyeva decided to apply for a doctoral programme in chemistry in Sweden and left Kazakhstan in 2012.
Now based in Stuttgart, Germany, Mirsakiyeva traces her success to support networks such as her parents, colleagues and friends along her career path, and she wants to pave the way for other women like her.
“All my social activities are aimed to support women and help to inspire as many people as possible,” she says.
Mirsakiyeva created a network for women scientists from Kazakhstan, to increase recognition and respect for scientific career in her country and to normalize the image of girls and women in science. She also organizes breakfast meetings for businesswomen and immigrants. Mirsakiyeva believes that science belongs to everyone and created a podcast to explain scientific concepts in accessible ways.
Mirsakiyeva also tells her story on UNDP’s new regional online platform for gender equality in STEM in Europe and Central Asia to encourage women and girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Read more about her in this story by UNDP.
Rebecca Chepkateke holds authorities accountable in Uganda
“Mwana muke hana haki yake! Mwana muke hana haki yake,” says Rebecca Chepkateke with anguish. It’s a Kiswahili expression that means, “women have no rights”. She’s heard this phrase repeated too many times to women who attempt to report gender-based violence to community leaders.
Chepkateke is the Chairperson of the Karita Women’s Network, a coalition formed under the Women Networks for Gender Equality, supported by the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, and Women Empowerment project in the Amudat District of northern Uganda. She was elected to the role by seven women’s groups who came together to strengthen the advocacy of women in their respective villages.
Chepkateke provides a critical link between women experiencing violence and justice and health services. Her work encompasses a wide array of support, from helping women report their attacker – and ensuring the case is not dismissed by police – to assisting women in isolated regions to give birth safely by connecting them with a village health team nurse.
The leadership of grassroots activists like Chepkateke is especially important during the pandemic, when gender inequalities have worsened.
“Women have suffered the most during this period,” says Chepkateke. “With the closure of markets and ban on public transport, they had no way of selling their produce or conducting their businesses… Domestic violence has increased tremendously.”
Chepkateke hopes to take her campaign for equality even further by becoming Woman Councillor in Karita Sub-County, a position that would help her strengthen legislation that protects women from violence.
Read more about Chepkateke’s work supported by the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative.
Belen Perugachi, a teenage council woman in Ecuador
Belen Perugachi was just 12 years old when she decided to become an advocate for indigenous rights by joining the Children and Adolescents Group of Pueblo Kayambi in Ecuador.
At 16, she’s the youngest member of the Rights Protection Council of Cayambe Municipality. Her ascent to Council Vice President in 2019 marked the first time that a teen was elected to the position.
“I want people in rural areas to have the same opportunities as people in cities,” she says. “I imagine a world with respect for different cultures, with respect for men and women… I dream of equity.”
In the rural community of Paquiestancia, agriculture and livestock make up the primary source of income for many families. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the main market closed in Cayambe, Perugachi and her youth group stepped up, opening a new marketplace to support women and their families.
Perugachi aims to preserve more than the local economy; she advocates for indigenous rights on the global stage. In 2018, she travelled to Chile for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“My participation sent a message to indigenous girls like me in Latin America,” she says. “I told them to stand up for their rights and feel proud of their traditions.”
Get inspired by more girls leading changes in this story by UNICEF.
Kelsang Tshomo supports female bus conductors drive out violence in Bhutan
When reports of domestic violence spiked during the COVID-19 lockdown last spring, bus conductor Kelsang Tshomo checked in on friends and colleagues in Bhutan’s capital city of Thimpu every few days to make sure they were alright and provided information if they needed help. Tshomo had learned about gender-based violence prevention and response at an information session conducted by UNFPA and its non-profit partner RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women), which inspired her to become a changemaker in her community.
“The UNFPA training made me realize that any form of abuse – verbal, emotional, sexual or physical – is not acceptable,” says Tshomo, who is also a peer counsellor for a staff of 87 conductors and drivers for Thimpu City Bus Services.
In her counsellor role, she advises her peers on reporting cases and accessing psychosocial support. “Colleagues, some of whom had lived subdued lives in fear of their husbands, are now confident and engage in discussions.”
These newly empowered bus conductors and drivers, sensitized in spotting and de-escalating abuse and harassment among passengers, join her as she takes her advocacy to the streets. Thus far, UNFPA’s partnership with the bus company has trained 25 conductors and drivers on gender-based violence prevention with plans to expand to 20 more buses.
“To bring about a real change, women have to provide each other the space to share, learn and grow together,” Tshomo says. “Women supporting women is crucial to ensure a safe, equal and happy society for both men and women.”
Read more about Tshomo’s work in this story by UNFPA.
Editar Ochieng, a survivor changing the narrative on sexual violence in Kenya
As a six-year-old girl, Editar Ochieng was sexually abused. At the age of 16, she was gang raped.
Ochieng grew up in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, where. sexual and gender-based violence is an endemic and pervasive issue. It has been exacerbated even more in the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns creating more family and financial stress.
When she was 26, Ochieng founded the Feminist for Peace Rights and Justice Centre in Kibera, an organization supporting survivors of sexual and other forms of violence in the community.
At one point during the pandemic, Ochieng alone was receiving up to 10 calls from violence victims each day.
Citing numbers however, is not enough for Ochieng. For her, one woman abused is one woman too many and it’s the obligation of all who have the capacity to do so to stand up for their rights and ensure that the status quo is “disrupted.”
In 2020, UN Human Rights and UN Women – under a project called Let It Not Happen Again – provided support to Ochieng and other human rights defenders to better respond and support gender-based violence survivors to report to police, access psychosocial medical services and safe houses.
Ochieng says that education and training has given her the power as a feminist to look at challenges and transcend them.
“When you’re a leader, you’re changing the narrative,” she says. “We need to train our young girls on the importance of education. We need to reclaim our power so that we raise a different generation that understands there is power, but there is power that you can control.”