When a crisis hits, it’s women and girls that are most affected. They experience increased gender-based violence and a loss of income can put them more at risk of early, child, or forced marriage. But instead of waiting for conflicts to end, for someone else to step in, or for laws to pass to help them, women are stepping up and being the first responders, changemakers, and activists that their families, local communities and women across the world need. 

In honour of International Women’s Day, here are 12 women who are making the world a safer, better place, for everyone.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala was 15-years-old when she was targeted for advocating for girls' right to education in Pakistan. A gunman tried to kill her as she walked home from school. Malala survived the attack and she and her family moved to the UK, where she launched the Malala Fund a non-profit organisation that advocates for girls' education.

Malala yousafzai wearing purple headscarf speaking into microphone
Malala was nearly killed for her activism when she was just 15 years old. But she survived and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to ensure girls everywhere could go to school.
Photo: Southbank Centre

With more than 130 million girls out of school today,  Malala continues to fight for girls' right to learn.

In 2014, at the age of 17, she became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work and the United Nations launched the ‘Malala Day,’ in honour of the young Pakistani activist’s fight for universal education.

Sara Mardini 

Sara is a Syrian former competition swimmer, lifeguard and human rights activist, who took part in search and rescue missions, saving refugees making the crossing from Turkey to Greece. 

Sara Mardini speaking into a microphone
The story of Sara and her sister Yusra’s journey from Syria to Europe was portrayed in the Netflix film 'The Swimmers'.
Photo: Vanco Dzambaski

Sara and her younger sister, now Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, fled from Syria in 2015. When the boat they were escaping on started to sink in the Aegean Sea, the sisters swam the boat to safety, a journey chronicled in the Netflix movie, “The Swimmers.”

“I talk them through it,” Sara said. I tell them, ‘I know what you feel, because I’ve been through it. I lived it, and I survived’, and they feel better, because I am a refugee just like them.”

After the sisters were granted political asylum in Germany, Sara joined a non-governmental organisation that helped refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos, working as a translator. “I talk them through it,” Sara said. I tell them, ‘I know what you feel, because I’ve been through it. I lived it, and I survived’, and they feel better, because I am a refugee just like them.”

Sara’s involvement in Lesbos led to her and other human rights activists being arrested in 2018, with charges which have been refuted heavily by organisations like Amnesty International. In January 2023, Sara went on trial with 24 other humanitarian aid workers, facing up to 25 years in prison for charges of "espionage," "migrant smuggling" and "money laundering" in Greece. After the court ruled that the charges of espionage were partially inadmissible, Sara and the other aid workers await a second trial to determine the charge of “migrant smuggling.”

Halima Aden

Halima Aden is a Somali-American fashion model and activist. She was born at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and moved to the United States aged 6. 

Halima broke boundaries at every step of her career, becoming the first hijab-wearing model to be signed to a major agency, walk international runways, and appear on the cover of Vogue magazine. Soon after, Halima became a UNICEF ambassador, through which she advocates for children’s rights and uses her platform to raise funds and awareness for the global refugee crisis. 

 

“I need to be the person the kids in the refugee camps can relate to. The greatest thing I could give them is hope,” Halima says. “I want everyone to live to their full potential without having to fear someone will try to knock them down or discriminate against them.”

Waad Al-Kateab 

Waad is a Syrian activist who started out as a citizen journalist for Channel 4 news in 2011, through which her reports on the war were broadcast in the UK. Over time, as the war intensified, Waad chose to stay and document her life in Aleppo, during which she met her partner and gave birth to their first daughter, Sama. 

A woman standing in front of a wall
Syrian activist and former journalist, Waad, swept up awards for her debut film which detailed the Syria crisis.

 

For Sama, Waad’s debut feature film which was dedicated to her first daughter, swept the awards ceremonies across the globe, winning Best Documentary at the BAFTAs, Cannes Film Festival, and the Emmys. 

Having fled Aleppo in 2016, Waad, her husband, and her two daughters, now live in the United Kingdom, where she continues to work as a filmmaker/reporter for Channel 4 News, as well as being a mentor for female journalists. Outside of film, Waad dedicates time to her advocacy campaign, Action for Sama, which was set up to turn the worldwide support for the film into positive action for Syrians. 

[*Al-Kataeb is the chosen pseudonym surname to protect Waad’s family.] 

Nadia Murad

Nadia is an Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist who now lives in Germany. In 2014, Nadia was kidnapped from her home in Iraq by members of the group known as ISIS and held captive for three months.

nadia murad at an event sat in a grey chair
Nadia Murad was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her work advocated for women in conflict.
Photo: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Following her escape, Nadia became a powerful advocate for women in conflict settings and survivors of sexual violence. This resulted in her being awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize—the first Iraqi and Yazidi to have done so. The same year, she founded Nadia’s Initiative, an organisation dedicated to providing advocacy and assistance to victims of genocide. 

“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine. We must not only imagine a better future for women, children, and persecuted minorities; we must work consistently to make it happen—prioritising humanity, not war.”

Rima Sultana Rimu

Rima Sultana Rimu, human rights activist, sitting at a table with a pen in her hand

As a member of 'Young Women Leaders for Peace,' Rima Sultana Rimu has been recognised for her outstanding work providing educational resources for women and children in Rohingya refugee camps in her native Bangladesh. Using radio broadcasts and theatre performances as well as more traditional classroom teaching methods, Rimu spreads awareness of the UN Security Council's recommendations on women, peace and security. She also serves as a resource for members of the Rohingya community facing issues like child marriage and domestic violence. 

“I am determined to bring gender equality to Bangladesh. I believe in the power of women and girls to fight for our rights. We will succeed.” 

Maryna

A young child in the foreground, and two adults in the background
Mother of two, Maryna, was forced to dig out her children from rubble when a missile struck their home in Ukraine.
Photo: Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for the IRC

Maryna is a mother of two whose home in Ukraine was heavily damaged by missile strikes. On one occasion, Maryna’s 3-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter were both in the house when a missile struck. With her husband away on a business trip, Maryna was alone with her children in the house. At first, she did not even realise that a missile had hit, and it was only until she heard her young son crying that she realised he was stuck under building fragments. Immediately, Maryna jumped into action and pulled him out.

“My daughter was so surprised…I said, ‘I knew I was running out of time. I mean, even if you're covered with something, I'll dig you out, give you to an ambulance, and you'll live on.”

Since then, the IRC has been helping Maryna register for financial compensation for damages, as well as providing essential items to prepare for the winter ahead. 

Zahra

Zahra, an Afghan refugee, journalist and single mum
Zahra took part in the IRC’s leadership training and now she advocates for women’s rights.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick for the IRC

Zahra is an Afghan refugee, journalist and single mum. She and her two children, aged 11 and 10, fled from Afghanistan to the UK in August 2021, forcing her to leave her dream job as a TV news anchor.

In 2022, Zahra took part in the IRC’s leadership training, and now advocates for women’s rights on a global scale, telling her story of fleeing conflict to the United Nations. Settling into the UK, Zahra has dreams of studying for a Master’s degree and restarting her career as a journalist, while being an advocate for women’s rights in Afghanistan and all over the world. 

“I want the world to stay with Afghanistan and all in the world who are in danger,” Zahra says. “There shouldn’t be any difference between refugees and how people from different countries are treated. I want equality for everyone, whether they’re from Ukraine or Afghanistan or anywhere else, they should have the same rights.”

Omaira

A woman, Omaira, standing in front of a painted wall
After surviving gender-based violence and being displaced twice, Omaira became a Women’s Protection and Empowerment Advocate in Colombia. She listens to survivors and identifies ways to help.
Photo: Julian Ruiz for the IRC

“That’s the biggest challenge, reaching all women… and teaching them that there is no reason to live with violence or to live with fear every day.”

Omaira is a Women’s Protection and Empowerment Advocate from Colombia.  A survivor of gender-based violence, her experiences drove her to  participate in an IRC-run programme funded by ECHO, as part of a group of 25 women. Through the programme, Omaira was empowered to take ownership for her community and identity ways to prevent, and even respond to, gender-based violence cases that her neighbours might experience. As an advocate within her community, Omaira receives training on how to listen to survivors, as well as how to emotionally take care of herself and protect against the effects of second-hand trauma. 

“You, as a survivor, can give a hand to someone who at the moment is a victim,” Omaira says on what she’s learnt from being a support worker. ”You have to say ‘you’re no longer a victim, you’re going to be a survivor.’” 

Mokube

A woman sitting on a couch
Once an IRC client herself, she had to flee her home and integrate into a new community when violence in her home village escalated. Now, she’s partnered up with the IRC to help and support women and girls in her new community, located in a village in the South West region of Cameroon.
Photo: Ojong Spencer for the IRC

Growing up in her community in south-west Cameroon, Mokube experienced discrimination by men who ridiculed her for receiving an education. Whenever she tried to defend herself, many refused to listen.

“They insulted me…They said that I wasn’t fulfilling my duties as a woman — that I’m instead wasting my time studying,” Mokube says.

This led Mokube to put herself forward for training to become a community advocate on gender-based violence at a programme run by the IRC, to learn even more about the issue and to help educate the wider community. Now, Mokube helps empower other women and girls in her community to stand up for themselves and take an active part in helping others. 

Ala’a

A man and a woman standing in front of a display of vegetables
“A woman can do anything, be a vegetable grocer or a mechanic. In my opinion, there's nothing a woman can't do,” says Ala’a who became a business owner height of the economic crisis in Lebanon.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick for the IRC

“Never give up, and never let anyone say she’s a woman and can’t do it.” 

Ala’a set up her own vegetable shop during the height of the economic crisis in Lebanon, determined to help get her family out of debt. She received funding support and financial training from the IRC. 

Drawing upon years of experience from her father, her shop is now thriving—even through the economic crisis and electricity shortages—and she hopes to expand it into a franchise one day. 

Also mother to a 5-year old girl called Imane, Ala’a is a fierce believer that women can do it all. She doesn’t see her being a business owner and working long hours affecting her ability to be a caring mother who can give her daughter everything she wants. 

“You know society's view on women is that women are only housewives and mothers. It's quite the opposite,” Ala’a asserts. “A woman can do anything, be a vegetable grocer or a mechanic. In my opinion, there's nothing a woman can't do.” 

Warsan Shire 

Warsan Shire stands with arms crossed, wearing a yellow hat

Warsan Shire, featured in Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” was born in Kenya to Somali refugees and raised in London.

Known to many as “a compelling voice on black womanhood and the Africa diaspora," Shire started writing poetry as a teenager. One of her poems, “Home,” became a rallying cry for refugees and those who support them.

She writes:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well.

Shire was honored as London's first-ever Young Poet Laureate in 2014.

How can I support women around the world? 

Women can’t wait for conflicts and disasters to end, laws to pass or protections to be in place. We believe women and girls must be at the center of every decision to build safer, more equitable societies. This International Women’s Day, make a donation to support our work and stand with women as they make change happen.