With so much attention paid to high-profile women in 2016, from Hillary Clinton to Wonder Woman, it’s easy to lose sight of lesser-known women who are blazing a trail in low- and middle-income countries. In ways big and small, these women have moved the needle on gender equality by being activists, role models or simply taking a stand.
Here’s a roundup of some of the many memorable women we profiled on Goats and Soda in 2016.
The 19-year-old Somali-American wanted to compete for Miss Minnesota USA and didn’t let the fact that she is a hijabi — a Muslim woman who wears hijab — stop her. In the swimsuit portion of the competition, she wore a burkini, a type of modest swimwear specially made for hijabis. She grabbed headlines for her confidence, from the States to Somalia. “Beauty isn’t one-size-fits-all,” she says. “If I can find different ways to spread that message, I will.”
Wafula has bipolar disorder, but she had a hard time getting diagnosed in her native Kenya. Some people thought she was cursed — and even worse, there just weren’t many mental health facilities in Kenya where she could get good information about her condition or medications. So she established Kenya’s first text message mental health hotline so anyone in the country could send in questions to trained volunteers. She’s become a role model in Kenya — and this year, named one of her country’s 40 women under 40.
When Al-Swerki’s three-year-old daughter stripped nude in front of some boys in preschool, the teacher was frantic, acting as if the girl had ruined her future. At first, Al-Swerki was filled with panic and shame. But she was determined to raise her daughter to be comfortable with her own body — an awareness she herself wasn’t taught as a young Palestinian girl. “I will never allow anyone to control my reactions and feelings toward any incident happening to my daughter. To my husband. To me. To my life,” she says.
What was supposed to be a vacation to northern India ended up changing her life — and the lives of almost 200 child brides and other girls. After a chance encounter with a woman in a remote village, De Chollet, the daughter of a Swiss baron, was inspired to start a school for girls in Jodhpur. Called the Veerni Institute, the school requires parents to sign a contract stating that they won’t send their daughter to live with their husband until the girl graduates from high school. In exchange, the girl gets free room, board and education.
It happened during Guatemala’s civil war in the 1980s, but Choc Cuc hadn’t forgotten. This year, the 75-year-old Mayan Indian went to court and told a three-panel judge how soldiers killed her husband, captured her and her daughter, and repeatedly raped her. Many women were too scared to come to court, but not Choc Cuc. Her testimony was critical. In February, two military officials were sentenced to over 100 years of prison each for their war crimes.
Superman has found that sometimes a five-minute conversation is all it takes to turn a victim’s life around. She shares the story of Sylvia, from Bulgaria, who was arrested in Cyprus for prostitution. Superman asked her: Do you like what you’re doing? Are you satisfied with your work? No one had ever asked Sylvia those questions before. Sylvia was inspired to go to a shelter and press charges against her captor. It’s moments like these that moved the U.S. State Department to honor Superman this year for her activism against human trafficking.
She was a child bride. Today, she’s a prize-winning wrestler eyeing the 2020 Olympics. Neetu, a full-time athlete, an occasional Bollywood actor and a mom of two, is seen as an inspiration in India. “She’s changed everything,” says a woman from her village. “Everybody believes that a girl can now say — ‘I want to do something.’ ”