Inevitably, women and girls are most affected by crisis. They experience increased gender-based violence and a loss of income can put them more at risk of child marriage or other forced marriage.
But more and more, women are stepping up to become first responders, changemakers and activists for their families and local communities. From rescuing children from destroyed homes to championing refugee rights, women are making a difference.
In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), the IRC is celebrating the many women—some world famous, some simply local heroes—who are making the world safer and more secure.
Waad Al-Kateab is a Syrian activist who began her career as a citizen journalist for Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom, which broadcast her reports on the war in her country. As the war intensified, Waad documented her life in Aleppo, a period during which she met her partner and gave birth to their first daughter, Sama.
For Sama, Waad’s debut feature film, swept awards ceremonies across the globe, winning Best Documentary at the Cannes festival, Emmy and BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards, as well as numerous prizes for best independent film and an Oscar nomination.
Waad and her family (they added a second daughter) now live in the U.K., where the filmmaker/reporter continues to work for Channel 4 and mentor aspiring female journalists. Away from work, Waad dedicates time to her advocacy campaign, Action for Sama, established with the goal of transforming enthusiasm for the film into positive action for Syrians.
[*Al-Kataeb is a chosen pseudonym surname to protect Waad’s family.]
Sara Mardini, a former competitive swimmer and lifeguard, and her younger sibling, Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, were among the thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria in 2015 when their boat started sinking in the Aegean Sea. The sisters dove into the water to guide the vessel to safety, a journey chronicled in the Netflix movie The Swimmers.
After the Mardinis were granted political asylum in Germany, Sara joined a nongovernmental organization that helped refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos, working as a translator. “I talk them through it,” Sara says. “I tell them, ‘I know what you feel, because I’ve been through it, I lived it, and I survived.’ They feel better, because I am a refugee just like them.”
I talk them through it. 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 arrest, along with 24 other human-rights activists and aid workers, in 2018 by Greek authorities. Organizations including Amnesty International have refuted the charges that range from espionage to migrant smuggling and money laundering, and which could result in up to 25 years in prison. A court threw out charges of espionage, but Sara and her co-defendants continue to await trial on the remaining counts.
Nadia Murad 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. Following her escape, Nadia became a powerful advocate for women living in conflict zones and survivors of sexual violence.
In 2018, Nadia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be so honored. The same year, she founded Nadia’s Initiative, an organization 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,” says Nadia, who now lives in Germany. “We must not only imagine a better future for women, children and persecuted minorities; we must work consistently to make it happen—prioritizing humanity, not war.”
Halima Aden is a Somali-American fashion model and activist. She was born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and moved to the United States when she was 6.
Halima broke boundaries at every stage 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,” says Halima. “I want everyone to live to their full potential without having to fear someone will try to knock them down or discriminate against them.”
Maryna was home with her 3-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter when a missile struck their house in Ukraine. Her husband had left on a business trip to Kyiv, and Maryna had an uneasy feeling that something might happen while he was away.
At first, she did not even realize that a missile had hit— she just felt the blast wave pass through her house and saw the lights flicker off. It was only until she heard her young son crying that she realized he was stuck under building fragments. Maryna jumped into action and pulled him out.
“I knew I was running out of time,” she recalls. “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 help to repair the damages, as well as providing essential items to keep her family warm
Zahra is an Afghan refugee, journalist and single mom. She and her two children, ages 11 and 10, fled from Afghanistan to the UK in August 2021, requiring her to abandon her dream job as a TV news anchor.
In 2022, Zahra took part in the IRC’s leadership training, which helps refugees become mentors, and now advocates for women’s rights on a global scale. She has told her story of fleeing conflict to an audience at 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 is a women’s protection and empowerment advocate from Colombia. A survivor of gender-based violence, she chose to participate in an IRC-run program as part of a group of 25 women. Through the program, Omaira was empowered to work in her own community to identify ways to prevent and respond to gender-based violence cases that her neighbors might experience.
As an advocate, Omaira receives training on how to listen to survivors, as well as how to care for 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. ”You have to say ‘you’re no longer a victim, you’re going to be a survivor.’”
Growing up in her community in southwest Cameroon, Mokube endured ridicule from men because she was educated. “They insulted me,” she recalls. “They said that I wasn’t fulfilling my duties as a woman—that I’m instead wasting my time studying.”
This led Mokube to enter an IRC training program for community advocates addressing gender-based violence. Now Mokube empowers other women and girls to stand up for themselves and help others in turn.
Ala’a was determined to help her family escape debt that plagued many of her fellow citizens in Lebanon. With funding and financial training from the IRC, and drawing on years of experience working with her father, Ala’a established her own vegetable shop—despite Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis and chronic electricity shortage. Now she hopes to expand the shop into a franchise.
Ala’a, also mother to 5-year-old Imane, doesn’t see a conflict with working long hours while caring for her daughter. “Never give up, and never let anyone say you’re a woman and can’t do it,” she says. “You know society’s view on women is that women are only housewives and mothers. It’s quite the opposite. A woman can do anything, be a vegetable grocer or a mechanic. In my opinion, there’s nothing a woman can’t do.”
Sagal is a 23-year-old university student who participated in the IRC Women’s Protection and Empowerment program in Somalia.
After fleeing an abusive marriage, Sagal was encouraged to take part in the 10-week program, which provided her with psychosocial support to help pull her out of her depression and change the trajectory of her life.
Sagal decided to study medicine. She chose to become a nurse in order to get training in midwifery and pediatrics, so she could focus on helping other women and children.
But Sagal’s contributions to the community don’t stop there; her nursing studies inspired her to go one step further and help set up a new organization, the Somali Girls’ Hope Association. The organization focuses on educating women and girls on topics ranging from breastfeeding to the eradication of female genital mutilation. It provides guidance and emotional support to help girls know they can rise above their circumstances and shape their own lives.
“We want to give hope to the girls who were told that women can’t be anything in order to erase their morale and emotion,” Sagal says. “We want them to feel that they are capable of doing something.”
*Last names omitted to protect the identities of the women profiled.
We want to give hope to the girls who were told that women can’t be anything in order to erase their morale and emotion. We want them to feel that they are capable of doing something.
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