From Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland being named Foreign Policy’s Diplomat of the Year, to the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the record wins by women candidates in the US 2018 midterm elections, this past year has put a spotlight on women in prominent political, diplomatic and economic roles. But even in a country like Canada, with a self-declared feminist prime minister and a push for mainstreaming a gender approach across all areas of government, we know change is still slow when it comes to women receiving equal opportunity.
With that stark reminder in mind, this International Women’s Day, we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate women working on global issues who are already making change in their own way. In particular, we wanted to highlight a group of women whose names may not come immediately to mind, from all corners of the globe. To do so, we asked 10 Canadian or Canada-based women — from climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe to Nobel Women’s Liz Bernstein — to nominate just one woman they would like to see receive more attention this year. Their responses serve as a reminder of the countless women around the world whose work inspires.
1. Agnes Binagwaho, Rwandan pediatrician.
— Andrea Reimer, former Vancouver city councillor
I have never met Agnes Binagwaho, but everyone who has spoke of her to me has done so in the kind of tone reserved for Mother Theresa — not the eventual saint but the simple woman who stood 10 times taller than life to martial an army, afflict the comfortable and work her fingers to the bone to help those in need. To be a believer, one only need hear the statistics Binagwaho has helped to make a reality, first as a pediatrician, then senior civil servant, and eventually minister of health: in 20 years, life expectancy in her country has doubled to 68 years, new HIV infection rates have halved, and 45,000 health workers were trained and now serve residents in every corner of the country. Ninety percent of residents have full health care coverage and ninety-three percent of children are vaccinated. That all this is happening in post-genocide Rwanda — Binagwaho’s birth country, where she returned to in 1996 — makes it more than a minor miracle. Recently, Binagwaho took on a new challenge as vice-chancellor of the University for Global Health Equity, allowing her the opportunity to expand her successful approach across the globe. She’s already moved mountains, but she’s got many more in her sights.
Andrea Reimer was elected for four terms to municipal government in Vancouver and is currently a Loeb Fellow in urban policy and civic leadership at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
2. Deborah Lyons, ambassador of Canada to Israel.
— Jacqueline O’Neill, global fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center’s Canada Institute
Deborah Lyons’s life is the story of a girl from rural New Brunswick who rose to become one of Canada’s strongest and most effective diplomatic voices for women around the world.
As the first female ambassador to serve in Afghanistan after Taliban rule, Lyons made our embassy the go-to place for women. On gender equality — an issue to which many pay little more than lip service — Lyons was well-known among government leaders, diplomats and, most tellingly, Afghan women themselves. She not only offered space at the embassy for coalitions of activists to meet, she sat alongside them. She not only spoke of women’s rights, she mobilized resources and action to support access to education, health care, economic opportunities and political participation.
For her leadership, Lyons was awarded the prestigious Mark Palmer Prize, established by the Community of Democracies to honour those who have acted outside their regular duties to advance democracy and human rights.
Now serving as ambassador to Israel — a role through which she helped oversee the dramatic evacuation of Syrian White Helmet volunteers — Lyons is again seen as the leading diplomat on women’s inclusion.
Originally from St. Albert, Alberta, Jacqueline O’Neill is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Canada Institute. Previously, she was president of the DC-based Institute for Inclusive Security.
3. Sahle-Work Zewde, president of Ethiopia.
— Lamia Naji, manager for strategy & learning at the Mastercard Foundation
October 2018 marked a significant development for Ethiopia and the African continent more broadly: Sahle-Work Zewde was sworn in as Ethiopia’s first female president, bringing with her an extensive and distinguished career in diplomacy and foreign service.
Zewde’s appointment is symbolic and crucial for a complex suit of reasons. Nationally, it underscores a renewed commitment towards diversity and female empowerment, which is further supplemented by the appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet including women in strategic ministries. At the regional level, Zewde adds to a modest but growing list of African countries, such as the Central African Republic, Liberia and Malawi, with women who’ve held, or continue to hold, high political office. Internationally, Zewde’s appointment sends strong signals to diaspora young women that hard work can in fact lead to relatable representation, at home and abroad.
In her address to Ethiopia’s Parliament, Zewde’s notable emphasis on peace — between neighbours, within communities and across borders — spoke volumes as the country continues to take meaningful steps towards social cohesion and economic prosperity. Her messages are undoubtedly optimistic for men and women alike within Ethiopia and beyond.
Lamia Naji is the manager for strategy & learning at the Mastercard Foundation.
4. Christiana Figueres of Global Optimism Ltd.
— Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist and professor, Texas Tech University
Tackling climate change is a global effort, but Christiana Figueres may go down in history as the woman who led the charge. As executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010-2016, she led not one, not two, but six meetings of the Parties to the UNFCCC. These meetings culminated in the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, a remarkable and truly unprecedented treaty that unites all the countries of the world around one common goal: to reduce and eventually eliminate the heat-trapping gas emissions from human activities to avoid a warming of 1.5 or 2oC. Figueres’s personality played a huge part in this achievement: she pioneered an inclusive and open leadership style that encouraged nations to engage in good faith, and she modelled an unshakable optimism that did not allow for failure. While the Paris Agreement is clearly the result of the persistent and coordinated efforts of many, it’s Figueres, more than any other individual, who deserved the recognition for the process that delivered this historic outcome.
Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, a professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, part of the Department of Interior’s South-Central Climate Science Center. She is also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research.
5. Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, LGBT activist.
— Jennifer Keeling, Global Affairs Canada
On this International Women’s Day, I would like to highlight the incredible Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera. She is a Ugandan LGBT rights activist who began her advocacy as a teenager in a country where homosexuality is illegal. She co-founded Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) in 2003 to lobby for the rights of women, work to free them from violence, and empower LBQ persons in Uganda. She has continued to fight for LGBT rights in Uganda, despite strict laws which put her at risk. In May 2011, Nabagesera was the first LGBT rights activist awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for her continued courage in the face of discrimination and violence against LGBT people in Uganda. She is a human rights defender, and truly an inspirational woman who deserves a shout-out.
Jennifer Keeling is a strident feminist who studied and spent the last 14 years working on human rights issues and currently works on the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations at Global Affairs Canada.
6. Lucie Goulet, founder of Women in Foreign Policy.
— Christine Cheng, King’s College London
I'm nominating Lucie Goulet, the founder and CEO of Women in Foreign Policy, a London-based organization created with one goal: to bring more women into the field of international affairs. It all began four years ago when Goulet launched the WIFP website (while working full time for Burberry) and began to curate WIFP’s special blend of inspiration, advice, job notices and mentoring opportunities. Through hard work and sheer determination, Goulet has grown the WIFP community to 100,000 women. Powered by a team of 30+ volunteers from all around the world, WIFP conducts interviews with women about their career trajectories, publishes a newsletter and a podcast, hosts networking events, and maintains an active social media community. Last year, Goulet says, WIFP helped 500+ women get foreign policy jobs. What Goulet has achieved in such a short time has been inspirational to me and so many others. There are young women and teenage girls who will have Goulet to thank for their foreign policy careers. But that’s not all that Goulet has achieved (in addition to her day job)! She has also been on the forefront of political activism, heading up Emmanuel Macron’s digital campaign for En Marche in the UK leading up to his election as the president of France. Her work in this area, she says, helped deliver 140,000 votes to a brand new untested political movement. Goulet later went on to become the UK head of En Marche and is now the lead for all of Northern Europe. In my eyes, Goulet is an entrepreneurial dynamo with a deep social conscience. And she’s only getting started.
Christine Cheng is a lecturer in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. Despite her Canadian roots, Christine has recently worked on British foreign policy for the UK government’s Stabilisation Unit, Chatham House and the Liberal Democrats.
7. Laila Alodaat, MENA director, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
— Rasha Jarhum, co-founder and director, Peace Track Initiative
Laila Alodaat is a truly inspiring feminist leader and women’s rights defender. Her being from Syria and I from Yemen, we had a common struggle to bring peace to our countries. In her capacity as the MENA Director in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she works from the heart to support women peacebuilders in the entire region, including Yemen. She patiently listens to us and guides us to reach our own decisions. Even when she was dealing with her own personal ordeals, she puts us ahead and addresses our concerns and questions. She helped me understand the true meaning of feminism and sisterhood and has fostered those values in my approach when partnering with women. Alodaat made me believe in myself and my capabilities and taught me how to trust my ideas and stand up for myself. She was not hesitant to support my newly formed organization, the Peace Track Initiative. I owe her a lot of what I have become today.
Rasha Jarhum is a South Yemeni, a gender, peace and security expert and co-founder and director of the Peace Track Initiative, hosted at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at Ottawa University.
8. Christine Ahn, founder, Women Cross DMZ.
— Liz Bernstein, founding director, Nobel Women’s Initiative
Christine Ahn is definitely a leader to watch. She is the founder of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the nearly 70-year-old Korean War, reunite families, and ensure women’s leadership in peace building. In May 2015, long before the idea of peace talks with North Korea seemed feasible, Ahn organized women’s peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul, a women’s peace walk with 10,000 Korean women on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and a historic crossing from North to South Korea with 30 women peacemakers from 15 countries, calling for an end to the Korean War. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to bring the voices of Korean women to the forefront, and to centre their call for lasting peace.
Today, Ahn is at the heart of the new Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War, a global campaign of civil society groups to educate, organize and advocate for a Korea peace agreement by 2020. She is a fearless and visionary leader, a dynamic speaker and outstanding organizer who is mobilizing ordinary people, media and policymakers alike for change and lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula. She excels in making the impossible possible, and is a true embodiment of women’s leadership and power in waging peace.
Liz Bernstein is the founding director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Previously, she served as coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines from 1998 through 2004.
9. Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist.
— Jennifer Pedersen, World Vision Canada
My shout-out goes to Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, feminist, activist and peacebuilder. Gbowee was instrumental in achieving an end to Liberia’s second civil war by leading women in a mass action for peace. She has built on that legacy in a number of ways: becoming a top global expert on women, peace and security; creating the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa to empower young people in Liberia; and advocating for women’s inclusion in current peace processes, including in Yemen, Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula. Gbowee’s powerful and compelling voice makes politicians sit up and pay attention. This International Women’s Day, I celebrate the inspirational Leymah Gbowee and all grassroots women change-makers working to build a more peaceful world.
Jennifer Pedersen spent seven years working in politics in Ottawa and now works on humanitarian policy with World Vision Canada. She has published on women and conflict, Canadian foreign policy, and the arms trade.
10. Those women who cannot be named.
— Teresa Kramarz, associate professor, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto
Women human rights defenders walk on the razor-sharp edge of their societies’ moral compass. Every year, women pay with their own lives for taking a private stance at home and saying “no more,” or marching in public and leading a movement for change. Most women are never recognized for this incredible courage. Some, like Honduran Indigenous activist Berta Caceres, receive prestigious awards — in Caceres’s case, the world’s foremost environmental prize — and that still fails to protect them from being murdered.
There are many women in Latin America whose names cannot be said, because being internationally recognized puts them in even graver danger in their own countries. To those women, who lead in the continent where it is most dangerous to be a human rights defender, I want to dedicate my quiet nomination for inspiring change.
To the women who have been targeted and beaten for helping Central American caravan migrants in Mexico; to those who have faced threats and intimidation for protesting open pit mining in Colombia; for all the Indigenous women who while victimized continue to march in Ecuador to demand an end to mining in the Amazon; and for those detained in demonstrations that ultimately achieved the landmark Escazú agreement in 2018 to protect future environmental defenders: I recognize your incredible bravery and determination. I hear your call for justice.
Teresa Kramarz is an associate professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in the University of Toronto. She directs the Munk One undergraduate program, co-directs the Environmental Governance Lab, and is the co-convener of the Accountability in Global Environmental Governance Task Force of the Earth System Governance network.