Inspiring women who have made a difference

Wangari Maathai  1940 – 2011

Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai

Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. Maathai was an elected member of parliament and served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005.

Malala Yousafzai 1997 –

USA : Malala Yousafzai Press Conference

Yousafzai is a Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for women’s rights, especially the right to education.

Shirin Ebadi 1947 –

Nobel Laureates meet Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama

An Iranian lawyer and former judge, Ebadi fought for human rights in Iran – representing political dissidents and founding initiatives to promote democracy and human rights for especially women, children and refugees. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and was the first ever Iranian to receive the prize. In 2009, her award was allegedly confiscated by Iranian authorities, though this was later denied by the Iranian government. She has been in exile in the UK since June 2009 due to the increase in persecution of Iranian citizens who are critical of the current regime.

Graça Machel 1945 –


Machel is the only woman ever to be the first lady of two countries. She was born in rural Mozambique. As a schoolgirl, she won a scholarship to study in Portugal. She became a schoolteacher and when Mozambique achieved independence in 1975, she was its first Culture and Education minister. During her tenure, the percentage of Mozambican children in primary and secondary schools rose from about 40 percent of all school-aged children to over 90 percent for boys and 75 Percent for girls.

Machel is a dedicated humanitarian, particularly devoted to children’s causes, and has been honoured by the United Nations for her work. She is a Dame of the British Empire and one of Forbes’s 100 Most Powerful Women in the world.

Thuli Madonsela 1962 –


Courageous public protector, Thuli Madonsela’s term ends in October, the country is waiting in anticipation as to who will fill her mighty shoes. Madonsela has stood firm as she fulfils her mandate to strengthen constitutional democracy and promote good governance. Her work ethic and dedication to truth has brought credibility back to her office.

Madonsela has been involved in community and social justice issues since the 1980s and in her early career was a teacher and union organiser. As a human rights lawyer and expert on equality and policy, she was part of the team that drafted the country’s constitution in 1996. She gave up a scholarship at Harvard to do this.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi 1945 –


Burmese opposition politician Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years for her pre-democracy campaigning. She only gained release in 2010 following an international campaign to set her free. She won a Nobel prize in 1991.

Wendy Luhabe 1957 –


A formidable and familiar face in South Africa’s boardrooms, Wendy Luhabe is probably the most powerful and visionary businesswoman in the country, as well as a social entrepreneur and author. Luhabe, who epitomises the self-made woman, has spent much of her career working to empower previously disadvantaged people, especially women.

In 1992, she began her first foray into social entrepreneurship, founding a consultancy called Bridging the Gap, which helped prepare previously disadvantaged people for the business environment. She broke new ground in 1994 by founding women’s investment group Wiphold, which enabled tens of thousands of women to invest for the first time and which was the first women-owned company to list on the JSE.

Luhabe is the recipient of multiple awards and honorary degrees.

Benazir Bhutto 1953 – 2007


“Democracy is the best revenge.”

She was the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan (1993-1996) and the first woman to head a Muslim state. During her leadership, she ended military dictatorship in her country and fought for women’s rights. She was assassinated in a suicide attack in 2007.

Pics: Corbis


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