16 Global Heroes Battling Violence Against Women and Girls

shutterstock_262368413Reprinted with permission from Safe magazine. To read the full stories of each hero, click here.

What makes a hero? Someone who walks toward a problem, not away from it. Someone who puts others before themselves even if doing so puts themselves at risk. Someone who translates their own pain or hardship into solutions and salve for others. Someone who digs deep beneath an issue to find the root cause, and who is innovative, brave and tenacious enough to dream up, and implement, solutions. Someone who takes on the hardest stuff, who doesn’t ignore the suffering in front of them, who soldiers on with few resources. Someone who goes there.

Each year, Safe magazine celebrates a fresh crop of global heroes. Safe is the first-ever digital magazine focused on the global epidemic of violence against children. Launched in 2013, Safe is published by Together for Girls, a global public-private partnership dedicated to ending violence against children, particularly violence against girls.

This year, to highlight the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which was initiated by Rutgers University and began on Nov. 25, Safe introduces you to 16 remarkable heroes who go there.

African American Policy Forum


Eleanor Bumpers. Tanisha Anderson. Kendra James. Kathryn Johnson. Aiyanna Stanley-Jones. Sheresse Francis. Miriam Carey. Michelle Cuseaux. Gabriella Nevarez. Yvette Smith. Shelly Frey. Rekia Boyd. Tarika Wilson. Shantel Davis.

These names represent only a few of the numerous African American women who have been killed by law enforcement or while in police custody. Although some names have garnered more media attention than others, there is one organization that is making sure that the legacies and dreams of these women do not fall into obscurity.

The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) is ensuring that the world never forgets to say their names.

In conjunction with the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) at Columbia Law School—led by Kimberlé Crenshaw, director of CISPS and the African American Policy Forum and Andrea Ritchie, a Soros Justice Fellow and expert on policing of women and LGBT people of color—the #SayHerName campaign was created to highlight the pervasiveness of police brutality against black women. #SayHerName has brought communities together to honor the women who have been lost. It has effectively raised awareness of the issue, especially inside the police and justice systems, putting pressure on officials to conduct more careful monitoring of practices and sensitizing police and lawmakers.

Nawal El Saadawi


Feminist author; anti-female genital mutilation and cutting advocate, Egypt

A prolific feminist writer, sociologist, psychiatrist, professor and medical doctor, Nawal El Saadawi has published more than 50 books on various topics, including: ending female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C); sex work; feminism; sexuality and Islamic fundamentalism.

Born in 1931 to a middle-class Egyptian family in a small village in Cairo, El Saadawi noticed as a young girl the differences between the attitudes toward and treatment of herself and her sisters—and her brothers. Her grandmother told her “a boy is worth 15 girls at least…girls are a blight.” Enraged by the notion that women were not considered of equal value to men, El Saadawi determined to break free of hurtful cultural traditions and societal repression. She refused to be a child bride and convinced her parents to let her pursue her education.

Now 84 years old, El Saadawi has dedicated more than half of her life to ending FGM/C; along the way, she has inspired many others to join her to stop the procedure. At the age of six, El Saadawi was cut. She relays her experience of FGM/C in her autobiography, Daughter of Isis. Her experience mirrors the innumerable ones of other girls and women who have also suffered the pain and side effects of FGM/C.

Leslee Udwin

@ lesleeudwin@IndiasDaughter

Producer and Director, Indias Daughter, United Kingdom

The story of Jyoti Singh, an Indian college student who was brutally gang-raped and tortured by six men on a bus in India in 2012 and her subsequent death is one of the most brutal, highly publicized accounts of such an incident in recent times. The nature of the crime and the media attention it garnered ensured many were aware; the incident led to a public outcry and mass protests. While returning from an evening movie, Singh and her male friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey, were attacked on a bus in South Delhi. Six men who were on board beat up her friend and savagely raped Singh and tortured her with a pipe. Afterwards, they dumped both of their naked bodies on the side of the road. The trauma of the rape was so severe that expert surgeons in Singapore—where she was flown for critical care—could not save her. Singh died two weeks later from her injuries.

When British filmmaker Leslee Udwin set out to tell the story of 23-year-old Singh, she did so intending to use the film to highlight the conditions in which Indian women and girls live. Through the examination of this tragic case, she hoped to underscore the need to address the core values that made such an event possible—as well as the need for rigorous changes in laws and their enforcement.

The release of her film, Indias Daughter, in 2015 was met with wide acclaim but also criticism, especially from Indian government officials who banned its screening. Dubbed by members of India’s parliament as an instrument to defame India, Udwin’s documentary prompted a domestic and global discourse on sexual violence against women and gender inequality, calling into question the statuses of India’s other numerous daughters and how they are treated by its sons.

Gary Slutkin, M.D.

@GSlutkin, @CureViolence

Founder and Executive Director, Cure Violence, United States

A physician, an epidemiologist and an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Gary Slutkin spent more than a decade fighting tuberculosis, cholera and HIV/AIDS in Africa and Asia. After years abroad, Slutkin returned to the United States and realized that there was another epidemic spreading like an infectious disease, moving from person to person, delivering grave harm to individuals and communities. That epidemic was violence.

Slutkin’s premise is that the best way to fight the epidemic of violence is to treat its spread as one would that of a viral pathogen.

As founder and executive director of Cure Violence, Slutkin applies his expertise in the transmission and prevention of infectious diseases to reduce the incidence of violence. A scientifically proven, public health approach to violence reduction that uses disease control and behavior change methods, the Cure Violence method is being applied in 15 U.S. cities and in countries on three continents, including programs in the United Kingdom, Trinidad, South Africa and Iraq. He highlights three approaches used to reverse the transmission of violence: 1) detecting and interrupting conflicts 2) identifying and treating high-risk individuals and 3) changing social norms surrounding violence.

Malika Saada Saar

@MalikaSaadaSaar, @Rights4Girls

Director, The Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), United States

“To whom much is given, much is required.” Those eight words are ones Malika Saada Saar lives by. A human rights lawyer, she leverages her professional expertise to protect women and girls from efforts to trick them into following false online ads that lead to sex trafficking.

In 2010, Saar led the shutdown of Craigslist’s sex ads, which had served as a highly productive medium for the sexual trafficking of young girls. As the former executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, an organization that she founded while at Georgetown University, Saar teamed up with other organizations to draw public attention to the exploitation fuelled by the website’s “adult services” section. Her efforts with Craigslist led Saar to realize that online sex trafficking was a bigger story that needed to be highlighted and addressed.

Now as the director of the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), a human rights organization focused on gender-based violence against vulnerable young women in the U.S., Saar launched a campaign called No Such Thing. In every U.S. state there are prostitution laws used to arrest and detain underage girls bought and sold for sex, further victimizing them. Because most girls who end up being sold into prostitution rings are not of legal age to consent to sex at all, let alone to commercial sex, the campaign calls for the eradication of the term child prostitute in both language and law. Rights4Girls is also calling on the Associated Press to stop using the term in its news reports through a Change.org petition that has been shared by celebrities including Sean “Diddy” Combs and Julianne Moore.

Isaiah Owolabi

@great_impact10, @HACEYHealth

Co-founder and Project Director of Hacey’s Health Initiative, Nigeria

His Twitter handle is @great_impact10. And that is precisely what Isaiah Owolabi is doing—having great impact on the lives of boys and girls in his native Nigeria and beyond.

He serves as the co-founder and project director of Hacey’s Health Initiative, an organization that supports children, women and young people in Africa who are most disadvantaged, to live healthy and productive lives. Owolabi uses his expertise as a development professional with experience in public health and corporate sustainability to foster a better life for young Nigerians. Hacey’s vision, which Owolabi shares, is to strengthen health and community systems in Africa and to ensure that the organization’s interventions are relevant and sustainable.

The organization, based in Nigeria, prides itself on using the CARE approach, which includes capacity building, advocacy, research, and education to support its beneficiaries. Hacey’s programs focus on sexual and reproductive health and advocacy; the promotion of the rights and inclusions of persons with disabilities; environmental education and action; HIV/AIDS; youth leadership; women’s empowerment; and sanitation and hygiene.

The Mariposas: Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina

Founders, Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro, Colombia

The metamorphosis of larvae into butterfly is a metaphor for growth, strength and beauty. The process of becoming a butterfly is not easy; it is an arduous transition. Although appearing to be dormant while cocooned, the butterfly is actually digesting itself; a rigorous self-destructive effort is required for the caterpillar to transform into a winged creature, capable of emerging from the cocoon and flying free.

This amazing transformation is embodied by three Colombian women, Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina. In 2010, Amparo, Cruz and Medina created Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro (Butterflies with New Wings Building the Future), an organization focused on aiding women and children survivors of sexual abuse and displacement.

Their work is focused in western Colombia, in places like the city of Buenaventura, which is engulfed in violence. Drug trafficking and ongoing battles between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist vigilantes create communities where violence is the norm and women and children are often targets of brutality. Domestic violence, sexual violence and abductions are part of the daily reality in Buenaventura. The organization offers women and children comfort and counsel; it empowers women and children survivors to report crimes, connects survivors to local clinics that offer medical attention and psychological care, organizes marches and protests and teaches those it helps about their rights.

Anuradha Koirala


Founder and Executive Director, Maiti Nepal, Nepal

Anuradha Koirala, the founder and executive director of Maiti Nepal, a nonprofit that works to end domestic violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation in Nepal, especially on the Indian-Nepali border, has welcomed more than 12,000 “daughters” into her house in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Many of the girls have been trafficked and sexually exploited.

“Maiti” means “mother’s home”; Koirala, who founded the organization in 1993 in her small house with her own savings, helps the girls rehabilitate from their traumatic experiences by giving them a place to rest and regroup.

Supporting survivors, however, is not enough for Koirala who also advocates for criminal justice against their perpetrators and works to prevent the trauma through a program of border surveillance involving 12 intervention outposts. These outposts serve as safe houses, providing temporary shelter and care until the girls can get to Kathmandu, to Koirala’s home. The volunteers running the safe houses are survivors themselves, having been rescued from Indian brothels by other Maiti workers. At the outposts, they coordinate with Nepali law enforcement to watch for suspicious activity and to help identify traffickers. Because of their work, hundreds of offenders have been sent to jail. The work of Maiti Nepal has prevented an estimated 45,000 children and women from being trafficked.

Zainab Khan


Artist, activist against honor-based killings, United States

Zainab Zeb Khan is an artist, an activist, a licensed clinical therapist and a recipient of awards such as the YWCA Chicago Racial Justice Award. She was also the United Nations Association delegate for the 59th Commission on the Status of Women and is dedicated to ending honor-based violence (HBV) against women and girls in South Asian communities. She is the president of MALA: Muslim American Leadership Alliance.

Born in the United States to Afghani/Pakistani parents, Khan knew how HBV, considered a normative cultural practice within that region, undermines the autonomy of women and girls and perpetuates a chronic system of gender inequality. Khan, who is based in Chicago, decided to work through national and international organizations to address these issues.

In addition to working to end HBV, Khan addresses various social justice issues, attempting to remove barriers faced by people because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or ability. Khan, an award-winning visual artist, also uses her artwork as a vehicle for activism. Inspired by the works of Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Rene Magritte and Pablo Picasso, much of her artistry showcases women, their struggles and their empowerment. Her work has been used to raise funds for various organizations, including UNICEF.

Josephine Kamara


Founder, Women of Wonders, Sierra Leone

The Ebola virus destroyed many lives, and had a profound impact on survivors, especially those children who lost their parents, caregivers, families and friends. According to the British charity, Street Child, an estimated 12,000 children in Sierra Leone alone are orphans because of Ebola; many are starving to death and have turned to sex work to pay for food.

Seeing the pain of her fellow Sierra Leoneans, Josephine Kamara, who founded Women of Wonders Sierra Leone (WOW-SL) in 2013, knew that something had to be done, especially for the children.

WOW-SL was established to promote the involvement of young women and girls in community and nation-building activities, and to advocate to end child marriage, teenage pregnancy, rape and sexual harassment in Sierra Leone. Since the start of the Ebola epidemic, Kamara and members have rallied to support children impacted by the epidemic. Her organization leads numerous Ebola response efforts including feeding hungry children and providing necessities, such as toothpaste, soap and sanitary pads to the St. George Foundation orphanage in Grafton, a village in Sierra Leone. When visiting the homes of child survivors not living in orphanages, WOW-SL uses play and theater as a therapeutic technique to help children heal.

Its On Us campaign


In September 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced the It’s On Us campaign to put an end to sexual assault on college campuses. The campaign, led by the White House Office of Public Engagement, asks supporters to be part of the solution and not look the other way

The Obama administration has taken several steps to end sexual assault on college campuses, including providing guidance on the legal obligations of school districts, colleges and universities that receive public funding to prevent and respond to sexual assault; creating the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to develop best practices on how to respond to and prevent cases of sexual assault; and reviewing laws to ensure that they provide adequate protection to survivors of sexual assault.

An estimated 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted, but only about 12 percent of college women report the attack to the police. The coupling of tolerance and a lack of reporting has allowed sexual abuse on campus to proliferate across the country. Through the It’s On Us campaign, the White House hopes to inspire students, especially male students, to step up and intervene to reverse this trend.

Ilwad Elman

@IlwadElman, @ElmanPeaceHRC

Director of Programs and Development, the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center; Director, Sister Somalia, Somalia

Elman, who is 25, works beside her mother as the director of programs and development at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, a nongovernmental organization her mother founded to uphold the legacy of advocacy for peace her father championed. She also runs a subsidiary of the Elman Center, called Sister Somalia, a refuge for Somali women and children who have been internally displaced due to the constant violence, many of whom have survived sexual assault. Sister Somalia offers free post-prophylaxis treatment for the prevention of HIV transmission and emergency contraception, connections to safe houses, emergency grants for relocation, psychological counseling, education and business-starter kits.

Elman brings comfort to women like Nadifa (her last name is withheld to protect privacy), a young mother who was tortured and brutally beaten after fighting off a militia member whom she found raping her 11-year-old daughter in front of her other children.

Stories like these fuel Elman to speak out against rampant gender-based violence in Somalia. She frequently speaks publicly on sexual and reproductive rights, female genital mutilation and cutting and identity and culture in post-civil war Somalia. Like her father and mother, she plans to advocate for peace and human rights until they are an inextricable part of the fabric of life in Somalia.

Shinjini Das


Advocate for youth empowerment, United States

It all started with her high school debate team with which, in 2008, Shinjini Das won first place in the state of Georgia’s Original Oratory competition. This experience helped Das find her voice. Now, 23 years old, Das is a professional speaker and media personality focused on the empowerment of young people. Through public speaking engagements and her columns on Elite Daily and The Huffington Post, Das works to help young girls and boys find their voices as she once found hers.

When Das first told friends and family members she wanted to become a speaker focused on youth empowerment, few understood her vision. People asked, “Why?” Those closest to her expected Das, who graduated with a B.S. in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech, to pursue an engineering job. But she stood up for herself and carved her own way forward.

And it is a good thing that she did. Das’ first article published by the Huffington Post in January 2015, entitled “5 Secrets of a Go-Getter Girl,” generated a global response. The article encouraged young women to achieve their goals and relish in their own successes. She has also written about the importance of education and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as roads to empowerment for young girls. Next year, Das will go on a 10-city tour focused on the “secrets of a go-getter.”

Vian Dakhil


Member of the Council of Representatives of Iraq

Seventy-two. That is the number of times that the Yazidis, Iraq’s minority group that is non-Arab and non-Muslim, have been subjected to attempted genocides. The hunting of the Yazidi people dates back to the times of the Ottoman Empire. Most recently, the Yazidi people have been under attack by ISIS.

When the Islamic State group attacked the town of Sinjar in northwest Iraq in August 2014, they had one goal: to ethnically cleanse the area by removing the entire Yazidi population living there. Labeling the Yazidis’ religious beliefs “devil worship,” ISIS jihadists killed and displaced tens of thousands of Yazidis; some fled up Mount Sinjar where they hid for days without food or water in brutal summer temperatures.

Since the start of the humanitarian crisis, Dakhil has been working on the frontlines, aiding Yazidi survivors who have suffered at the hands of the terrorists and helping them to recover from the violence they have experienced. She uses her political platform to call attention to the needs of her people. Vian Dakhil is one of two Yazidi members of Parliament in a legislature where 25 percent of the seats are held by women.

Dana Bolger


Co-Founder, Know Your IX, United States

In 2011, during her sophomore year at Amherst College, Dana Bolger was raped. When she felt the school officials in whom she confided did not take her rape seriously, she dropped out. Unfortunately, Bolger’s experience is not rare; according to a White House report on sexual assault, it is estimated that 1 in 5 women on college and university campuses have been sexually assaulted.

A semester later, Bolger returned to Amherst, joining a support group of women who had experienced similar trauma. Hearing others’ stories and realizing her experience was all too common, she resolved to address the epidemic of rape and sexual violence at institutions of higher learning nationwide.

She confronted the issue head on, telling her story and the stories of other women who had also been sexually assaulted at school. When Amherst officials remained reticent to speak about the widespread problem and enact reforms to protect women, Bolger and fellow classmates Sonum Dixit, Kinjal Patel and Nancy Yun Tang took action—creating an online magazine in 2013 to highlight the violence taking place at Amherst.

In 2014, she co-founded Know Your IX with Alexandra Brodsky. The national grassroots organization is run by survivors of sexual violence and their allies. It aims to end sexual assault on campus by educating students across the country about their civil right to an education free from sexual violence under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, an anti-discrimination law that requires colleges and universities receiving federal funding to combat gender-based violence and harassment and to respond to survivors’ needs to ensure all students have equal access to education.

Solánge Bezerra


Founder, Grupo Ruas e Praças, Brazil

Brazil’s fifth largest metropolitan area, the coastal town of Recife, is home to four million people. But not all of its residents have a safe place to lay their heads. Recife is riddled with hundreds of homeless children who have run away from situations of domestic violence or who have been abandoned by neglectful parents. Some left behind parents with substance abuse issues or mental health illness. Treated like outcasts by those who notice them eating and sleeping among the garbage, they wander endlessly, lonely, hungry—and desperate for security. They are hunted by members of paramilitary groups hired by shopkeepers and residents to remove the children; the groups taunt or murder them. Many of the children sniff glue to get through the pain of the days and the restlessness of the nights. They don’t go to school.

But there is one place in which they can find sanctuary: the house of Grupo Ruas e Pracas (Group of Streets and Squares). The organization was started in 1987 by Solange Bezerra, a retired school teacher, who wanted to give the street children a place to eat, sleep and feel safe—to remember what it is like to be a child who is well-loved. The Grupo house is a place where kids can safely be kids.

Since Grupo first opened its doors in 1987, it has helped more than 6,000 children. Not all come to the headquarters and none can stay through the night; Grupo’s limited budget means they must close their doors each evening. But even having a safe place to play and be with other children each day helps the kids. Grupo offers the children a chance to explore their creative sides through singing, acting or dance classes. While the children are with them, Grupo’s staff tries to help them get off drugs, or stop sniffing glue, and encourages them to go back to school.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. magazine newsletter.

Photo via Shutterstock


Jaimee Swift is the managing editor of Safe magazine.