As the battle against COVID-19 continues, women leaders around the globe are calling for a post-pandemic world that has gender equality at its core, and that is more just, more sustainable and more inclusive for all.
Ahead of International Women’s Day, we spoke to five of these women. In each of their different areas of work, these inspiring women show us why women’s and girls’ leadership is more crucial than ever.
Cleo Kambugu: A new normal includes everyone
“If we only think about a woman who looks a certain kind of way, how many other women aren't we recognising? How is that helpful in pushing the envelope around women's rights?”
Cleo Kambugu is a Ugandan transgender woman, helping lead the fight for equality for sexual and gender minorities. Currently, her mere identity - like other transgender women, lesbians and bisexual women– may be considered a criminal act in Uganda.
“I think first we need to move to non-criminalising Ugandans for who they are and then move to the question of how we look in a positive direction,” she says.
Cleo is the Director of Programs for UHAI EASHRI, an indigenous activist fund supporting sexual and gender minorities and sex workers. During the pandemic, with many services shut down for minority communities, including healthcare, her organisation delivered humanitarian relief grants and just ensured that “people got to live in dignity throughout the crisis.”
For Cleo, a ‘new normal’ will be human rights sensitive, inclusive of women and all marginalised communities.
She also wants to reframe the binary concept of gender. “International Women’s Day should also be about marginalised genders,” she says. “They are not anywhere in the conversation. True empowerment of women is simply allowing women to be, in all their diversity. Creating a space that allows women to be who they are will unleash their full potential.”
Amina Bouayach: “What guides me is persistence”
When Amina Bouayach decided she would run as the first woman President of the the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights, the first people she consulted were her children. “I wanted them to understand what this responsibility meant,” she recalls. “For me, it’s important to have support from my family for a position like this. They help me succeed.”
Amina is no stranger to such success. As the first woman to head a non-governmental organization in Morocco, and with a diverse career spanning journalism, politics and now human rights, leadership has always been an intrinsic part of her path.
As President of the National Human Rights Council, Amina and her colleagues are pushing for quotas of women in political representation. Other major issues that she is focused on include equal access to education for women and girls in Morocco, abolishing child marriage and improving the human rights of women and girls with disabilities.
Her fight for these rights has not been without challenge and difficulty, and she has faced discrimination as a woman in leadership. “One important thing I have learned throughout this is the value of conversation and consultation,” she explains. “What guides me is persistence, which helps convince others and to move forward and implement my ideas.”
In a post-COVID-19 world, Amina believes we should turn away from pre-pandemic modes of life. Returning to normality, she says, should not be an option. She also believes countries should act in a collective manner, instead of in their own interests. “When you take a universal approach, you can find answers to the most complex questions of humanity.”
For Amina, a world after COVID-19 will be one “which recognises equality, which fights discrimination and which recognises the value of human beings.”
Mitzi Tan: Leading the battle for climate justice
“It is a simple fact that we have to fight back because the land that we are living on – our home, our planet – is in trouble.”
Last year, the strongest storm to make landfall in recorded history hit the Philippines. The country has suffered the ravages of climate change over the last decades: millions live in flood-prone areas, droughts are affecting food supply and on top of this, people who choose to defend environmental rights are also at risk of being imprisoned.
This has not deterred Mitzi Tan. She says she had a privilege to choose to become an activist.
At the age of 22, Mitzi is now the Convenor of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, the Fridays for Future for the southeast Asian nation. She and her organisation work on raising awareness about the climate crisis. She explains that even if the Philippines is one of the most affected countries in terms of the crisis, ‘climate education’ is typically “alienating, Western, too technical, and not empowering at all.”
As a young woman activist fighting for system change in the Philippines, Mitzi says she faces many challenges. Engrained gender stereotypes run deep there, she says, and as a woman, she is often patronised, and her ideas are questioned, dismissed or not heard.
Mitzi addresses this inherent sexism by making it part of her work to ensure others “actively unlearn” it. Through conversations and by creating understanding, she believes fighting back against sexism is possible.
“In order to fight for our rights, we have to remember it’s not just about you or me, it’s the rights for all women,” advises Mitzi. “Women are powerful. Women are amazing. We can do anything.”
Editar Ochieng: Changing the narrative on sexual violence
As a six-year-old girl, Editar Ochieng was sexually abused. At the age of 16, she was gang raped.
Editar grew up in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Tragically, sexual and gender-based violence is an endemic and pervasive issue there. It has been exacerbated even more in the pandemic, with lockdowns creating even more family and financial stress in an environment already suffering extreme levels of poverty.
When she was 26, Editar founded the Feminist for Peace Rights and Justice Centre in Kibera, an organisation supporting survivors of sexual and other forms of violence in the community.
At one point during the pandemic, Editar alone was receiving up to ten calls from victims of violence each day.
Citing numbers however, is not enough for Editar. For her, one woman abused is one woman too many and it’s the obligation of all who have the capacity to do so to stand up for their rights and ensure that the status quo is “disrupted.”
She says that education has given her the power as a feminist to look at challenges, to transcend them, and to become a leader who is fighting for change against gross systemic injustice.
“When you’re a leader, you’re changing the narrative,” she says. “We need to train our young girls on the importance of education. We need to reclaim our power so that we raise a different generation that understands there is power, but there is power that you can control.”
Maria de Luz Padua: Ensuring the rights of domestic workers
When Maria de Luz Padua was a young girl, her mother, a domestic worker in Mexico City, was accused of robbery. She was taken away by the police and questioned, leaving Maria and her siblings “very, very scared.”
Years later, Maria became a domestic worker herself, taking care of children. She didn’t want to live the same experience as her mother, or have other domestic workers endure a similar situation.
Maria is now the Secretary General of the Union of Domestic Workers in Mexico. Representing some 2.4 million domestic staff, her voice and leadership is critical in fighting for better rights and conditions including formalised contracts, social security, mandatory holiday pay, and the right to organise unions.
COVID-19 has caused immense difficulties for domestic workers. Many have lost their jobs. Others’ workload has increased and at the same time, they have taken on extra responsibilities within their own families. Their lives have been placed at breaking point.
Both Maria and her husband were not left unscathed, and both lost their jobs throughout the course of 2020.
Yet, she remains optimistic. She worked under a contract with her previous employer, who treated her with “dignity and respect,” and she has access to social security.
In a post-COVID-19 world, Maria says she dreams of a day when she and other domestic workers do not have to ask ‘what are our rights?’ And in pushing for greater participation of women in decision making, “we are building a better vision.”
“Creating trust between women is key to driving women in leadership,” she says. “We are creating that path, we can make that change.”
Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Cleo, Amina, Mitzi, Editar and Maria are all featured in our #IStandWithHer campaign. Hear more about their work by watching their videos
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3 March 2021