Being Bold: The Women Who Change Worlds

From vaccinating kids against polio in Afghanistan to helping children overcome the horrors of the Syrian war, women are a powerful force for change.

On International Women’s Day 2017, meet the women who are changing their worlds and inspiring change in others.

AKUJA, helps girls stay in school, South Sudan

Picture: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder

Akuja was 8 years old when war forced her to flee South Sudan. After living in Khartoum, Cairo and the UK, Akuja returned to South Sudan in 2004 to help rebuild her country.

Akuja leads the Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) programme which is supported by UK aid. Last year she was awarded an MBE for her work.

“I am driven by the fact that I see myself in the girls GESS is trying to support. I happen to be lucky to have a helping hand in my parents who supported and encouraged me despite pressures from society to marry early for example. Without that I wouldn’t be where I am today. This is what drives me in my work on GESS — to give these girls a chance, an opportunity to reach their potential through education.

“I would say to girls to persevere and focus on your education. I know it is not easy. I was once where you are now. There are many out there who are making sure your voices can be heard.

“My hopes are that every single girl in South Sudan is given the opportunity to realise their potential by providing them with the tools they need — equal access to basic needs, health, education and the right to express themselves and choose their destiny.”

REKHA, women’s rights group leader, Bangladesh

Picture: Marisol Grandon/DFID

Rekha is the leader of a UK aid supported women’s rights group — a community based organisation working to prevent violence and discrimination against women.

Rekha had experienced abuse and violence in her marriage so she is determined to prevent other women going through the same.

“My husband grabbed me by my hair, he cut my hair. When I was 8 months pregnant, he punished me in the winter season. He took me up to the pond and forced me into the water up to my neck. It was freezing cold. Then he bandaged all my joints, my knees and elbows, in old cloths and beat them with a hammer.”

Thanks to the UK aid supported Banchte Shekha programme, Rekha has been able to break free of the violence and turn her life around. She now works to stop gender-based violence, child marriage, dowry issues and polygamy.

“If I had a message to other women in this situation, it is ‘get educated, protest and know your rights’.”

JANET, FGM campaigner, Kenya

Picture: Jessica Lea/DFID

23-year-old Janet works for the Pastoralist Child Foundation (PCF) which is supported by UK aid via the UN Joint Programme.

Last year she rescued her 14-year-old cousin, Elizabeth, from FGM. “I heard that Elizabeth was going to be circumcised,” says Janet.

“I went and talked to my aunt and said ‘Please don’t circumcise Elizabeth — there are only disadvantages’. She refused. So at night, I took Elizabeth and we went to Nairobi. We stayed there for three months.

“The relationship between Elizabeth and her mum has got better now. I feel extremely happy knowing that I’ve helped Elizabeth avoid FGM.

“When a girl speaks out to other girls about FGM she can explain more than anybody. Girls who are the same age, who are friends, can speak better than a teacher. A girl is more powerful than anyone else.”

Picture: Jessica Lea/DFID

PCF aims to end FGM and child marriage in Kenya through community action and education. It’s managed by young, educated women and men and respected Samburu warriors.

JULIET, helps girls avoid early marriage, Zambia

Picture: Jessica Lea/DFID

Juliet is a mentor at the UK aid funded Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme in Zambia. She helps young girls learn about early marriage and gives them health and financial guidance.

She is also their confidante, encouraging the girls to open up to her with any problems they have.

“I tell the girls that early marriages are not good. Once they’re married they find themselves facing so many problems, so many challenges that they cannot deal with.

“The girls have no say. But thanks to these sessions they have self-confidence — they’re able to come out and say ‘I’m not ready, I’m not going to do this’. They’re able to talk to me and I’m able to tell them where to go if they are forced to do something that they feel they should not do”.

The Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program, led by the Population Council and funded by DFID, is currently helping more than 10,000 girls benefit from safe spaces in Zambia.

TAHERA, vaccinates kids against polio, Afghanistan

Picture: WHO

Dedicated, brave, proud — Tahera is at the heart of the campaign to eradicate polio in Afghanistan. Working as a volunteer, she goes from house to house vaccinating children.

“I joined the polio programme because I want to raise awareness about the polio vaccine and its benefits to children in my community.

“The best thing about my work is helping women and children and spreading awareness about the problems that are caused if children are not vaccinated.

“I am proud of my job and my family is proud of me too.”

With support from the UK aid funded Global Polio Eradication Initiative, female polio workers like Tahera build trust in their communities and encourage parents to protect their children with life-saving vaccines.

ZAHRA, teaches Syrian kids in Azraq camp, Jordan

Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

Zahra works in a UK aid funded UNICEF/Mercy Corps centre for young children in the Azraq camp, northern Jordan.

“I’ve been here for just over a year,” she says. “The situation in Syria just became so bad that we finally had to leave.

“I heard about the Makani project and got accepted onto a training course. I’ve now spent nearly 4 months teaching the kids here.

“In the life skills course we’re running right now, we are teaching the kids arts and crafts, including how to decorate the room, lantern making and butterfly making.

“But we also provide psycho-social support for them. I saw the pressures the children underwent in Syria, and that’s why it’s important that we provide them with a safe space to work through their trauma, and work through the terror they faced.”

“I hope that we can educate a strong generation for the future”.

MARY, entrepreneur and family planning beneficiary, Tanzania

Picture: Jane Miller/DFID

35-year-old Mary provides for her family by working two jobs — she is a beautician and also sells baby clothes. She’s wants to give her children every opportunity in life and visits a local family planning clinic to make sure she manages the size of her family.

“My oldest daughter is doing well at school and wants to be a doctor. I want to invest in my children.”

She visits a UK aid funded clinic in Dar es Salaam because she thinks the nurses and doctors are well-trained, friendly and welcoming. In 2016 alone, UK aid provided 50,000 family planning services to women in Dar es Salaam.

SOK KHOEN, polio survivor and entrepreneur, Cambodia

Picture: Chanpolydet Mer

Mum-of-two Sok Khoen cannot walk without crutches after she contracted polio as a child and was left permanently disabled.

The double discrimination of gender and disability meant that Sok Khoen was isolated and finding work was impossible.

A DFID funded programme gave Sok Khoen a small grant of $50 which she used to set up a grocery shop. Sok Khoen has been steadily growing her business, expanding from 15 products to over 40.

“Growing up life was small. I stayed in the house alone with nothing to do as my parents would not let me help them.

“I now make money. I am independent. My parents and family value me more as they now realise I can be productive and they shouldn’t worry about my future.”

A day for celebration and change

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender equality.

Women and girls have the right to be safe, healthy, educated and empowered wherever they live and the UK Government‎ strives for equality in the UK and around the world.

To hear more from the girls and women we work with visit

Stats behind the stories

>>> The Global Goals aim to create a better world by addressing health (Goal 3), education (Goal 4) and inequality (Goal 10) — all issues that women and girls are facing today. The UK is firmly committed to Goal 5 — ensuring gender equality — and a focus on women and girls will be vital to achieving the Global Goals by 2030.

>>> Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) will help 240,000 girls, 300,000 boys and 2,600 schools and contribute towards achieving Global Goal 4, ensuring a quality education for all.

>>> UK aid is supporting community initiatives like Banchte Shekha (meaning ‘learn how to survive’), through the Manusher Jonno Foundation, to end child marriage and tackle violence against women and girls in Bangladesh. Banchte Shekha works to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through its work in the community.

>>> The UK is supporting an African-led movement to end FGM. In 2013, DFID made the largest donor commitment ever to ending FGM, with a flagship regional programme of £35 million over 5 years, and an additional £12 million commitment in Sudan. With support from UK aid and other donors, more than 15,000 communities — over 17 million people — have pledged to ban FGM altogether.

>>> UK support to the Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme is helping 10,000 girls in rural and urban areas in Zambia to stay in school for longer, avoid early marriage, delay sexual activity and prevent unintended pregnancy, HIV, and other STIs.

>>> Tahera is one of the over 65,000 dedicated frontline workers who are working tirelessly to eradicate polio from Afghanistan. The work of volunteers like Tahera is crucial to reducing the number of children missed during immunisation campaigns.

>>> With support from UK aid, at least 916,000 unintended pregnancies will be avoided in Tanzania and more than 1 million couples will be provided with contraceptive services between 2014 and 2018.

>>> Women and girls with disabilities are exceptionally marginalised, facing discrimination both on the basis of their gender and their disability. They’re more likely than other women to be beaten, raped, trafficked, neglected, sexually abused and exploited. And they’re less likely to go to school or access employment opportunities, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and abuse.