Over the past year, the world has been battered by multiple crises, including a global pandemic that has infected tens of millions, cost more than 1.5 million lives, and devastated almost every nation’s economy. But according to a study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), countries led by women had “systematically and significantly better” outcomes related to Covid-19, which were the result of “proactive and coordinated policy responses” such as earlier lockdowns.
That got us thinking: in this year of challenge, which women have offered models of creative, thoughtful and decisive leadership? Whether guiding a nation with a steady hand or rising up against injustice, these leaders offer glimpses of how to make progress in the most difficult of circumstances.
Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand
Widely lauded for leading one of the world’s most successful coronavirus responses, Jacinda Ardern and her Labour party won a landslide victory in October’s election. She wasted no time in selecting the most diverse cabinet in New Zealand’s history. Out of 20 members, eight are women, five are Māori, three are Pasifika and three are LGBTQIA+. It is a cabinet that, for the first time, fully represents all New Zealanders.
Ardern’s choices are more than a box-ticking exercise. While the new cabinet has shifted the popular understanding of what leadership can look like, it is also a reminder that people from different backgrounds bring with them unique perspectives, skills and life experiences, all of which are essential in tackling our greatest challenges.
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany
In September, a fire devastated the overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving thousands of people homeless. Angela Merkel quickly agreed to accept approximately 2,750 people, including unaccompanied minors. The move pressured other EU countries to do their part and open their arms, too.
Merkel’s decision echoed her 2015 statement that Germany would find a way to handle the massive influx of refugees who had fled their home countries. Despite domestic political backlash and a continent splintered over the refugee crisis, Merkel has approached the issue in the signature manner of a scientist-turned-stateswoman — with pragmatic empathy, a drive to experiment, and a belief in the need for collective action.
Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi, women’s rights advocates, Nigeria
Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi.
For years, women activists across Nigeria have used online tools to organise social change, whether it was to free the Chibok girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram or to raise awareness about gender-based violence. In July, Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi formed a group with 11 other women called the Feminist Coalition with the aim of improving the rights of Nigerian women. When anger about the unchecked police brutality by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) reached fever pitch in autumn, they launched into action with their first project — and the #EndSARS movement became a rallying cry around the world.
The Feminist Coalition regards itself not as a political organisation, but as a community-building enterprise and women’s rights advocacy group. Using their sophisticated skills in technology and social media, they were able to disseminate real-time information, which raised awareness and funds for the peaceful protests. Rather than a top-down leadership model, Odufuwa, Eweniyi and their colleagues are democratising information as a way to empower the Nigerian people to make the change they seek.
Kamala Harris, US vice president-elect
After the most consequential presidential election in recent memory, Americans elected Joe Biden. And his running mate, Kamala Harris, will be the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Indian-American to be vice president of the US. Her long career involved breaking many barriers, from being the first woman to serve as San Francisco’s district attorney to being the first Indian-American elected to the US senate. In Harris, the US not only has a brilliant, seasoned public servant as vice president, but a leader who will, at long last, broaden Americans’ sense of what is possible.
Stacey Abrams, former Georgia state house minority leader, US
When Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams lost her bid for governor in 2018, some commentators thought she should run for the senate — some thought she should run for president. Instead, Abrams stayed committed to her longtime project of turning her home state from red to blue.
Five years earlier, Abrams had launched The New Georgia Project, which empowered low-income Georgians to help get more people signed up for healthcare. Over time, that initiative became a voter-registration effort. In the process, Abrams built a broad coalition of people and organisations across the state, registered huge numbers of Georgians to vote, and changed people’s understanding of southern politics. Her painstaking organising paid off this year when Joe Biden won Georgia, helping to seal his victory.
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at University of Oxford and co-founder of Vaccitech, UK
Professor Sarah Gilbert may be as close to a real-life superhero as one gets. The veteran Oxford scientist developed a coronavirus vaccine that could help save the world from Covid-19. Early data suggests that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that her team worked on affords up to 90 per cent protection against the virus, and is cheaper and easier to store than promising vaccines announced by Pfizer and BioNTech, and Moderna. Gilbert’s version could therefore benefit more people across the world.
With 25 years of experience developing vaccines for the flu, Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Gilbert and her lab were prepared to spring into action when coronavirus first appeared in 2019. As for the sleep-deprived months that followed, Gilbert said, “I’m trained for it. I’m the mother of triplets.” And lest one questions the safety of the vaccine, all three of Gilbert’s children, now young adults, participated in the clinical trial.
Klementyna Suchanow, author and political activist, Poland
Klementyna Suchanow at a pro-choice protest marking the 102nd anniversary of the women’s voting rights in Warsaw, Poland, on 28 November 2020.
© Getty Images
When Poland’s Constitutional Court imposed a near-total ban on abortions in October 2020, the country’s Conservative government could not have predicted the backlash. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, including in demonstrations organised by The All-Poland Women’s Strike, led by activist Klementyna Suchanow.
Suchanow says that in protesting the draconian abortion laws, people are rising up against the Catholic Church’s tight grip over the country’s political decisions. Poles, especially women and young people, are frustrated by the Church’s power to intrude into their lives and furious at the concurrent hypocrisy revealed by the child sex-abuse scandal. Whether the protesters succeed in overturning the law remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the movement has energised a new generation of women, unbounded by the past — and they aren’t going anywhere.
Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, Philippines
This summer, in the middle of the pandemic, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa stood in a courtroom and was convicted of cyber libel. Ressa and her news site, Rappler, had long been targeted by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte for its critical coverage of his regime, including his response to Covid-19.
But it was her arrest in 2019 that shifted Ressa’s thinking about her role as a journalist and persuaded her to speak openly about Duterte’s abuse of power against the press and the resulting threat to democracy his behaviour poses. Citing Duterte’s use of misinformation through social media to demonise the press and spread conspiracy theories, she warns that other countries face similar threats. Though Ressa still faces the prospect of prison and threats of violence, she refuses to be silenced. As she says, “Journalism is activism.”
Bilkis Dadi, political activist, India
Bilkis Dadi takes part in a protest in Delhi, India, February 2020.
© Yawar Nazir
At the end of 2019, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act, which specifically discriminates against Muslims by introducing religion as a criterion for citizenship. The law is emblematic of the majority-Hindu country’s slide, under Modi, from a multi-ethnic democracy into an ethno-nationalist autocracy.
But people wouldn’t let this happen without a fight — least of all an 82-year-old woman named Bilkis Dadi (birth name Bilkis Bano, dadi means grandmother), who joined thousands of others in a Muslim neighbourhood in Delhi to protest. Every day, Bilkis sat at the protest site from morning until night. Throughout the winter chill, she was undeterred.
Although Bilkis and her fellow protesters were shut down, she was widely celebrated and even included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2020. In the face of powerful anti-democratic forces, this woman has become an equally powerful reminder of what is worth fighting for.
Monica Lennon, Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP), and Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland
Half of the world’s population menstruates. And yet, almost no society has come to grips with the fact that sanitary products such as pads and tampons are as essential as toilet paper.
That changed in November when, thanks to Monica Lennon and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland became the first nation in the world to make sanitary products free. Lennon has long been a champion against “period poverty” that leaves too many people unable to afford the basic products they need to menstruate with dignity.
In debating the bill, Scottish lawmakers discussed issues such as endometriosis, illuminating aspects of women’s health that are so often overlooked, but essential to a woman’s ability to thrive. Advocates hope that the example of Scotland will help erase the cultural stigma around menstruating and ensure that more women and girls across the world can achieve their potential.
Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland
Despite its reputation for being a progressive oasis, Finland has an oppressive law on the books — the Trans Act — which requires trans individuals to undergo mental health screenings and sterilisation if they want to obtain legal gender recognition. The country’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, intends to change that. She has spoken in favour of people’s right to self-identify, saying, “It’s not my job to identify people. It’s everyone’s job to identify themselves.”
This is the latest feminist act by Marin, whose coalition government is led by all women. Her support for ending the Trans Act is an assertion of feminism, which seeks to dismantle outdated notions of gender norms and ensure that everybody can define who they are and live as they choose.
Nemonte Nenquimo, leader of the Waorani nation, Ecuador
Nemonte Nenquimo protests against oil drilling on ancient Indigenous land in Quito, Ecuador, on 15 May 2020.
© Agencia Press South
While the face of the environmental movement in the west has frequently been white and male, the most powerful voice in the fight against global climate change is a 34-year-old leader of the Waorani nation in Ecuador named Nemonte Nenquimo. Like so many Indigenous communities around the world, the Waorani have been on the frontline, defending the land they know best.
Nenquimo successfully stood up against the Ecuadorian government’s plan to allow oil companies to drill in an area of the Amazon the Waorani call home and — as fires ravage the Amazon rainforest and outsiders destroy the forest — she has raised global awareness about what the climate crisis looks like to her people. As she wrote in an opinion piece published by The Guardian: “The Earth does not expect you to save her, she expects you to respect her. And we, as Indigenous peoples, expect the same.”
Sarada Peri is a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and the founder of Peri Communications.
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