For the Greater Good

You already know about the female powerhouses – the moguls, world leaders, dignitaries, and stars who can dominate the world with a single Instagram post or tweet. Lots of these women – like Winnie Byanyima, Shaheen Mistry, Emma Watson, and Safeena Husain – are extremely well known, either throughout the world or within their respective spheres of influence. As the world marks International Women’s Day on March 8 – by celebrating their achievements, big or small, and highlighting the plight of women’s issues –You & I highlights 11 extraordinary women, especially those fighting for gender equality, and basically kicking through that glass ceiling. Chances are you may not know who some of them are (yet!). Here’s why you should.     --- Anisha

Angelina Jolie Humanitarian

We love actress-filmmaker Angelina Jolie for much more than her acting and directorial skills. A well-known human rights activist who began her philanthropic endeavours and humanitarian work back in Cambodia when filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001, Jolie continually works to impress and inspire us – all while carrying herself with such dignity. The Oscar-winning actress eventually turned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2001, and was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva in the same year. She was promoted to the position of a Special Envoy United Nations ambassador after years of dedicated service to the cause of refugees in 2012.

In her expanded role, Angelina engages with decision-makers on global displacement issues, focuses on undertaking advocacy, mass population displacements, and represents UNHCR and the High Commissioner at the diplomatic level. Through her work, Jolie has helped contribute to the crucial process of finding solutions for refugees. She is also fighting to end violence against women and children in conflict zones, a cause close to her heart as seen in her directorial movie debut,

In the Land of Blood and Honey. After meeting her now ex-husband Brad Pitt on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2005, the two started the Jolie-Pitt Foundation and through this organisation, they have donated millions of dollars to humanitarian causes around the globe.

Emma Watson, Activist

Until a few years back, British actress Emma Watson was best known for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series; she portrayed a brave and smart girl with an exhaustive knowledge of almost everything. More recently, Watson did her witty girl alter ego right by launching her initiative “He For She” campaign with UN Women, where the actress gave a rousing speech on the importance of feminism, its true definition, and the value of men engaging in the fight for gender equality. The actress, who took a year off from acting to focus on women’s rights, received a standing ovation for her speech.

A UN Women Goodwill Ambassador since 2014, the Beauty and the Beast actress speaks regularly on campus assaults and issues facing women across the world, particularly in conflict zones. A graduate of both Brown and Oxford, Watson also helps design eco-friendly fashion and is known to leave free copies of Maya Angelou’s memoir at various locations on the London tube– all while being under scrutiny from the press and trying to maintain a “normal” life.

Krithi Karanth, Conservation Biologist

Few have done more for the preservation and safety of wild animals than conservation biologist Krithi Karanth. Her firsthand experience with wildlife started at the age of one, when Karanth’s father, Dr
K. Ullas Karanth, a renowned conservationist himself, began bringing her into the jungle. At age three, Krithi spotted her first leopard, and by eight she had tracked tigers.

After years of research, Karanth realised that threats to wildlife stem from conflict with people who were suffering from losses of crops, property, and livestock. As a result, she mapped and modelled such conflict zones across India. Her other work includes studying mammal extinctions, voluntary resettlement of people, effects of anthropogenic pressures, tourism trends, and resource and land use changes around Indian parks. Currently an executive director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru, and associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, Krithi has been a leader in the use of science and technology to balance human-wildlife interactions in India.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International
As the executive director of Oxfam International, an organisation that fights global poverty and injustice, Winnie Byanyima is already changing the world. The diplomat was just 18 when she fled Idi Amin’s regime and arrived in Britain. She trained as an aeronautical engineer but returned to Uganda after the fall of Amin. Winnie served in the Ugandan parliament for 11 years, where she championed groundbreaking gender equality laws. From then on, she hasn’t stopped doing her best to raise awareness, and went on to serve as the director of gender and development at the United Nations Development Program and the African Union Commission.

Furthermore, this brilliant and witty change agent co-founded the Global Gender and Climate Alliance in 2007, and also chaired the UN task forces on gender aspects of the Millennium Development Goals, and climate change. In 2016, Winnie was appointed to the UN Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which was formed to close economic gender gaps and promote female leadership around the world. Throughout her career, the present head of Oxfam International has proven herself to be a leader in women’s rights, peace-building, and democratic governance, and has played a major part in putting the fight against inequality on the world agenda.

Shaheen Mistri, Social Activist and Educator
A pioneer in the area of urban education, Shaheen Mistri is recognised for establishing two well-known NGOs – Akansha and Teach for India (TFI) movement – both of which have transformed the face of education for underprivileged children all over the country. Born in Mumbai, Mistri, who lived in 13 different countries while growing up, was in the city on a short vacation when she learnt about its slums. The then 18-year old Mistri was so moved by the poverty she encountered that she decided to stay back in India to do her bit, and enrolled at the University of Mumbai. While she was in college, Shaheen started her first venture, the Akanksha Foundation, which provided after-school tutoring to children from low-income families. Employing her college friends as volunteers, she enrolled 15 children, and thus her journey had begun.

Though the recognition for Akanksha’s work grew, the transition from Akanksha to TFI was no easy task. After seeing a growing disparity between the problems that plague India’s education system and the foundation, Shaheen met Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, and subsequently launched Teach For India in 2008. The organisation has since recruited almost 1,700 teaching Fellows, and educates over 30,000 children across seven cities. TFI is creating a force of leaders committed to inspire, demonstrate and catalyse systemic change, until all children across India can attain a quality education.

Begum Bilkees Idrees Latif, Social Worker

No list of strong and influential women would be complete without a mention of Begum Bilkees Idrees Latif. Daughter of Frenchwoman Alys Iffrig and Ali Yavar Jung, a diplomat and educationist in Hyderabad, Bilkees founded the Society for Human and Environmental Development (S.H.E.D) in 1982 to provide better health, sustenance, and services to thousands of the underprivileged. The organisation also works on gender equity and women’s empowerment, as well as vocational training for income generation. Latif is also recognised for eradicating child labour, improving sanitation, and AIDS intervention. However, the road to establishing S.H.E.D. was not easy. Bilkees faced threats by mafia dons, but she stood by her passion for creating a safe haven for the people.

With a legacy of charm and pioneering social work, S.H.E.D today has centres in six different slums in Mumbai and 30 tribal areas. A highly visible fixture on the charity circuit, this graceful woman of substance has chaired many fundraising events, and in 2009 was awarded a Padma Shri for her outstanding contributions to society. Among the many women who provide us with inspiration on a daily basis, Bilkees Latif is a shining example.

Sunitha Krishnan, Social Activist

A Hyderabad-based social activist, Dr Sunitha Krishnan is a leader in the fight to rescue sex-trafficked girls and women and help them find shelter. Krishnan, who herself was gang-raped by eight men when she was 15, has put the topic of commercial sexual exploitation before a wider audience. Despite the brutal assault, Krishnan refused to remain broken. In1996, she and her brother – Bro. Jose Vetticatil – founded Prajwala, a non-governmental organisation, by converting a brothel into a centre for the children of sex workers.

Over the last 20 years, Prajwala has rescued over 15,000 girls from prostitution. “All kinds of traumatic incidents had happened, including the 17 attacks I had faced in my life and the murder of my colleague in front of me,” Sunitha said in an interview to PTI. Today, Sunitha, who works tirelessly to protect girls from being forced into the sex trade and rehabilitates them for a better future, is a recipient of the prestigious Vital Voices Global Leadership Award and the Padma Shri. 

Maneka Gandhi, Animal Rights Leader and Environmentalist

Currently holding the office of Minister for Women and Child Development in the Government of PM Narendra Modi, Maneka Gandhi is an avid animal rights supporter. In 1992, Gandhi launched People For Animals, the largest organisation for animal welfare and rights in India. Gandhi’s belief that animal abuse is the worst karmic disaster, led to her involvement with the animal rights movement. Now a patron of International Animal Rescue, in 1995 she was appointed chairwoman of Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA.) Gandhi anchored the weekly television program Heads and Tails, which highlighted the suffering of animals due to their commercial exploitation, and authored a book with the same title. Apart from this, the powerful leader also chairs the Jury of International Energy Globe Foundation, which recognises the best environmental innovations every year, and is a member of the Eurodollar Board and the Wuppertal Institute in Germany. Because of her tireless efforts to advocate for animal rights and promote a vegan lifestyle, Gandhi has earned many international awards and acclaim, including the A.S.G. Jayakar award, Marchig Animal Welfare Trust prize, Rukmini Devi Arundale Animal Welfare, and Environmentalist and Vegetarian of the Year.

Oprah Winfrey, Philanthropist

Oprah Winfrey practically defined the approach of creating innovative ideas with an intent to improve the world along the way. The talk show host, actress, and media powerhouse, who ruled network television for 25 years with more than 4,000 shows, is no stranger to activism. She’s made extraordinary contributions to the community through her philanthropic endeavours by donating millions of dollars to three organisations: The Oprah Winfrey Operating Foundation, which allocates money towards the Leadership Academy for women in South Africa; The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, which provides grants to NGOs; and The Angel Network, an establishment that supports a wide range of charitable projects.

In addition to her foundation work, Oprah has volunteered her time and effort with various other organisations. She is a big supporter of the Clinton Foundation, which supports fighting climate change and treating HIV and AIDS. She also supports Project Cuddle, which rescues hundreds of babies from abandonment and abuse. And she is one of the largest contributors to Free The Children, an organisation dedicated to building schools for children in underdeveloped countries.

Laxmi Agarwal, Activist

An acid attack survivor, Laxmi Agarwal has undoubtedly had a tough life. After she was attacked in 2005 at the age of 15 by a man whose marriage proposal she had rejected, she started her career as a campaigner with Stop Acid Attacks. Through this work, she has encouraged millions of other acid attack survivors across the globe to overcome their traumatic experiences.

In addition, Laxmi has advocated against acid attacks by gathering around 27,000 signatures for a petition to curb acid sales. She took the cause to the Indian Supreme Court, which ordered the state and central governments to control the sale of acid, and the Parliament to make prosecutions of acid attacks easier to pursue. She is also the director of Chhanv Foundation, an NGO dedicated to help survivors of acid attacks. Laxmi received the International Women of Courage award from the US First Lady Michelle Obama in 2014. She was also the recipient of the NDTV Indian of the Year and is also the face of Viva and Diva, which helps women to see themselves deeper than what they look like.

In 2016, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Prince William and Kate Middleton met Laxmi, they were inspired by her grit. A statement about her to PTI read, “She explained her decision to stop covering her face in order to encourage other victims not to hide and also spoke of her successful fight for tougher legal restrictions on the sale of acid. The Duke thanked her for her bravery.” We couldn’t have said it any better.

Lisa Ray, Philanthropis, and Social Activist

One of the women we admire the most is Lisa Ray. An internationally acclaimed artist and philanthropist, Ray was raised in Canada by a Polish mother and an Indian father. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Lisa’s life story runs like a movie plot. With a successful career as a model and actor in the Hindi movie industry and Hollywood, she was soon plunged into darkness when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer.

Today Ray is a global brand ambassador for Insight Vacations, and is associated in bringing people’s attention to the rights of girls around the globe. She has initiated several fundraisers and campaigns for Multiple Myeloma – one being Because I’m a Girl. Apart from this, the Water actress is also involved with Beauty Gives Back in Canada, and the Make Myeloma Matter media campaign, a worldwide awareness programme. Furthermore, the green-eyed beauty is also actively advocating for stem cell technology and its benefits.