IWD 2021: Waris Dirie and Others who #ChoosetoChallenge (Part 3)

This article is the concluding part of a series to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day that is centred around the theme, Choose to Challenge. To read the previous articles, click here.

In this concluding part, we introduce you to the ever-smiling Waris Dirie, whose life’s history is just as incredible as everything else she has set out to achieve.

Waris Dirie
Waris Dirie is a model who choose to challenge with her fight against FGM
Model Waris Dirie continues to fight to end Female Genital Mutilation. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Waris Dirie’s emotional story of enduring the horror of female genital mutilation at around the age of 5; running off into the desert towards the capital city of Mogadishu after her father announced that she would be getting married to a man older than he at the age of 13 and almost being eaten by a lion in the desert. Upon arrival at Mogadishu and working as a servant, first for her sister and then her aunt for four years before going to London to work for a family member as a servant, she survived the indescribable pain of monthly periods and urine passing through an orifice that was never designed by nature to handle such volume of content. And after all of that, she survived on her own after the Somali family that brought her to London returned, and finding fame and success. Waris has been through more than enough to reduce the average person to tears.

But, underlying this history that is a complex mix of pain, horror and success is her undeniable courage to live a life better than the one it had initially handed to her.

Waris Dirie’s work to end Female Genital Mutilation all over the world has led to the figures related to this practice dropping worldwide. But she remains relentless, offering education and enlightenment in places where it persists and working hard to bring this harmful tradition to an end.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel is on our international women's day list for her exceptional leadership
Angela Merkel has successfully led Germany for more than a decade. Image courtesy of Marketplace

Nowhere in the world has a woman led a truly democratic government for as long as Angela Merkel has, while facing challenging trends and other countries’ sometimes temperamental leaders.

She has been the chancellor of Germany since 2005 and is the first female chancellor of the country. Her political career, which began with the unification of East and West Germany is remarkable, and while she may not be solely responsible for her party remaining a major part of the government, her efforts have contributed significantly to this achievement. Her politics of pragmatism saw her leading Germany four consecutive times, and although she has received criticisms for her seeming lack of a clear ideological stance, no one can deny that her stance has worked.

Angela Merkel has led Germany to become the world’s fourth-largest economy, and her style of leadership, marked by following what is popular and what will work, is an inspiration, not because it should be followed to the letter, but because of the very useful lessons that can be gleaned from it.

Eloïne Barry
Eloïne Barry is changing the perception of Africa, one story at a time
Eloïne Barry is the founder of African Media Agency

After a role in PR Newswire, first as a Media Relations Executive, and then as a Media Relations Team Leader, Eloïne noticed that the company’s distribution reach did not get to Africa. She started to travel extensively across the continent, made friends with journalists, ensuring they were looked after, trained and had access to events. Finally, she turned her passion into a company: she launched African Media Agency in 2015 and it now has offices in New York, Libreville, and Dubai, with a local presence in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos.

She has always believed that for Africa to develop, it needs to have a strong media base. This idea was further reinforced when, after mentioning to some acquaintances that she wanted to focus her work on the African continent, they thought she would be working with a charity organisation.

Today, with her agency, Eloïne is rewriting African history on a global stage, one story at a time.

Bonang Matheba
Bonang Matheba has broken proverbial ceilings
Bonang Matheba, has through the entertainment industry, risen to become a role model for other South Africans.

Bonang Matheba has risen beyond being a presenter on radio and TV to becoming the first of many firsts. She is the first black South African to be featured on numerous magazines; the first South African celebrity to launch an online reality show; the first international ambassador for the cosmetic brand, Revlon, outside the US; the first South African to host the pre-ceremony of the MTV Europe Music Awards; the first African to be given an E! News Special Africa on E!, amongst others.

And she is clearly not done shattering ceilings in the entertainment world and beyond it.  It is amazing what she has achieved in her career, spanning over 15 years, and she remains an inspiration to other young South African women who hope someday to go where she has been.

Winnie Byanyima
Winnie Byanyima is on our international women's day list for her choice to challenge injustice
Winnie Byanyima wants to end injustice all over the world. Image courtesy of Oxfam International

For more than 30 years, Winnie Byanyima has been engaged in social issues, including gender equality and inclusivity, through politics, humanitarian work and diplomacy.

With a career that includes serving in the Ugandan Parliament for 11 years, being named the Executive Director of Oxfam International, and more recently, becoming the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Ms. Byanyima has been at the forefront of global social issues, fighting for the rights of the marginalised and the common person who is always almost more affected by governments’ policies than most. With the outbreak of the Coronavirus, she was one of the earliest persons who called for a People’s vaccine that could be made available to everyone everywhere, free of charge.

“I grew up knowing that there was injustice, but you don’t have to accept it,” said Ms. Byanyima in a 2016 article. “You can say no and you can oppose it, and it is risky. It can cost your life, but it is still a life well spent.”

Lupita Nyong’o
Lupita Nyong'o uses her craft to choose to challenge stereotypes
Lupita Nyongo’o’s dedication to her craft is apparent in its end result. Image courtesy of CNN

That Lupita is an incredibly talented actress is not up for debate, and as she continues to accept even more challenging roles (her depiction of the character Adelaide/Red in the 2019 movie ‘Us’ has been widely praised as brilliant and bold). Her courage and determination to destroy the erroneous beliefs of what a black actress can do in Hollywood is outstanding.

She is passionate about supporting small businesses and worthy causes, which include (but are not limited to) racial and gender injustice, and her social media pages bear testament to this.

Fatou Bensouda
Fatou Bensouda's courage is why she makes our international women's day list
Fatou Bensouda made history as ICC’s lead prosecutor in more ways than one. Image courtesy of Times of Israel

Any other person would have been unwilling to open up an investigation on the United States with regards to possible war crimes in Afghanistan, especially if all they had to back them up are laws that have been seemingly bent in favour of the world’s most powerful countries.

Any other person but Fatou Bensouda, the first woman to serve in the International Criminal Court as its Chief Prosecutor.

In an earlier interview, while she was still just a candidate for the position, Fatou Bensouda was asked what kind of ICC she hoped to pass on at the end of her term. “We’ll prove that [the Court] is a truly independent judicial body. It won’t happen overnight. Our legal institution is going to continue to operate in a difficult political environment and attacks against it won’t subside,” she had responded.

Fatou Bensouda has now finished her tenure, but she would be remembered for living up to the legacy she had hoped to build in the ICC even before she got the role. Her courage inspires, and her choice to challenge has laid a remarkable foundation that the institution would greatly benefit from, should it choose to build on it.

Hajer Sharief
Hajer Sharief is challenging gender inequality as well as under-representation of women and youths in politics
Hajer Sharief is working to promote gender equality as well as youth, and women representation in politics, in Libya Image courtesy of the Kofi Annan Foundation

Libyan human rights activist, Hajer Sharief may not have been thinking about peace, and the effect of the conflict in her country on women and girls when she started studying medicine in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. By 19 however, after witnessing firsthand what civil strife can do when she was forced to work in a nearby hospital that suddenly became overburdened with casualties from the war. She quickly came to the conclusion that people need to participate in building the democratic system they wish for.

Soon after, she co-founded ‘Together We Build It,’ a body working to ensure human rights are upheld, gender equality is enforced and political participation, especially of women and youths, is encouraged and recognised. Her commitment to a peaceful, more equal society has not waned, and she continues to work with local and international organisations to make this happen.

Tony Elumelu
Tony Elumelu is using his wealth and position to challenge an unequal society
Tony Elumelu has empowered over 9000 young entrepreneurs. Image courtesy of Thisday Live

Tony Elumelu is the leading proponent of “Africapitalism,” an economic philosophy that advocates for the private sector’s commitment to Africa’s development through long-term investment in strategic sectors of the economy, which drive economic prosperity and social wealth. He lives out this principle through his foundation, the Tony Elumelu Foundation, which is responsible for empowering over 9,000 young African entrepreneurs currently.

In 2020, the European Union partnered with the foundation to support more than 2,500 African women entrepreneurs through increased access to finance and venture capital investment with a contribution of €20 million. But this is not the only time businesses or organisations under Tony Elumelu have given special attention to women. Transcorp Group, where he has a majority stake, appointed women to quite a number of its key positions only last year. Women also occupy top positions in UBA: Mr. Elumelu is its chairman.

Tony Elumelu is unrelenting in his efforts for an economically-independent Africa for all and the part he plays towards making this a reality is laudable.

John Legend
John Legend is a singer and an activist who has chosen to challenge injustice which is why he is on our women's day list
John Legend is as much an activist as he is a singer. Image courtesy of The National

It is hard to see John Legend beyond his music, because, well, that is how we got to know him, and it is stories related to his music career that dominate the news.

But in reality, the singer, who has proudly called himself a feminist, is more than his voice and keyboard skills. Away from his recordings, he is a producer and an activist using his platform to fight for social and racial justice. He is also a political thinker and was unequivocal about his dislike for the administration before the current Biden-led government.

John Legend makes fantastic music, no doubt. But he also does great work in advocating for a just and equal society, either through his production company, Get Lifted Film Co., his musical tours, or through his social media pages and the many other activities he is involved in.

Oreoluwa Somolu Lesi
Oreoluwa Somolu Lesi chose to challenge the lack of women and girls in tech
Oreoluwa Somolu Lesi teaches women and girls tech skills while encouraging them to take interest in the field. Image courtesy of the BBBuzz

An economist and a techie, Oreoluwa Somolu has, in the last 13 years, used her organisation, Women’s Technology Empowerment Center (W.TEC), to train girls and women in ICT skills. W.TEC runs a women-only ICT centre that provides childcare support and training services to women who need it, opening at reasonable hours so that women can get household chores done and providing a safe space for women to learn and socialise.

She also understands that the tech world can be a lonely place for women, and has worked with other women in the industry to create connections and provide mentorship to younger women who want to make a career in it.

When Oreoluwa started her girls- and women-focused organisation in 2008, it was not ‘fashionable’ to make a career out of encouraging girls to take more interest in the field of tech. In spite of the challenges she encountered, Oreoluwa chose her path and pursued it with a doggedness that is as impressive as it was profitable. Today, W.TEC is responsible for training thousands of young women and girls in digital skills and the knowledge necessary to compete in a tech-driven world.

Olatowun Candide- Johnson
Olatowun Candide-Johnson is on our choose to challenge women's day list
Olatowun Candide-Johnson is a lawyer who has created a safe space for women to connect and thrive. Image courtesy of Africa Legal

She is a lawyer who, before her retirement in 2016, racked up an impressive career in business development, governance and anti-corruption compliance roles. She founded GAIA AFRICA in 2018, a private female-only members club for leading business and professional women across the continent. She did this to fill the yawning gap for a third space for professional women to relax, express themselves privately and without inhibition and to productively do business together.

She has come out of retirement to create a safe space for women to network and thrive, and her private club is helping other like-minded women advance in their careers, providing support and mentorship to others.

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