Transforming Personal Pain Into Positive Action: The Pixel Project’s 16 Female Role Models 2011

When we presented our first list of 16 female role models fighting to end violence against women in their communities back in December 2010, our sole intent was simple: to highlight the good work of the heroines of the movement to end violence against women wherever they are in the world. Indeed, this list came about because The Pixel Project team noticed the bright sparks of these women’s efforts in our daily work to collect, collate and share news about the violence against women movement worldwide.

We hoped that these women would be an inspiration to others to get involved with the cause and were delighted to see the outpouring of support that the Facebook and Twitter communities showed for the 2010 list of female role models. Thanks to the generous amounts of sharing and retweeting of the list by our supporters and their networks, those 16 women got an extra – and well-deserved – moment in the spotlight.

With such an overwhelmingly positive response to last year’s list, we decided to make the list an annual online milestone to continue shining a light on many more dedicated and awe-inspiring women activists toiling ceaselessly to prevent, stop and end violence against women in their communities.

Unlike other “Top 10” or “Top 50” or “Top 100” lists, this list is not a popularity contest. We do not select candidates based on the prestige or the fame of the activist. We simply aim to continue giving a shout-out to women who are on the front lines of the fight to end gender-based violence and we hope to highlight as many of these inspiring women and their work as possible in the years to come.

Many of these wonderful women have shown that it is possible to transform personal pain that came out of facing gender-based violence, into positive action to stop violence against women, empower themselves and to show other survivors that it is possible to move forward with dignity and happiness. They have refused to let bitterness and pain get the better of them, opting to stand up for themselves and for other women instead.

Others on this list may not have experienced gender-based violence inflicted on themselves but they have stepped up to do what is right: to speak up for women and girls who cannot do it for themselves, sometimes at great personal risk.

All this requires immense courage, generosity of spirit and a strong enduring heart.

So without further ado, here in alphabetical order by first name is our 2011 list of 16 female role models. We hope that they will inspire you as much they do The Pixel Project team!

Note: Information for all role model profiles are sourced via online research and is based on one or more news sources, articles and/or The Pixel Project’s own interviews with them. The main articles/reports from which these profiles have been sourced can be directly accessed via the hyperlinked titles. Please do click through to learn more about these remarkable women.


Female Role Model 1: Aashika Damodar – United States of America

Aashika Damodar had, in her own words, “fought tooth and nail” with her traditionalist family to avoid an arranged marriage as a young girl so she could fulfil her dream of going to university. She found the issue even closer to home when she learned of others trafficked for forced marriage. While at UC Berkeley, she also found out about a trafficking case that had occurred right across from her dormitory. With the spectre of human trafficking happening in so many facets of her life, she decided to do something about it and is now the founder of Survivors Connect, a collaborative project to build global advocacy & support networks of survivors and activists working to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Survivors Connect uses innovative instruments such as social media, new technologies and other interactive media to empower and enhance protection, prosecution and prevention efforts.

Female Role Model 2: Cathleen Holland – United Kingdom

Cathleen Holland is a midwife on a mission to stop female genital mutilation (FGM). Cathleen first went to Kenya with VSO back in 1998 and was horrified to discover that the Pokot community where she was assigned still practised a form of FGM that the World Health Organisation considers the most extreme. After witnessing an FGM ceremony, Cathleen became determined to help stop the practice and started fundraising and working with local midwives and birth attendants to educate and convince communities across Pokot to end the practice. “The idea they came up with,” Holland tells The Guardian UK, “was to put together an alternative rite-of-passage ceremony that didn’t involve cutting.” Cathleen raised funds to put together the first alternative rites of passage ceremony from which 100 girls in Pokot graduated. She plans to continue spreading the message across other parts of Kenya and other African countries.

Female Role Model 3: Dr Chandini Perera – Sri Lanka

Dr. Chandini Perera, one of only six plastic surgeons (and the only female plastic surgeon) in Sri Lanka, performs reconstructive surgery to burn victims. Eight years ago she took over the burn clinic of her country’s main hospital.  She began to notice that most of her severe burn patients were women and that the burns followed a similar and disturbing pattern: women are set on fire by their husbands and boyfriends, while others set themselves on fire in an empty bid to escape abuse. Those who survive the burns do so with disfigurement and disabilities requiring long recovery periods. Victims are often ostracized, keeping the problem hidden. Chandini said that in Sri Lankan culture domestic abuse is not openly talked about and in some ways seen as normal.  She now works tirelessly to bring attention to this widespread and hidden problem. (Dr Chandini’s portrait is courtesy of Phil Borges and Stirring The Fire)

Female Role Model 4: Fatou Diakhate – Senegal

Fatou Diakhate was married off at the age of 13 and did not attend school until her forties, when she took adult literacy classes as part of a community programme run by local aid agency Tostan. In an interview with Trustlaw, Diakhate said that through her education, she “realised there are lots of problems with child marriage and that it wasn’t good at all for girls to be married early,” Diakhate went on to become a community leader, rallying the women of her village against child marriage on the grounds that it put girls’ lives in danger and denied them an education. Despite the hostility from the men in her community, Diakhate persevered and after several months of talks with community leaders, in late 1998 the entire community decided to abandon child marriages. Several other communities in Senegal have since also banned the practice.

Female Role Model 5: Dr Hawa Abdi – Somalia

Throughout the Somalian Civil War, Dr. Abdi and her daughters, who are also doctors, ran a functioning hospital offering refuge for thousands of families driven from their homes by relentless street battles. In 1983, the hospital began as a one-room private women’s clinic on land Dr Abdi’s family owned. That one-room clinic has grown to become Hawa Abdi Hospital with 400 beds, 3 operating theaters, 6 doctors, 43 nurses, an 800-student school and an adult-education center that teaches women how to cook nutritious meals and make clothes. When militia commanders held Dr. Abdi at gunpoint while their men ransacked the hospital, hundreds of women from the sprawling refugee camp on Dr. Abdi’s property protested, adding to condemnation from Somalis abroad that forced the militants to back down. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr Abdi said: “I told the gunmen, ‘I’m not leaving my hospital.’ I told them, ‘If I die, I will die with my people and my dignity.’ I yelled at them, ‘You are young and you are a man, but what have you done for your society?’ ”

Female Role Model 6: Jineth Bedoya Lima – Colombia

Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was drugged, abducted and brutally gang-raped to “send a message” to the press in Colombia. Bedoya refused to be cowed and spent the last eleven years seeking justice for herself and other female journalists who have faced sexual violence in the course of their work. Lauren Wolf who profiled Bedoya in The Atlantic, writes: “Bedoya is still reporting in Colombia, now for newspaper El Tiempo. Three bodyguards accompany her on reporting assignments, and now the Colombian government will give her a bulletproof car because of her increased visibility, she said. She’s nervous and has reason to be. She receives threats regularly, has already fled the country once, and once found the lock to her house forced open.”

Female Role Model 7: Karin Alfredsson – Sweden

More than 30 years ago, and almost single-handedly, author and journalist Karin Alfredsson persuaded Swedish authorities to take the issue of violence against women seriously and to act more forcefully in handling cases of domestic violence. Alfredsson is currently working on Cause of Death: Woman’ to investigate the worldwide epidemic of violent acts against women. This investigative project covers 10 countries – Pakistan, Mexico, the United States, Egypt, South Africa, Spain,Brazil, Russia, Sweden, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – to document what Alfredsson and her team call the “violent reality” for women. The project will include an interactive website with real-life examples of women affected by gender-based violence and information on how to stop it.

Female Role Model 8: Leymah Gbowee – Liberia

Leymah Gbowee, one of the three joint winners of this year’s Nobel peace prize, led the women’s movement to help end war in Liberia. Gbowee grew up in Bong County, in central Liberia, and left for the capital when she was 17, just before the war started in 1990. She became the spokeswoman for the women’s group and led the protest for peace. In 2003 she led hundreds of women to Monrovia’s City Hall, demanding an end to the war. “We the women of Liberia will no more allow ourselves to be raped, abused, misused, maimed and killed,” she shouted. “Our children and grandchildren will not be used as killing machines and sex slaves!”  The women protested until Charles Taylor agreed to a meeting. Under Gbowee’s leadership, they gave the three warring factions three days to deliver an unconditional ceasefire, an intervention force and for the government and rebels to sit down and talk. They got what they asked for and soon after, the Accra Peace Accord was signed in Ghana.

Female Role Model 9: Lisa F. Jackson – United States of America

Filmmaker Lisa F Jackson has been involved with documentary-making for over 30 years. She survived a terrifying sexual assault in Washington, D.C., where three armed men seized and raped her. The attack made the front pages but Jackson was appalled that so many other rapes passed unmentioned. Her experience drove her to create some of the most moving and effective documentaries about violence against women starting with The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo through which she tells both sides of the story by interviewing both the women who had endured horrific war rape and the men who carried out the atrocities. Her most recent project, Sex Crimes Unit, recently screened on HBO, puts the spotlight on the work of the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit – the New York District Attorney’s unit dedicated to the prosecution of rape and sexual assault.

Female Role Model 10: Lydia Cacho Ribeiro – Mexico

Journalist and women’s rights activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro has investigated gender violence and sex trafficking and published numerous stories and books on the subject. Together with non-governmental organisations and a grassroots activist network, Cacho started a prevention campaign called “No estoy en venta” – “I am not for sale” – against sex trafficking that includes a video to give young people tools they need to protect themselves. Ten years ago, she also founded a shelter for women and their children who are fleeing various kinds of gender violence, called the Women’s Assistance Centre (Centro Integral de Atención a la Mujer) in Cancún. The centre now has high security, with a barbed wire fence and cameras everywhere to keep the women safe. Lydia herself has a lengthy checklist of safety strategies she must adhere to in her daily life because of the threats she receives. She has been previously thrown in jail and tortured for her work.

Female Role Model 11: Nawal El Saadawi – Egypt

Nawal El Saadawi is an 80-year-old Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist who vowed to fight female genital mutilation (FGM) ever since she underwent it herself at age 6 and has spent the last 60 years fighting for the end to FGM and for the rise of women’s rights. In 1972, her book Women and Sex led to her losing her job as director general of public health for the Egyptian ministry of health. In 1981, her outspoken political views led to her being charged with crimes against the state and jailed for three months. She says she has been a feminist “since I was a child. I was swimming against the tide all my life.” She lectures on FGM and feminism, encouraging people to connect “cutting” with politics, economics, religion, class and history.

Female Role Model 12: Nurun Nahar – Bangladesh

After she survived a brutal acid attack by a disgruntled suitor in 1995 which robbed her of her looks, fleetingly crushed her soul and perpetually erased her faith in God, Nurun Nahar put her life back together again by getting a college education and helping other acid attack survivors. Nahar has worked with Naripokkho (a Dhaka-based women’s rights group), Action Aid and other nongovernmental organizations. She counsels other survivors and has become a vocal activist against acid violence. Nahar tells Trustlaw: “The damage is irreversible and healing ongoing”. She says some victims are virtually catatonic, some wail, some deny, almost all are in pain and feel helpless. She tells them her story and she listens to their stories.

Female Role Model 13: Samira Ibrahim – Egypt

Samira Ibrahim was one of several female protesters at Tahrir Square who were subject to a “virginity check” by the Egyptian military after being arrested for protesting. The women were taken to a military detention center and forced to undergo the so-called “virginity tests,” in which women are forcefully penetrated in order to document blood from the hymen as proof of virginity. Only Samira has filed a lawsuit against the military because many victims fear reprisals from the authorities. Samira’s decision to single-handedly challenge the military in court is rare for any woman, especially a young woman from a traditional background. For Samira, the case is about making sure this never happens again. She says: “If any woman is violated and she files a lawsuit against her perpetrators, then this is going to eventually stop, and they’re not going to put pressure on political activists by threatening to violate their wives or daughters.”

Female Role Model 14: Sampat Pal – India

Sampat Pal stands up to men, publicly proclaiming their abuses to shame them, threatening them with the police and jail. Backed by her Gulabi Gang (gulabi is pink in Hindi), Pal has been known to have given “rogues” a sound thrashing with a lathi or bamboo stick. She is all the more unusual for being a Dalit, or “untouchable”, the bottom of the pile in the Hindu caste system. Married off at 9, Pal went to live with her husband at the age of 12, and by 15 she had the first of five children. “If I had known, I’d never have let it happen,” she says at one point. Pal and the Gulabi Gang are the subject of “Pink Saris,” the latest offering from award-winning British documentary maker Kim Longinotto, trails Pal and her attempt to pierce the patriarchal attitudes that have, for centuries, kept women in many parts of India downtrodden and silent. The film struck a chord with Arab audiences, winning best documentary at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year.  “The audience loved it and they kept saying ‘this is like my sister’,” Longinotto says. “You obviously want them (films) to be important in their own countries in some way but it’s lovely when you see it cross over.”

Female Role Model 15: Shari McKay – Canada

When a Toronto businesswoman was brutally raped while on a business trip to Houston, Texas, in 2008, she could not get any help from the Houston police, Durham police and even her local MP to bring her rapist to justice. Then she bumped into Constable Shari MacKay of Toronto police who took it upon herself to get justice for the survivor. McKay wrote dozens of letters to officials in Houston, from the chief of police to the mayor, pushed investigators to reopen the case and made at least half a dozen trips to that city. MacKay tells The Star in Toronto that she did what was right. “She had no other advocate, there was no one else to look after her. What happened was horrific … I wanted to see him convicted for what he did.” In October 2010, the rapist John Frangias was sentenced to eight years at the Texas State Penitentiary. Alexis Bruegger, assistant District Attorney in Houston, calls her the driving force in the case. “Houston cops resisted her … she didn’t let it deter her. I wish we had more police officers like Shari here.”

Female Role Model 16: Zarghuna Kargar – Afghanistan

Zarghuna Kargar was trained by the BBC World Service’s charitable arm in Pakistan and in London. She eventually became the presenter of Afghan Woman’s Hour, a weekly magazine programme modelled on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that highlighted the terrible position of women in Afghan society. The show was a huge hit and was praised for its frank treatment of subjects including domestic violence and homosexuality. After Afghan Woman’s Hour folded due to funding cuts, Zarghuna wrote “Dear Zari” which chronicled some of the most powerful stories highlighted on the show. It was while recording a story about the impossibility of divorce for women in Afghanistan that Zarghuna Kargar decided she must find the strength to end her own arranged marriage.

3 thoughts on “Transforming Personal Pain Into Positive Action: The Pixel Project’s 16 Female Role Models 2011

  1. THIS is what I mean when I say, “find something bigger then you to give back to the world.” Everyone has a voice and I LOVE reading about empowered women who found a way to use their voice to educate and empower others.

    Thank you for this powerful piece!

    ~Kathleen M. Milliken
    Founder of Climb for Empowerment / Project Empowerment

  2. Such inspiration! Thank you for sharing the messages of how these women rise above their challenges and stand strong for other women. Sheer proof that pain can produce such awe, empowering dedication to reach out and change the world!

  3. Sitting Ina cafe in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, reading about these amazing women via my Twitter feed has really choked me up. Naturally, have re-tweeted with a few extra hash tags.

    Kudos to you 16 brave women and to every other woman worldwide who stands up for herself and the rights of her sisters. “If it happens to my sister, it happens to me.”