Today is the first day of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence 2021 campaign and The Pixel Project is kicking things off with our 10th annual list of 16 female role models fighting to end violence against women in their communities.
The intent of this list is simple: to highlight the good work of the heroines of the movement to end violence against women wherever they are in the world. The women and girls in this year’s list hail from 16 countries and 6 continents.
Many of these outstanding 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 instead to stand up for themselves and for other women and girls instead.
Others on this list may not have personally experienced gender-based violence but they have stepped up to do what is right: speak up for women and girls who cannot do it for themselves, sometimes at great personal risk.
This year, several teenage female activists from conservative countries including Malaysia, Pakistan, Poland and Zimbabwe, have made our list, showing that the next generation of girls has already joined the fight and are taking it to the next level. All this requires immense courage, generosity of spirit and a strong enduring heart.
Without further ado, here in alphabetical order by first name is our 2021 list of 16 female role models. We hope that these women and girls will be an inspiration to others to get involved in the cause. To that end, we hope you will generously share this list via Facebook and Twitter to give these extraordinary 16 women and their work a moment in the sun.
It’s time to stop violence against women. Together.
Note: Information for all role model profiles is 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 and girls.
Written, researched and compiled by Regina Yau.
Inspired to support The Pixel Project’s anti-violence against women work? Make a donation to us today OR buy our 1st charity anthology, Giving The Devil His Due. All donations and net proceeds from book sales go towards supporting our campaigns, programmes, and initiatives.
Female Role Model 1: Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam – Malaysia
In April 2021, 17-year-old Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam posted a video on TikTok to publicly take a male teacher to task over a rape joke he made during class. The video went viral, triggering a nationwide debate on sex education, misogyny and sexual violence in Malaysia, where such subjects are often considered taboo. The debate galvanised Ain to create the hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace, which she hopes will encourage other teenagers to come forward about problems they face at school. When she exposed the rape culture at her school, Ain received rape threats from her classmates, was victim-blamed by her teachers, and was ultimately expelled. In an interview with Reuters, Ain said: “There’s been numerous students who have been coming forward with their own stories to me… but people didn’t take any action on what the students had to say. And for me, that is very, very sad.”
Female Role Model 2: Bronwyn Bate – Australia
One of Bronwyn Bate’s first jobs was working in the district court in Western Australia where she became extremely frustrated as she witnessed domestic violence victims let down by the Australian courts time and time again. She saw women and children fall through the cracks of Australia’s justice system, ending up homeless because of a lack of safe and accessible employment to help them attain financial independence. After a stint in the non-profit sector, she founded Mettle Women Inc. – an organisation that focuses on closing this gap by employing women who are living in crisis accommodation shelters, equipping them with the skills, confidence and financial security required to secure and maintain employment and, in turn, safe and stable housing.
Female Role Model 3: Damla Özenç – Turkey
Damla Özenç is the founder of This Is Mana, a small Turkish brand established in Istanbul that is putting many major labels to shame with its principled stance on gender-based violence, women’s empowerment and ethical trade. Özenç wanted the brand to stand on a solid foundation of women empowerment and sustainability. She also wanted to address concerns around transparent, fair and ethical trade, keeping the climate crisis at its heart. This Is Mana works with two women’s cooperatives, making sure all 68 hired women were working in humane conditions and are compensated fairly for their time and effort. Özenç has said that she “wanted it to become a brand that had fashion and design at its heart but could exist without hurting people or nature,”.
Female Role Model 4: Frida Guerrera – Mexico
Frida Guerrera is a Mexican journalist who tracks down men who kill women. Guerrera goes through national and regional news every day to identify femicide cases and catalogue victims’ age, location and the method of their murder on a spreadsheet. She then selects several cases to highlight on her blog. Guerrera also posts missing person notices on her Twitter and Facebook pages daily where she asks her thousands of followers to help locate the women or the men who murdered them. The prosecutor’s office for Mexico State, where Guerrera is based, has confirmed she has helped them resolve a number of murder cases. Guerrera, a domestic violence survivor herself, said she does this work because the Mexican police refuse to take it seriously and are often corrupt. “They are inept,” she told The Guardian in an interview.
Female Role Model 5: Hadiqa Bashir – Pakistan
19-year-old Hadiqa Bashi has spent the last 8 years working to end child marriage in the Swat Valley of Pakistan – once a hotbed of the Pakistani Taliban – where it is the norm and where girls can be offered for marriage in exchange for settling disputes. Bashir told The Media Line that she was inspired to stand up against forced marriage when her friend got married at an early age and was tortured by her husband who made her mentally ill. When Bashir was 12, she decided to start fighting against child marriages. Together with a few close friends, she formed Girls United for Human Rights in 2014. The group comprises 10 girls, all under the age of 18 years. In an interview with Media Line, Bashi said: “We have no support from the government side; we collect our pocket money to run our campaign.”
Female Role Model 6: Krystyna Paszko – Poland
Krystyna Paszko, a Polish high school student, was horrified when she saw reports of rising domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown. So she decided to set up a fake online beauty shop to help domestic violence victims trapped at home with their abuser. She contacted the Polish Women’s Rights Centre, which provided psychologists and lawyers to work with the website. When a victim inquires about buying a cream, a psychologist responds, asking how long the “skin problems” have been going on for. If someone places an order and leaves an address, authorities are alerted to check in on them. When Krystyna won the EU’s Civil Solidarity Prize for her website, she said: “It makes the public face [the] problem [of domestic abuse] and makes people think about this.”
Female Role Model 7: Mellissa Fung – Canada
12 years ago, while on assignment in Afghanistan, Canadian journalist and filmmaker Mellissa Fung was abducted and imprisoned in a pit for a month by Afghan rebels who also raped her. When she heard about the case of the kidnapped Boko Haram schoolgirls, Fung felt compelled to reach out to some of them. The result is Captive, Fung’s debut feature-length documentary, which tracks Zara, Gambo and Asma’u, three teenagers from northeastern Nigeria who were kidnapped as pre-teens by Boko Haram and forced into marriage with their captors. The documentary charts the girls’ efforts to reintegrate into their communities over several years and their struggle to cope with the trauma and stigma of being sexually violated and kidnapped. Fung told The Guardian: “So many women end up denying the reality of their experiences. I mean, I definitely did – and I had a good job, a supportive partner and the best trauma therapist in Canada. So you can imagine what it’s like for the girls.” Fung has also been quietly paying the girls’ school fees.
Female Role Model 8: Natsiraishe Maritsa – Zimbabwe
Since 2018, 17-year old Natsiraishe Maritsa has been using taekwondo to rally and empower young girls and underaged mothers to join forces and push back against the scourge of child marriage. Through her association called Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium, she runs taekwondo classes for her peers, some of whom are married with children. Not only does learning to fight help build the confidence of the girls who attend it but the class is also a safe space to discuss the dangers of child marriage, including verbal and physical abuse and marital rape by their husbands, pregnancy-related health complications, and hunger. Maritsa, who began her efforts when she saw her classmates married off and having children while still being girls themselves, said: “From being hopeless, the young mothers feel empowered … being able to use their stories to dissuade other girls from falling into the same trap.”
Female Role Model 9: Ntailan Lolkoki – Kenya
When Ntailan Lolkoki turned 12, she was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) according to the tradition of her tribes (she is half Masai, half Samburu). Now a Berlin-based artist, Lolkoki is fighting to save girls and women from this terrible fate by using the power of storytelling to kickstart and propel the conversation about FGM. Her African fairy tale, The Kingdom of Watetu and Songaland, is a tale of two tribes who live peacefully alongside each other until the princess of the Watetu rebels against and escapes the tradition of FGM practiced by her tribe. Lolkoko rejects the argument that talking alone will not reverse a centuries-old, deep-rooted tradition. She told DW in an interview: “If we stopped talking about it, it would be a waste of the pain that I went through or that many other people go through. It’s something that needs to be talked about over and over again.”
Female Role Model 10: Olivia DeRamus – United States of America
In 2014, Olivia DeRamus was sexually assaulted while she was in college. When she reported the perpetrator to the college, he sued her for millions of dollars in order to silence her. She fought a lengthy and costly court battle that was only resolved in 2019, leaving her exhausted. Realising that the legal system is inherently hostile towards women who are sexual violence survivors, she launched Restless, a social networking and media platform that she created and designed as a safe space and tool to support, empower and educate women on everything affecting them, from domestic violence to voter suppression. DeRamus told Ms. Magazine, “It’s always been about figuring out how to create something genuinely helpful for women, in a world that can so often be set against us.”
Female Role Model 11: Priya Ramani – India
When the #MeToo movement took off in India, journalist and editor Priya Ramani publicly accused former minister MJ Akhbar of sexual misconduct. In response, Akbar filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani, alleging that her accusations damaged his “stellar reputation”. Ramani fought back and the case was decided in her favour in 2021, with the judge ruling that “a woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sexual abuse”. This judgement by the trial court was considered a major precedent for other #MeToo cases in India as it would encourage other victims and survivors to take on their abusers.
Female Role Model 12: Ruth Kissam – Papua New Guinea
Ruth Kissam is a community organiser who specialises in combatting Sorcery Accusation Related Violence (SARV) against women in Papua New Guinea (PNG). She is the director of operations for the PNG Tribal Foundation, a non-profit that focused on maternal health, education, and gender issues and spearheads the Senisim Pasin film campaign, which is a multi-year campaign designed to change cultural attitudes about women in PNG. In an interview with SheThePeople, Kissam says: “I claimed a body of a woman killed on allegations of practicing sorcery and causing the death of a child and buried her in 2014, a month shy of her first anniversary. Her horrific death and subsequent robbing of her dignity by not burying her remains kind of dragged me into this space of working to fight for justice for women accused of sorcery accusation related violence.”
Female Role Model 13: Saba Sahar – Afghanistan
Saba Sahar is one of Afghanistan’s first female film directors. She is also one of the country’s most famous actors and campaigners for Afghan women’s human rights. Her films and television shows have explored justice and corruption. Additionally, Sahar is a trained police officer with the rank of colonel and works for the interior ministry. In 2020, she survived an attempted assassination which is part of a wave of assassinations that had targeted eight policewomen and had killed six by that point. Sahar told The Guardian: ““[The armed groups] want to stop women from going for these jobs. “Every Afghan must be represented in the security services. In a country where men are so dominant over every aspect of our lives, the more women we have in the police, the more other women will be able to seek justice, protection and support. We must resist.”
Female Role Model 14: Sofia Bekatorou – Greece
In January 2021, former Olympic champion Sofia Bekatorou revealed during an online conference that she had been subjected to “sexual harassment and abuse” by a Hellenic Sailing Federation (HSF) executive and that her abuser obstructed her career for years. Her testimony triggered a #MeToo movement in Greek sport when the HSF pushed back against her allegations the next day, causing the story to explode in the media. Disgusted by the HSF’s actions and galvanised by Bekatorou’s courageous act, Greek athletes began supporting her by going public with experiences of sexual harassment and abuse using the hashtag #metisofia (on Sofia’s side). Following Bekatorou’s revelations, Aristeidis Adamopoulos stepped down as a vice-president of the HSF and the Greek government finally ended the practice of allowing lifetime executives to run Greek sport.
Female Role Model 15: Tan Weiwei – China
Chinese pop star Tan Weiwei’s hit single Xiao Juan is unflinchingly scathing about domestic violence and has inspired thousands of Chinese women and praised by Chinese women’s human rights activists since its release in late 2020. The song’s lyrics rails against sexism and misogyny in China with topical references to specific cases of domestic violence that made headlines that year. Tan’s song is unusual not just for its unapolegetically feminist stance that is frankly critical of the Chinese patriarchy but also because it publicly addresses domestic violence, which is still very much a taboo subject in Chinese society. Tan has declined all requests from the media for interviews about the song.
Female Role Model 16: Thein Nu – Myanmar
After Thein Nu* was gang-raped by soldiers in war-torn Northern Rakhine, she refused to remain silent. Instead, she went up against Myanmar’s powerful military in a months-long fight for justice through the courts. Against all odds, she won, resulting in her three rapists being sentenced to 20 years in prison with hard labour. She told AFP that “many women like me have already endured the same thing” and hoped that her victory would give more rape victims in Myanmar the courage to speak up and challenge the military. Since she won her case, Nyo Aye, chairwoman of the Arakan Women Network, which provided legal aid, counselling and shelter to Thein Nu and her children, noted that more rape victims have come forward to seek legal help. (Note: “Thein Nu” is a pseudonym used by the media for her safety)
- Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam – From “Malaysian teen slams rape jokes by teacher in viral video, vows to #MakeSchoolASaferPlace” (Reuters)
- Bronwyn Bate – From “A Hand Up For Survivors of Domestic Violence” (probonoaustralia.com.au)
- Damla Özenç – From “Learning from a fashion brand about ending violence against women” (Daily Sabah/This Is Mana)
- Frida Guerrera – From “Hunting the men who kill women: Mexico’s femicide detective” (The Guardian/AP/Luis Cortes)
- Hadiqa Bashir – From “Young Pakistani Activist Hadiqa Bashir Fights Forced Child Marriage” (The Media Line/ Ifthikar Ahmad)
- Krystyna Paszko – From “Why this teen set up a prize-winning fake cosmetics shop” (BBC/Krystyna Paszko)
- Mellissa Fung – From “‘I had to find them’: kidnapped filmmaker Mellissa Fung on her mission to find the Boko Haram girls” (The Observer/Suki Dhanda)
- Natsiraishe Maritsa – From Twitter (https://twitter.com/taekwondokidzw?lang=en)
- Ntailan Lolkoki – From Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ntailan.lolkoki.1)
- Olivia DeRamus – From “Restless Is the Social Media Platform Fighting Sexual Assault” (Ms Magazine/Instagram/Runawayluna)
- Priya Ramani – From “MeToo: Priya Ramani acquitted in defamation case filed by MJ Akbar” (The Week)
- Ruth Kissam – From Columbia World Projects
- Saba Sahar – From “‘I am not afraid to fight’: the female Afghan colonel who survived the Taliban’s assassins” (The Guardian/ Farzana Wahidy)
- Sofia Bekatorou – From Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/sofia.bekatorou)
- Tan Weiwei – From Wikimedia (nicolas genin from Paris, France, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
- Thein Nu – From “Myanmar gang-rape victim wins legal battle with military” (Al-Jazeera/AFP/Stringer)