Native New Yorker and head of Diaspora Partnerships at UNICEF USA, Semhar Araia has been professionally uplifting, empowering and working with communities who want to make a difference around the world for the past 15 years. But her upbringing informed her career path well before she got her working papers. “My parents came to this country in 1967 as one of the first group of African students to arrive in the United States,” she recounts. “Like so many other international students, they were expected to return home after their studies to help our family and the country.
Edith Kahbang Walla was always committed to advancing the continent of Africa. For that reason, she returned to her native Cameroon to start her career after studying in the United States at Howard University. “I’m very connected to my country, I’m connected to my family, and I knew that whatever business I did or contribution I was going to make, it had to have an impact on the larger community,” she explains to Vital Voices Global Partnership.
Born deaf and blind, Eritrean and Ethiopian Haben Girma grew up in Oakland, California where her mother sought refuge during the war of independence with Ethiopia. She was educated in public schools, and because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, was entitled to pull-out instruction to learn Braille for an hour each day. When Girma went on to college she became an advocate for herself and others with disabilities, for simple choices and access that seeing and hearing individuals might take for granted. Her interest in civil rights laws brought her to Harvard Law School, where she became the first deaf-blind graduate in 2013. After graduation she took a role as a Skadden Fellow at Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) in Berkeley, California. From 2015 to 2016 she worked at the firm as a staff attorney. And since her time at DRA, Girma has been bringing attention to the ways in which technology can assist deaf-blind individuals in their everyday lives.
Even before Monica Geingos was the First Lady of Namibia she was named by Namibian newspaper The Villager as one of the twelve most influential people in the southern African country. Then Monica Kalondo, she was a model businesswoman, Managing Director of private equity investment company Stimulus Investments Limited and a member of the President’s Economic Advisory Council. Strangely enough, her journey into finance wasn’t intentional. “...I parked at the Namibian Stock Exchange as a Listings Assistant in order to fund a postgraduate law degree,” she tells the New Era Newspaper. “As life happens, I fell in love with what I was doing at the NSX and that resisted any desire to practice law. The moment I fell in love with my work at the NSX, my destiny path was set and the whole universe conspired to ensure I gained the right experience and exposure to bring me to where I am now.”
Somali-Canadian activist Ilwad Elman got her call to activism early. Her parents are both esteemed advocates for peace, her father Elman Ali Ahmed even earning the nickname “Somali father of peace.” But it was the work that he did to promote peace and reconciliation that led to his political assassination in 1996, while Ilwad, her mother and three sisters lived in asylum in Canada. Fearlessly Ilwad’s mother Fartuun Adan returned to Mogadishu in 2006 to continue the work she had started with her husband, running the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center. Ilwad followed her mother’s lead in 2010, returning to Somalia during a time of conflict to help carry on her father’s legacy. As Director of Programs and Development, of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center she specializes in human rights, peace-building and countering violent extremism. Among her many accomplishments in that role are co-founding the first rape crisis center for victims of sexual and gender based violence, developing programs to rehabilitate and disarm child soldiers, and creating inclusive spaces for women in peace building.
Zimbabwean philanthropist and social entrepreneur Tsitsi Masiyiwa may be well off, but she also knows what it’s like to struggle. In the early 90s her husband, businessman Strive Masiyiwa, went head-to-head with the Zimbawean government over their telecommunications monopoly, taking them to court for the right to start his own mobile phone business. A lengthy legal battle ensued, draining the Masiyiwa family of their finances. Tsitsi looked to God in their lowest moments, promising that if he set things right, she would devote her life’s work to helping others in poverty. “We went ahead and registered Capernaum Trust, a charity that we decided would give scholarships to needy children,” she tells Forbes. “It was an unpractical thing to do at the time, especially considering the fact that we had nothing. But as a Christian, you do unreasonable things.” Her faith paid off. By 1998 not only had the Zimbawean Supreme Court granted Strive his mobile operating license, but his company Econet had surpassed the government’s Zimbabwean Post & Telecommunications Corporation (PTC) business in just a few short months of operation.
Thulisile, better known as “Thuli” Madonsela’s name is one we’ll be sure to see in history books for centuries to come. The human rights lawyer, equality expert and South African advocate taught for many years, and in the late 80s and early 90s she segued into government. First, as a legal advisor and contract manager for public and private trade unions and later, in 1996, working closely with then President Nelson Mandela on the final constitution of South Africa. From 2009 through 2016 she served as Public Protector, an assignment under which she had the weight on her shoulders of exploring and correcting all instances of abuse of power and unethical practices. Madonsela always did what was just, and continues to do so as a member of the South African Law Reform Commission. Serious about her contributions to the political sphere, she has always been clear-cut about where she felt she was meant to make the most impact.
Though Graça Maria Sanches has been pushing for gender equality in Cape Verde for years, her background began in education. Studying overseas from her native Cape Verde, Sanches earned a degree in History and a Master’s in Education from Portugal’s University of Porto and University of Minho, respectively. She began her teaching career in Portugal, but would soon make her way back to Cape Verde. While teaching in her homeland, she assumed various school leadership positions like President of the Culture, Information and Sports Committee and Deputy Director for Social and Community Affairs. It became clear that she had a knack for governing, and she took on leadership positions elsewhere, like Director of the Pre-School and Basic Education and Coordinator of the “Mundu Novu” for Education program with the Ministry of Education. "I'm a teacher by profession, but politics is becoming one of my passions,” she says in an interview with Sapo Estudante. “I saw in politics an opportunity to influence measures related to education and gender equality.”
For more than a decade, Moiyattu Banya has been working gender and development and women's rights; specifically those of African women, in many forms. As Co-Founder and Director of Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone, she helps girls become change agents and leaders. As Creative Director and Founder of Women Change Africa she documents the stories of uncelebrated African women leaders and entrepreneurs. As a professor in social work at Columbia University she helps graduate students to develop social impact programs. As a professor in Temple University’s Gender and Sexuality Studies department, she teaches undergraduate students the importance of women in radical social movements. As a published writer she unpacks social justice issues relating to women and girls in Africa. As a Board member of the African Women’s Development Fund, she supports the organization’s efforts to make grants in benefit of African women’s rights.
To model, activist and filmmaker Gelila Bekele, a powerful woman is kind and marches to her own rhythm. That is perhaps why dropping out of medical school and dedicating her career to the advancement of her native Ethiopia was a no-brainer for her. Bekele spent her formative years in Europe and the United States. Now based in New York, her allegiance to Ethiopia has never wavered. “I had the opportunity to live and work in different parts of the world, but Ethiopia is my inspiration,” she tells us. Her work there began with ensuring access to clean water and education. Bekele’s 2015 documentary, “Mai: Life is not Honey” raised awareness on both. According to Bekele, providing these essential resources is “the only way to create a long term sustainability” in her country. The long term sustainability she dreams of will lead to turning Africa into a destination the West can look to for work and opportunity.