Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Remarkable Women of 2012

by Isobel Coleman
December 20, 2012

Pakistani students stand next to a portrait of Malala Yousufzai as they attend a meeting organized by South Asian Women in media to mark "Malala Day" in Lahore, Pakistan, November 10, 2012 (Mohsin Raza/Courtesy Reuters).


Among the many compelling stories of 2012 have been those of remarkable women fighting for rights and opportunities—for themselves, their communities, and their countries. In this post I highlight several such women and their courageous struggles.

1. Malala Yousafzai and Sakena Yacoobi

Malala Yousafzai is the 15-year-old Pakistani student who inspired headlines around the world when she survived a Taliban assassination attempt in October. The reason for the attack? Malala’s advocacy of girls’ education. Now recovering from her injuries in the United Kingdom, Malala has become an international figure. Time made her runner-up for its Person of the Year. As the magazine wrote, the Taliban “wanted to silence her. Instead, they amplified her voice.” The question is how she will wield her formidable power in the future—in particular, whether she will try to return to Pakistan or exercise influence from abroad. Although the government recently launched a “Malala Fund for Girls” in conjunction with the UN, the fatwa against her announced last month by Pakistani extremists shows the danger she continues to face. She and her family will need to weigh carefully how they can stay safe while still making a difference for girls and women in Pakistan and around the world.

Courageous as she is, Malala’s advocacy for girls’ education is far from a first in her region. As I wrote on the blog last June, one of my heroes has long been Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), which offers education and health services to women in Afghanistan. Since 1996, the organization’s programs have reached over nine million Afghans. This work has fueled one of the few areas of real progress in the country since the U.S. invasion: some 2.7 million girls attend school today, up from virtually none under the Taliban. A major driver of AIL’s achievements has been Sakena’s commitment to building strong community ties. As she said in a Forbes interview last year, “because AIL works at the grassroots with communities of people who have requested our services, because we listen and share with the people that we work with, because we honor the culture and religion of those we work with, because we have high values, AIL and its staff are trusted.” Unfortunately, though, girls’ education—and the empowerment of women and girls more generally—could slip down the priority list as the international coalition withdraws from Afghanistan. Sakena’s and Malala’s determination will continue to be sorely needed.

2. Nasrin Sotoudeh

Iran has produced no shortage of courageous human rights activists. One who has been in the news this year is Nasrin Sotoudeh. As the New York Times writes, before she was imprisoned in 2010, Sotoudeh “was one of the last lawyers taking on high-profile human rights and political cases in Iran.” Earlier this year, at the risk of her own health, she mounted her second hunger strike, successfully pressuring the government to lift a travel ban on her daughter. Alas, locking up activists is not enough for Iranian authorities; they routinely harass prisoners’ families, too.

Sotoudeh’s case cuts to the heart of Tehran’s brutal repression, which persists even as international attention focuses mainly on its nuclear program. To be sure, foreign leaders and advocates have shined the spotlight on Sotoudeh’s imprisonment, but the deeper question is when Iran’s government will allow people like her to live and practice their profession without fear. It is a particularly pointed question for Iranian women, who face persecution, educational restrictions, and the elimination of government support for family planning programs. Sotoudeh’s imprisonment is part of a broader pattern that we can only hope will end in 2013.

3. Joyce Banda

I have long followed the work of Malawi’s president, who took office following the death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, last April. She faces daunting challenges both as leader of one of the world’s poorest countries and as only the second female president in Africa. As I wrote after her inauguration, Banda has a compelling background. With three young children, she left an abusive husband and launched a garment manufacturing business, which fostered her strong commitment to women’s economic empowerment. She then founded several business associations and groups devoted to boosting women’s economic and social status. All this came before Banda entered politics in 1999. She served in parliament, in the cabinet, and finally as vice president under Mutharika.

Banda had to fight simply to ensure her succession to office, which the constitution required but which some Mutharika loyalists sought to prevent. Since then, she has pulled Malawi from the brink of economic catastrophe, unlocking much-needed IMF funds. She has sold the presidential jet and luxury car fleet and suspended laws against homosexuality. Malawi undoubtedly faces a steep climb to greater prosperity, and Banda is unsentimental about the help it will need to get there. She suggested in a recent interview in the Guardian that China is a faster and easier source of development aid than the West. Referring to governance and human rights, she says, “I have, in fact, spent my life fighting for that. However, I get bothered when it is tied to development, because time is of the essence to Africa.” Democratic governance remains essential, but Banda’s sense of urgency is understandable.


A common thread across all these cases is that courage builds on courage. Malala Yousafzai undoubtedly draws inspiration from the many others who have fought for education against long odds and brutal retaliation. Nasrin Sotoudeh stands alongside scores of brave Iranians, including Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Prize-winning activist, and Faezeh Hashemi, an imprisoned daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Joyce Banda is walking a trail blazed by pioneering female leaders, including Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president in Africa. It should take nothing away from today’s remarkable women to acknowledge the many who have come before, and the many who will undoubtedly follow.

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  • Posted by NMorris

    A great blog, truly encouraging and uplifting. We in the West need to remember constantly how much we take for granted and the courage of people like these women in seeking the things we take for granted for their country people.

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