When women succeed, we all benefit. On this International Women’s Day 2021, we’re highlighting leaders and advocates across our First Ladies Initiative, Go Further Partnership, WE Lead Program, and Liberty and Leadership Program who are driving positive change towards gender equity across their communities and countries.
Dr. Veronica Theron
Technical Director, Office of the First Lady of Namibia
Gender-based violence remains one of the most significant and widespread challenges of our time. And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, change is needed now more than ever. In Namibia, Dr. Veronica Theron has been unrelenting in her charge to prevent abuse, uproot misogyny, and ensure access to services and support for survivors. A social worker, survivor advocate, and child protection specialist by background, in her role as Technical Advisor to the First Lady of Namibia, Dr. Theron has been a vital force on influential programs like Break Free, an anti-violence initiative which aims to respond to, support survivors of, and prevent violence across Namibia. This includes emphasis on social determinants of well-being and the need for holistic interventions to empower communities and ensure that every individual has the opportunity to fulfill their potential. From confronting rigid gender norms to advocacy on behalf of survivors to the pursuit of a continuum of service approach, through research-backed efforts, Dr. Theron and her team are hard at work in the pursuit of a future free from cyclical violence.
DREAMS is empowering adolescent girls and young women to live healthy lives and reach their full potential. Among young people in sub-Saharan Africa, girls disproportionately represent the majority of new HIV infections. By providing resources such as education, mentoring, job training, or negotiation skills, a new generation of girls and young women are becoming Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe. The DREAMS girls are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but leaders in their communities today. DREAMS ambassadors, who have often been program participants, encourage their peers to access services and reach their dreams. During the last year, DREAMS reached over 1.5 million girls and young women, and where the program operates, there was a decrease in new cases of HIV in among this population.
Lama Yazbeck of Lebanon described 2020 as “one of the most difficult years that the world and Lebanon has gone through so far.” As executive director of Himaya, an NGO that provides school programming on child abuse, self-protection, and rehabilitation, Lama was responsible for supporting thousands of children across the country facing the tremendous difficulties caused by COVID-19 followed by the tragic events of the explosion in Beirut. Reflecting on her work over the past year, Lama said “I am very proud of all the work we were able to do despite all the challenges we went through, and I am thankful for all the support we have received to be able to continue serving the most vulnerable children.”
Phyoe Phyoe Aung
Phyoe Phyoe Aung is truly a resilient leader, and today she was recognized as a 2021 International Women of Courage Award recipient. A former political prisoner, she co-founded the Wings Institute for Reconciliation, an organization that focuses on building a free, peaceful and prosperous Burma national reconciliation by actively engaging young people working towards national reconciliation. Before completing the Liberty and Leadership Program, she was imprisoned for peacefully supporting education reform in the country and released 13 months later. Today, she is on the frontlines, as are many of our Liberty and Leadership Program alumni, peacefully protesting and standing up against the acts of the military coup that took place on February 1. Resilient young leaders, like Phyoe Phyoe Aung, are the ones driving positive change in their communities across Burma.
Nadia Zrelli is a World Bank expert and a leader in economics located in Tunisia. She is well-known for her research on the school-to-work transition, the unemployment of higher education graduates, and the evaluation of educational systems based on economic growth. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic challenges are creating difficult conditions in the country. According to Nadia, “The lack of public investment forces the government to diversify its sources of funding.” Despite these challenges, Nadia continues to be a positive force for change, saying “I try to work with public instances to support public-private partnerships not only in all sectors of activities but also for young people.”
Saw Eden is a nutrition program advisor at Save the Children where he works to strengthen health systems and integrate nutrition into food security and livelihood projects. As a Liberty and Leadership alum, Saw Eden is building capacity with community-based organizations to support pregnant and breastfeeding mothers adopt health behaviors that reduce malnutrition in children. He sees his role in advancing democracy in Burma as securing healthcare access for marginalized populations. Despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19 and remote work, Saw Eden continues to advance his work by holding remote trainings and delivering virtual content to better educate pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
Dr. Emna Jeblaoui of Tunisia is an expert on Islamic studies and is a professor at a Tunisian university. She is passionate about promoting free thinking and new reading of Islamic history. According to Emna, “Education and high-level research on Islamic history is key to making Muslims more ready for a free world and a free life and a key in countering terrorism.”
Over the past year, Emna has published two books focused on religious minorities, cultural influences on early Islam, and preventing violent extremism and early alert. “The books will be a very useful tool to educators, practitioners on peace building, and on preventing violent extremism within different targets especially within women and youth in Tunisia. This aims to support security and counter terrorism efforts in Tunisia and in the region and to participate to the global efforts on community resilience.”
Wai Wai Nu
Wai Wai Nu is the Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Peace Network, an organization composed of lawyers, community leaders, and peace activists from Burma and around the globe who share a common goal: peacefully promote and protect human rights. A former political prisoner, Wai Wai has been a leading voice for the Rohingya community, a Muslim ethnic minority group based in Rakhine State that has faced tremendous oppression in Burma from the military to which international observers have denounced the crisis as a military-led ethnic cleansing and genocide. With the unfolding situation related to the military coup that took place on February 1, Wai Wai has been actively on the frontlines of advocating for Burma, and she has been featured on international media organizations such as the BBC to discuss the importance of Burma’s return to a more democratic nation that is inclusive and representative of all ethnic groups that make up the richly diverse country.