Women in developing countries are one of the most vulnerable and oppressed groups in the world. But even in the face of challenges such as disproportionate violence, child marriages, teenage pregnancy and minimal education, many women are fighting back. The Borgen Project highlights five powerful women in poor countries who are asserting their power against fierce adversity.

  1. Malala Yousafzai
    This international icon has been an inspiration to girls everywhere since she survived a Taliban attack in 2012. The Pakistani teenager was targeted by the extremist group for her advocacy in support of girls’ education rights. Since her miraculous recovery, Yousafzai has continued her fight against gender inequality by founding the Malala Fund. This organization advocates for and invests in girls’ education in the poorest and most unequal countries in the world. At age 17, she became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Her story of resistance has made her one of the most powerful women in poor countries.
  2. Eqbal Dauqan
    This Yemeni scientist is breaking cultural barriers and scientific boundaries despite hardship and discrimination. Like Malala, she has been physically attacked for defiance of her culture’s strict gender roles. She was forced to flee to Malaysia from the civil war in her native Yemen. In the face of these extreme obstacles, Dauqan has managed to become an awarded chemist. In a country where many women need a man’s permission to leave the house, Dauqan earned a college degree and a Ph.D. in biochemistry. She has gone on to publish a popular book, earn international awards for her scientific contributions and be named assistant professor and head of her department at Al Saeed University. It is no wonder that NPR calls her “unstoppable.”
  3. Majd Al-Asharawy
    This Palestinian inventor created Green Cake, a revolutionary new building block made from ashes. In her war-torn home of Gaza, resources are limited and many buildings are in ruins. Al-Asharawy researched for six months to develop her special brick out of the resources available in Gaza. Green Cake is environmentally friendly and fire-resistant, weighs half what a concrete block does and costs half the price. This inspiring young inventor is yet another woman utilizing her limited resources to revolutionize the world around her.
  4. Ishita Sharma
    India is one of the most rapidly improving countries in the developing world, but gender equality in the country is not up to pace. Ninety-two women are raped in India every day. After being harassed by men on the street, Sharma teamed up with a kung fu coach to offer free self-defense classes to underprivileged girls. By working with parents and teachers in the girls’ communities, she has built up a small army of girls with the skills and confidence to defend themselves. Sharma is helping to equip more powerful women in poor countries to stand up to violence and sexual harassment.
  5. Drukpa Order “Kung Fu” Nuns
    In Southeast Asia, the human trafficking of young girls is rampant. Five hundred Buddhist nuns from India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet are fighting this practice through a 4,000-kilometer bike trip. For the fourth time, the nuns biked from Kathmandu to Leh, India to raise awareness of human trafficking and promote messages of gender equality. Along the way, they met with local officials, provided food to poor communities and helped marginalized people access medical care. They are even trained in martial arts to defend themselves against male harassment. These powerful women in poor countries are blazing a new trail for girls in Southeast Asia.

There is still a lot of work to be done by the international community and local governments to support gender equality in the developing world. But these powerful women in poor countries are proving that they are far from powerless.

Bret Anne Serbin

Photo: Flickr