This International Women’s Day, Let’s Celebrate Our She-roes, Past and Present

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By Laura Schroeder

This International Women’s Day, as we applaud the political, economic, cultural, and social advancements of half the population, there is much to celebrate in the Americas.

In the past decade, there has been a striking increase in political and economic participation of women. Promisingly, government and NGO agendas alike are increasingly prioritizing gender equity as a cross-cutting, pressing issue, and slowly, collaboration is leading to progress. In Bolivia, approximately half of the legislative body is female. Paraguay recently passed Act 5777, providing protection against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), outlawing femicide, and providing services to survivors of sexual violence. Originating in Argentina, the #NiUnaMenos movement against sexual harassment and assault has made great headway across several countries, and has been followed by the US-rooted #MeToo movement.

This is not to say that women do not struggle every day to feel safe, be heard, be recognized for their contributions, and be valued in government and society. Indeed, experts maintain that the global gender gap will close in 79 years for Latin America and the Caribbean and 168 in North America.

Despite this, change makers are pushing forward, inspiring us to join them in their pursuits or to honor their legacies. Without further ado, here are some of the many she-roes that have confronted challenges to advance the status of women in the Western hemisphere.

Mariana Costa Checa

Named one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s most innovative people under 35, Mariana Costa Checa is a social entrepreneur who hails from Peru. After working for organizations including TechnoServe and the Organization of American States, she co-founded  Laboratoria, an organization that trains low-income women in tech with web design and coding classes. As its CEO, she provides future female leaders with trainings, classes, and job opportunities and has had an incredible impact while “paying it forward” for women.

Elza Soares

Soares, a Brazilian singer born in the 1930s in a favela, had her big break as a teenager at a televised talent show. Having grown up in an impoverished area and forced into an abusive child marriage, Soares battled abuse, racism, and the loss of 5 children and is now recognized as one of the greatest talents in the country, a samba icon. She performed at the opening of the 2016 Rio Olympics and continues to tour today at 80 years old, sharing her powerful songs with the world.

The Mirabal Sisters

Known as “Las Mariposas” (“The Butterflies,”) these four sisters—Minerva, Patria, Maria Teresa, and Dede—are famous for challenging brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo through clandestine political activities. In the repressive political environment of the Dominican Republic in the 1950s, their dissent cost three of them (everyone except Dede) their lives. In honor of the sisters, in 1999, the United Nations named November 25th the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Berta Caceres

This Honduran environmental activist was assassinated in 2016 during the end of her 10-year campaign to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca dam. Co-founder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), an organization formed to protect the land rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities, Caceres was the target of multiple threats but continued to organize and to file complaints against exploitative businesses.

Juliana Garcia

Garcia became the first female mountain guide in Latin America to be certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations in 2017 after failing the test once and battling a strong culture of machismo. She is also president of the Ecuadorean Mountain Guides Association, one of only two women to ever lead such an association, continuing to inspire young girls to break into uncharted territories.

Sydney Freeland

This transgender Navajo filmmaker and director grew up on a New Mexico reservation. She fights misconceptions about Native Americans with her films, which explore gender, race, power, and identity. Notable films include Hoverboard, Drunktown’s Finest, and The Migration. Freeland is the recipient of multiple Sundance fellowships.

Argelia Mercedes Laya Lopez

An Afro-Venezuelan activist and educator, Laya founded the Center for Student novelist to use as a platform for activism and became a teacher in the 1940s. She advocated for inclusivity in education, women’s suffrage, and the right to a safe pregnancy, among many other things. She served as a guerrilla fighter for the communist party in the 60s, going on to champion women’s rights as Venezuela’s representative on the Inter-American Commission of Women and at the United Nations.

Tarana Burke

Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2007, creating an anti-sexual harassment campaign in the US long before the recent public conversation about workplace gender inequity. But that is not the only thing the civil rights activist is known for. She is the director at the organization Girls for Gender Equity and founded Just Be Me, Inc., an organization for young female minorities, in 2006.

Dolores Huerta

An activist and labor leader, Huerta fought for the rights of migrant farm workers in the United States. She created the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960 and co-founded the United Farm Workers. A skilled organizer and negotiator, Huerta has been a tireless civil and children’s rights advocate in many capacities, coordinating boycotts and advocating for the passage of legislation. She was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom award and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Image: Wikimedia Commons