She won her second term as New Zealand’s prime minister with a landslide number of votes late last year, but Jacinda Ardern’s victory did not come as a surprise.
The 40-year-old has been a breath of fresh air for the country ever since she became the youngest ever female prime minister when she was sworn in on October 26, 2017. The following year, she became only the second world leader to give birth while in office and has shown what it means to be a working mum – giving a speech at the Nelson Mandela Peace summit with a three-month-old Neve in her lap.
An empathetic communicator, Ardern helped heal the nation after a terrorist attack on the Christchurch Muslim community in March 2019.
She’s also earned the respect of her fellow Kiwis and many around the globe through her handling of the coronavirus crisis. She voluntarily took a 20 per cent pay cut to “close the gap” between herself and those affected by pay cuts, and guided her country in near-daily TV appearances through the first months of the pandemic.
When Aussie activist Grace Tame took to the stage to accept her Australian of the Year Award back in January, she left many in awe of her bravery for sharing her harrowing story.
“I lost my virginity to a paedophile. I was 15, anorexic; he was 58, he was my teacher,” she told the crowd. “For months he groomed me and then abused me almost every day.”
What made that moment even more poignant was the fact Tame, now 26, for many years was gagged by an archaic law from telling it – despite her abuser, Nicolass Bester, speaking about the case publicly several times after being convicted.
But after battling the Tasmanian legal system, and starting the viral campaign #LetHerSpeak alongside journalist Nina Funnell, she won the right to reveal her true identity in 2019 – hoping that by speaking out about her ordeal it may help other survivors.
“This year and beyond my focus is on empowering survivors and education as a primary means of prevention,” she shared of her plans for 2021. “It starts with conversation.”
Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, made global headlines in 2020 when her country – with a population of over 23 million people – went more than 200 days without a locally transmitted COVID-19 case.
The 64-year-old implemented swift border closures, tough travel restrictions and set up contact tracing and quarantine protocols quickly.
Her efforts saw her dubbed “Taiwan’s COVID Crusher” for having led one of the world’s most effective pandemic response protocols.
“Global crises test the fabric of the international community, stretching us at the seams and threatening to tear us apart,” she said last year of working with other countries to help beat the pandemic. “Now, more than ever, every link in this global network must be accounted for.”
While President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ inauguration ceremony on January 20 was a star-studded affair, it was a relatively unknown poet who stole the show.
Amanda Gorman – who became the youngest inaugural poet in US history – moved many with her powerful words when she delivered her stirring original poem The Hill We Climb, which called for unity and healing to the nation.
Since then, the 22-year-old Harvard graduate has booked a gig at the Super Bowl, landed a major modelling contract, written best-selling books that are yet to be released and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
But Gorman, who turned to writing when she was young to cope with an auditory processing disorder, insists her ascent from aspiring poet to inspiring artist wouldn’t have been possible without the female powerhouses that came before her. “When young women see it, young women can be,” she explained.
Eight years ago, Sam Bloom was enjoying a holiday in Thailand with her family when tragedy struck.
While taking in the view on a rooftop deck, Bloom, then 41, leaned against a rotted balcony railing, which gave way and sent her plummeting over six metres to the concrete below. Shattering her spine and fracturing her skull in several places, the mum-of-three was paralysed from the chest down and was told she would never walk again.
Bloom quickly hit rock bottom. But it was the unlikely arrival of an injured magpie, as told in this year’s film Penguin Bloom starring Naomi Watts, that pulled her out of her depression and inspired her to start her recovery.
She has since gone on to be part of Australia’s paracanoe team, and last year won her second world championship as part of Australia’s adaptive surf team.
“Penguin opened my eyes and my heart. She helped me to be my best self, or at least my worst self far less often,” she has said. “I always tell people – don’t put your dreams on hold. Because you never know what’s around the corner.”
Taking the mickey out of the likes of Kim Kardashian, Cardi B and Miranda Kerr may have garnered Celeste Barber a loyal Instagram following of over 7.7 million people. But by bringing celebrity culture down a notch, she’s also been able to harness it to new effect.
The comedian took to Facebook early last year during Australia’s devastating bushfire season with an emotional appeal for funds for the overwhelmed Rural Fire Service. Within two weeks of her January post, she had raised more than $35 million – later getting to a whopping $51 million!
“I don’t really ask anything of anyone on my social platforms, I’m not an influencer,” Barber has said of her fundraising efforts. “So when I do, I think people trust me, really – social media’s good for that.”
The 38-year-old is also an advocate for normalising women’s bodies in all shapes and sizes. Last year, she called out Instagram for discriminating against plus-size women after they removed a picture of her parodying Candice Swanepoel’s semi-nude snap – while the South African model’s remained on the site.
“Hey Instagram, sort out your body-shaming standards, guys,” Barber hit back. “It’s 2020. Catch up.”
Ascia Al Faraj
She’s one of Kuwaiti’s most popular fashion influencers, but it’s Ascia Al Faraj’s bid to end harassment against women in the Middle East that has seen her fame skyrocket in recent months.
The 31-year-old ignited a nationwide movement when she called out the damaging conservatism of her country’s attitudes towards women on Instagram.
“Every time I go out, there is someone who harasses me or harasses another woman in the street,” she said. “We have a problem of harassment in this country, and I have had enough.”
Faraj’s video triggered the “I will not be silent” campaign – “Lan Asket” in Arabic – where women are now sharing their stories.
She’s survived the murky waters of politics in Nigeria (where her mother was kidnapped to send her a message), and over 25 years at the World Bank, so dealing with international trade negotiators should be a walk in the park for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
She will be the first woman and the first African to head up the World Trade Organisation, an impressive feat considering she was brought up in a very patriarchal society.
The economist, 66, who served as Nigeria’s finance minister twice, is also on Twitter’s board of directors, the chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation and is a special envoy for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 fight.
“Women tend to be more honest, more straightforward, more focused on the job, and bring less ego to it,” she previously shared of getting the job done.
In the midst of the pandemic, many countries scrambled for COVID-19 vaccines. And when the UK emerged in November as the first country to offer a shot outside of clinical trials, there was one woman who had earned the credit.
Kate Bingham, 55, put her role as a life sciences venture capitalist on hold last July when Prime Minister Boris Johnson approached her to head up the UK’s vaccine taskforce.
In a matter of weeks, she had formed her own committee of experts and quickly got to work.
“We had one shot at getting it right and no time,” she admitted.
In January, a third vaccine that Bingham invested in was proven to beat COVID-19.
“Being quick and nimble was definitely important,” she said.
And despite now stepping down from the role, there have been many calls for her to be handed a damehood.
When MacKenzie Scott split from her husband, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in 2019 after he disclosed he was having an affair, she walked away with the biggest settlement ever awarded in a marital split: $48 billion in Amazon stock.
But while the 50-year-old could have easily decided to spend the rest of her life in a lap of luxury most couldn’t even imagine, she quickly signed a commitment to give away at least half of her money.
“I am determined to give the majority of my wealth back to the society that helped generate it, to do it thoughtfully, to get started soon, and to keep at it until the safe is empty,” she said.
Just last year, Scott is estimated to have given away over $6 billion – with experts saying it might be the most ever given directly to charities in a single year by a living donor.
“This work is ongoing and will last for years,” Scott added.
In January, former California Senator Kamala Harris made history when she was sworn in as the first woman and first woman of colour to serve as vice president.
A former prosecutor and groundbreaking attorney general in California, the 56-year-old has been breaking barriers throughout her career.
And while her 2020 run for president – where her policies focused on historically marginalised groups like women, people of colour and low-income Americans – may not have been successful, the now-President Joe Biden knew she was the perfect running mate.
“I was raised that, when you see a problem, you don’t complain about it, you go and do something about it,” she previously explained on Good Morning America.
She’s an Olympic gold medallist, two-time Women’s World Cup Champion and co-captain of the US women’s soccer team. However, it’s Megan Rapinoe’s off-field efforts that should also be applauded.
The 35-year-old has tirelessly advocated for transgender, LGBTQI and women’s rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement – all while kicking goals (literally) in her sport.
“For female athletes, for women, for gay women, for marginalised people, we aren’t always afforded opportunity or the landscape to reach our potential. Often at times, there are roadblocks or barriers,” Rapinoe told Forbes. “I feel a responsibility to do what I can with what I have to try to make the world better.”
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