Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Most Inspiring Women and Girls I Met This Year

December 31, 2013

One of the things I love about my job is the women and girls I meet as I travel around the world and around the country from high-ranking government officials to mothers in remote villages in northern India to high school teachers in the Bronx. I'm struck by the common goals and aspirations that they share. They want to create a better future for themselves, their children, and their families. They want to improve their own communities, and also aspire to create change at a national and global scale.

As people everywhere are getting ready to ring in the New Year, I've been reflecting on the stories of these women and what it is about each one of them that inspired me. This isn't an exhaustive list but I think it represents the tremendous passion and commitment to creating meaningful change that exists in many around the world. I hope you agree and also share stories that have inspired you in 2013.

Sharmila Devi: Courage to Stand Up to Tradition and Give Her Children a Better Life
I met Sharmila and her baby daughter Babita on a trip to northern India in January. Like all mothers, Sharmila wanted to provide the best life possible for Babita and her siblings, and she knew she couldn’t do that if she had more children right away. She learned about the benefits of spacing the birth of her children from a health worker in her village and wanted to use contraceptives. But that meant standing up to her husband and mother-in-law, the center of the family power structure, who wanted her to follow tradition and have more children right away. It was incredible to see Sharmila’s courage to put her children’s needs at the center and build a future for herself and her family.

Sikha Patra: Confidence to Change Her Life and Community
Sikha grew up in the slums of Kolkata, India, and she’s one of the most confident, poised, and self-assured teenagers I've ever met. In her community, many people believe that fate and luck control their lives. But not Sikha. She's determined to create her own destiny and change the lives of people in her community along the way. As a peer leader and educator, she's helping parents and children understand how to prevent disease, improve sanitation, and ensure that all children have access to polio and other vaccines. I met Sikha and her friend Salim when they came to the foundation's Seattle campus for TedxChange. We had a lively discussion about their work in India and their hopes for the future. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Nargis Shirazi: Creativity to Change the Conversation
I met Nargis at the Women Deliver Conference in May, and I was just blown away by her innovative and creative approach to get young people in Uganda talking about taboo topics like sex. During her freshman year at university, many of her friends got pregnant and had to leave school. Nargis says she realized then that people’s inability to talk about issues having to do with sex and contraception could change the course of girls’ lives forever. So she wrote a play about a man who gets pregnant that got people to think differently about traditional gender roles. Nargis realized the power that drama had to address taboo subjects, so created a community project that encouraged young people in poor communities to write their own plays to address the issues they care about.

Hillary Clinton and Queen Rania: Bringing a Voice to Women and Girls Around the Globe
In September, I was honored to share the stage with Hillary Clinton, Queen Rania, and Muhammad Yunus at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) to talk the importance putting women and girls at the forefront of global health and development. Both Secretary Clinton and Queen Rania have dedicated their careers to empowering women and girls because it’s the right thing to do and because improving the lives of women and girls lifts up entire communities and countries. At CGI we had a great conversation about what we need to do to help women and girls get an education, earn a living, and control their own destinies. I’m looking forward to working with all three of these outstanding leaders to turn these conversations into action.

Credit: Juliana Thomas/Clinton Global Initiative

Malala Yousafzai: Bravely Fighting to Educate Every Girl
I don't think there is a person in the world who's heard Malala’s story and not been both moved and inspired by it. Malala began her journey as an outspoken advocate for girls' education in Pakistan. In spite of incredible obstacles and threats to her life and safety, she hasn't given up on her dream. I met Malala at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards in New York this fall, and I was so impressed by her passion and poise. The world needs the strong voices of young people like Malala if we are going to make progress on the big issues facing us.

Chelsea Katzenberg: Working Tirelessly to Give Her Students the Best Education
I first met Chelsea Katzenberg when I visited her classroom in the Bronx and I was struck by her passion and dedication to her students. Like many teachers, Chelsea spends hours before and after school preparing lessons, and she's constantly looking for ways to improve. After a long day at school, Chelsea joined me and a group of other teachers for a discussion about the challenges they face and how they can work together to improve outcomes for their students. It was a fantastic discussion that lasted late into the evening (long after I went to bed). Chelsea embodies the dedication and selflessness that I see in so many of teachers I meet around the country.  It's teachers like Chelsea that will improve education for all of our children. 

Sue Desmond-Hellmann: Leading for Innovation and Change
I've been getting to know Sue over these last few months and I was thrilled to announce that she will be joining the foundation as our new CEO in 2014. What I love about Sue is that she shares my passion to create a more equitable world. Her work developing life-saving cancer drugs, studying HIV in Uganda, and as Chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco embodies the values of the foundation: rigor, optimism, collaboration, and innovation. I'm so excited to bring her expertise and experience to our work at the foundation. 

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