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The global sisterhood of empowerment

On International Women's Day, we asked women around the world to tell us how they're empowering others -- whether fighting for equal pay, working to end child marriage in Africa, or advocating for body positivity. Here's what they said.

Posted: Mar 8, 2019 5:20 AM
Updated: Mar 8, 2019 5:20 AM

From women fighting to end child marriage in Africa, to women demanding equal pay, to women teaching other women to love their bodies regardless of shape, color or size, women are empowering women all over the world.

To celebrate Friday's International Women's Day, we spoke to some to see how barriers are being broken and stereotypes shattered as women take new ground, emboldened by the support of other women standing with them. Here's what we learned.

Bring your own chair

Reinforcing the popular saying, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair," refugee-turned-model Halima Aden became the first Miss Minnesota contestant to compete in a hijab and continues to do so in her successful modeling career around the world.

She told CNN, "I empower women by staying true to myself and also encouraging them to go out and not be scared to be the first. If you don't see yourself represented in any given field, take it upon yourself to be the one."

The Prime Minister of New Zealand did just that, becoming the first serving leader of a country to go on maternity leave, proving that having children should never hold you back in any career. "I hope I empower women by being both a prime minister and a mother," said Jacinda Ardern.

Being first takes courage, a quality the first female US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, wants to instill in the future generations, imploring women "to have confidence in themselves and work hard."

Access to education

Proving you're never too young to make a difference, Amika George was just 17 years old when she started a campaign #FreePeriods, asking the government to address period poverty in the United Kingdom.

She had read an article about how other girls had to miss school when they were menstruating because they couldn't afford basic sanitation products. Outraged that this was happening in her country, she took it upon herself to take a stand through an online petition that turned into a protest.

George's activism eventually resulted in the government assigning money to address the issue. She's now advocating to end period poverty globally while simultaneously completing her degree at Cambridge University.

"No girl should miss out on an education because she can't afford menstrual products."

She advocated against "period poverty" and won

Hiba Hamzi is a Malala fund Gulmakai Champion, a network set up by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai to support education activists in developing countries. She is working to ensure that Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon have access to go to school.

For many displaced Syrian women, education is their key to a better future but not always easy to access. Through Hamzi's organization Naba'a -- Developmental Action Without Borders -- she hosts workshops to educate girls' about their rights and educate parents about discriminatory cultural beliefs and the risks of child marriage.

Half way across the world, in Tanzania, Rebeca Gyumi is also working to end child marriage. The lawyer and girls' rights activist petitioned the government to end child marriage for girls younger than 18, and won. A firm believer that girls should be in school at 14 and not married off, she is working to change attitudes in rural areas and empower women to stand up for their rights

Her work has won international recognition and in 2018 she was awarded the UN Human Rights Prize.

"I am empowering women through STEM education to become the next generation of great leaders through science and technology," says Afghani teenager Fatemah Qaderyan.

She's the captain of her country's all-girl robotics team and is advocating for access to education for girls all over the war-torn country while breaking stereotypes of what are typical areas for girls' to achieve in.

Teen robotics champ fights to empower Afghan girls

Empowering girls from a young age is a message the beloved children's program "Sesame Street" is broadcasting around the world. Its 3-year-old character, Abby Caddaby, told CNN she "learned on 'Sesame Street' that girls can be anything they want to be. If they can dream it, they can achieve it."

Equal pay

From education to equal pay, women are taking a stand and demanding action.

"I empower women every day by pushing for equal pay for equal play," CNN chief International correspondent Christiane Amanpour says, adding she tries "to show girls and boys that we must all be feminists because feminism and feminst only means equality and equal."

Big Wave professional surfer Keala Kennelly is paving a way for women by demanding access to competitions dominated by men and demanding the same pay.

A member of the Committee for Equity in Women's Surfing (CEWS), she helped lead a vocal campaign for the addition of a women's division in the Mavericks Challenge big-wave contest in Half Moon Bay, California. Once admitted, they subsequently turned their fight to equal pay. Their consistent lobbying paid off when the World Surf League announced they would offer equal prize money to men and women at all levels of WSL contests in 2019.

Change the conversation

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina presided over the sentencing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, convicted on numerous accounts of sexual abuse. Aquilina shot to international fame by giving Nassar's victims an opportunity to testify in open court, a move she believed would give them their power back.

She told CNN she empowers women by "listening, believing and telling them they matter," adding that we need to take it upon ourselves to change the way we think, "for example, PMS now means promote, mentor, support other women, period."

Read Aquilina's powerful statement to Larry Nassar

Changing attitudes is exactly what Katie Horwitch is trying to do. The founder of WANT -- Woman against Negative Talk - she says "I empower women by helping them shift their self-talk habits from negative to positive."

Model and activist Adwoa Aboah is working to provide a safe space for young women. Through her foundation "Gurls Talk," she addresses issues of mental health and sexuality, topics she says don't receive enough attention.

"Gurls Talk" started with Aboah sharing her story in 2015 after a failed suicide attempt. She talked openly and honestly about her struggles with mental health, bipolar disorder and addiction. Now she tells CNN she's "demanding action for open conversation however taboo it may be."

Aranya Johar is an Indian poet who uses social media to advocate for gender equality, mental health and body positivity. Her spoken word performance "A Brown Girl's Guide to Gender" went viral in 2017 with more than a million views in the first two days.

She continues to use her platform to speak out and empower women in a country grappling with a rape epidemic.

This poet is tackling gender discrimination

Breaking stereotypes

The way women see themselves is a topic gaining traction all over the world. Women are teaching and preaching acceptance and self-love, giving women new confidence in themselves and who they authentically are, rather than trying to fit into some mold society had set for them.

"Pretty much my whole life, I've been told I don't have the right body type to be successful in any entertainment industry let alone dance," says hip-hop dancer Amanda LaCount, who has defied all the no's she was given to make it in the dance industry. "I've just been proving them wrong ever since."

Through taking up yoga and chronicling her journey on Instagram, body positivity activist Jessamyn Stanley has proved that "yoga is for everybody, every shape, every size and every color." She's used yoga as a personal platform to work through both spiritual and physical issues and empowered thousands in the process, changing the stereotype of who or what yoga should be.

DJ Switch, as Erica Armah Bra-Bulu Tandoh is popularly known, may only be 11 years old but she's already won awards as a DJ despite her age and gender. Just last year, she traveled outside her home of Ghana for the first time to come to New York to play in front of a gathering of world leaders at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In addition to her love of music, she tells CNN that she wants to be a gynecologist when she grows up, "because women (have) got to help women."

Meet the 10-year-old DJ from Ghana who wowed world leaders

Across the spectrum from women demanding access, fighting for equality, carving their own paths and standing up for their beliefs, women around the world are inspiring each other to claim their rights, make others stronger and set an example for the future generation of girls to come.

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