These women haven’t won Nobel Prizes or hit the speaking circuit. But they’re pushing boundaries, changing norms, saving lives, and speaking up — even where bad news dominates the headlines.

1. The Afghan Women’s Network pushes strong and smart for women’s rights

The Afghan Women's Network pushes strong and smart for women's rights

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The Advocacy Project / Via Flickr: advocacy_project

The Network was founded in 1995, the same year the Taliban rose to power. The Taliban eventually stripped women of many basic rights they’d enjoyed in Afghanitan. Today, the Afghan Women’s Network —and other active women’s groups like Equality for Peace and Development — is on the front lines of the fight to improve the status of women. Its members, all civil society groups, have helped enact a law to eliminate violence against women, overturn a legal provision threatening impunity for domestic violence, and tamp down a move to bring back stoning.

2. The Speed Sisters break boundaries, even where informal borders hem them in

Video available at: Speed Sisters / Via

Palestine’s first all-women racing team proves women can literally run circles around men. Because of Israel’s limitations on movement, the Speed Sisters compete on makeshift tracks inside the West Bank — on Arafat’s former helicopter pad in Bethlehem, in the vegetable markets of Jenin, and next to a prison near Ramallah, to name but a few of their race sites as listed on their web page. And they win: In 2011, Noor Daoud became the first Palestinian to win first place in an Israeli race.

3. Marguerite Barankitse, a survivor of genocide in Burundi, saves 20,000 children

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In 1993, at the height of a genocide in Burundi, Marguerite Barankitse tried to talk sense into the killers in her village. They decided to punish her by tying her, naked, to a chair and making her watch the slaughter of her neighbors in a church. Far from embittering her, the experience devoted Barankitse to peace, and when she escaped, she also sheltered and cared for 25 orphans. Since then, Barankitse and her organization, Maison Shalom (“House of Peace”), have cared for more than 20,000 orphans and vulnerable children. Barankitse also runs a hospital, schools, and a microfinance program.

4. Mummy Yuli gives Indonesia’s aging trans population a cozy home

Mummy Yuli gives Indonesia's aging trans population a cozy home

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Romeo Gacad/AFP / Getty Images

In Jarkarta, Yulianus Rettoblaut — warmly known locally as Mummy Yuli — is building a home for the aging transgender community in Indonesia, which has has an estimated three million trans citizens. Traditionally, elderly Indonesians are taking in by their own families, but trans people are often shunned and reduced to begging. Right now, Mummy Yuli’s old folks’ home has a wait list 800 deep.

5. 160 girls overpower the impunity of Kenya’s police force

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In Meru, a province of eastern Kenya, police were ignoring girls’ rape reports. (In at least one case, the officer receiving the report raped the girl again.) Kenya’s long had laws on the books against rape, but poor reporting and investigations by the police made it difficult to prosecute alleged rapists. Until last May, when 160 girls in Meru won a civil suit. A Kenyan court ruled that police negligence “contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity.”

6. Mariam Kirollos helps Egyptian women fight sexual assault in street protests

Video available at: Global Uprisings / Via

At major moments of Egyptian uprising in the last three years, women have been vulnerable. Many activists in Tahrir Square have been sexually assaulted, and Mariam Kirollos wanted to do something about it. She co-founded Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH), which patrols the streets during protests to help protect women and connects them with follow-up care in the event of an attack.

7. A Ugandan group goes rogue for maternal health

A Ugandan group goes rogue for maternal health

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James Akena / Reuters

The Center for Health, Human Rights and Development catalyzed a movement for maternal health in Uganda with a lawsuit alleging that the country’s poor maternal health statistics amounted to a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right to life. The case was thrown out in its initial stages, but the group appealed in September.

8. Manal al-Sharif dared to drive in Saudi Arabia

Video available at: YouTube / Via

Women driving in Saudi Arabia isn’t technically illegal, but it might as well be. When Manal al-Sharif took the wheel in 2011, and she filmed her drives and put them on YouTube. She was put in jail. Her brother was detained twice by the police for giving her his keys, and her young son got punched in the face by his classmates. The imam in her father’s mosque called women drivers “prostitutes” in a sermon. “It wasn’t a punishment for taking the wheel and driving a few miles,” she said in an inspiring TED talk last year. “It was a punishment for daring to challenge the society’s rules.”

9. Tostan upends norms on female genital cutting and child marriage

Video available at: Tostan / Via

This Senegalese organization helps communities prepare for days of public declaration against traditional practices that harm women and girls. Both female genital cutting and child marriage are controversial human rights issues because the practices are deeply embedded in local traditions, but Tostan three-year Community Empowerment Programs prepare leaders and ordinary villagers alike to make major changes. Just last June, 30 communities in Mali, despite reeling from a coup the year before, and 92 communites in Guinea made public declarations against cutting and child marriage.

10. All-women de-mining teams help clear Laos of 2 million tons of unexploded bombs

All-women de-mining teams help clear Laos of 2 million tons of unexploded bombs

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From 1964-1973, in a “secret war,” America dropped more bombs in Laos than have been dropped in any other country in the world. Many of them were cluster bombs that didn’t explode, and in the generations since, Laotian men, women and children have lost limbs — and life — when they stumble across the old weapons. Since 2008, Laos has fielded teams of all-female de-miners to help clear the countryside. Why women? Because they think to clear paths to water wells and schools, not just the fields. And, you know, because women can. (Bonus: Help clear Laos by buying back the bombs from a group that makes unearthed weapons into bracelets.)

11. Congolese women fight for rights — with radios

Congolese women fight for rights -- with radios

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The Advocacy Project / Via Flickr: 42487558@N00

When Chouchou Namegabe started broadcasting the stories of rape survivors in her hometown of Bukavu in 2003, she didn’t imagine she was starting a radio revolution. More than 10 years later, the Association of Women in Media-South Kivu, or AFEM, uses the airwaves to unite women across parts of inaccessible and unstable eastern Democrat Republic of Congo. The group airs a weekly program about women’s issues, informed by rural women themselves, who send their news to producers in the provincial capital of Bukavu. AFEM also visits villages and trains women on their rights, including political participation.

12. The BuSSy [Look!] project changes how Egyptians talk about sex

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In 2006, a group of Egyptian female students at the American University of Cairo (AUC) began collecting the everyday stories of Egyptian women and turned them into a performance that some have dubbed “the Vagina Monologues of Egypt.” The BuSSy project, named after the Arabic female vernacular for Look!, became independent of AUC in 2010 and has since morphed into an annual performance intended to challenge the boundaries of gender discussions in Egypt. BuSSy performances push beyond prevailing censorship and the absence of any kind of sexual health education to present stories on abortion, masturbation, love, and sexual assault. The shows also include both male and female actors — a new precedent for how Egyptians talk about sex.

13. The women of Kayonza, Rwanda, build opportunity — a half-million bricks at a time

The women of Kayonza, Rwanda, build opportunity -- a half-million bricks at a time

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Clay Enos/Women for Women International

When Angelique Mukankubana signed on for a training program with Women for Women International, she couldn’t have imagined what she’d gotten into. Her country, Rwanda, had been through a genocide, and Angelique had become a widowed mother of two, struggling to survive. The international organization taught her how to make bricks — traditionally an all-male vocation — and Angelique took her lessons to the next level, advocating for a Womne’s Opportunity Center in her rural town. Together with other women in her cooperative, she literally made the building blocks for the new building, which will offer training, hold a market, and host conferences and other events, all geared to bring market opportunities to local women. (Check out the women making the bricks in this video.)

14. Norma Andrade seeks answers, and justice, in Juarez

Norma Andrade seeks answers, and justice, in Juarez

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Stringer/Mexico / Reuters

To be a woman in Juarez is to be in danger. Since 1993, an estimated 1,000 women have been murdered there (though activists say that number is conservative and too low). One of them was Norma Andrade’s daughter. In response, Andrade founded Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May Our Daughters Return Home), and she demanded justice for the femicide happening in her town. In 2011, she was shot multiple times; in 2012, her face was slashed by a male assailant. That doesn’t intimate her: this past Christmas, her organization decorated Christmas trees with the faces of missing women.

15. Funeka Soldaat and Free Gender are forces for justice for South African lesbians

Funeka Soldaat and Free Gender are forces for justice for South African lesbians

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Heinrich Boell Foundation Southern Africa / Via Flickr: 50360843@N05

Despite raising headlines around the world, and getting a conviction in 2011, the man who raped Millicent Gaika to “show her she was a woman” nearly went free after he escaped on bail. But the lesbian advocacy association Free Gender and Funeka Soldaat, who coordinates the group in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, South Africa, kept up the pressure. Last November, Gaika’s rapist was found and sentenced — to 22 years in prison. Free Gender has emerged as a clear and important voice in a country where many women are sometimes killed just for their sexual orientation.

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