Four Black women who have advanced human rights

Around the world, the activism of Black women has helped to frame social equity and promote human rights. Their work has improved the health and welfare of women and girls, protected the environment and raised the voices of the oppressed, both within and beyond their communities. These four Black women are inspirational – for the changes they accomplished, their work ethic, and their passion to improve the everyday lives of disadvantaged people.

Efua Dorkenoo

Ghanaian-British women’s rights activist Efua Dorkenoo (1949-2014) was a pioneering leader in the global movement to end female genital cutting. It was while working as a staff nurse that she realised the medical complications faced by women who had undergone the practice.

In 1983, Efua co-founded the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development, a women’s rights organisation which works to stop violence against women and girls. She also became the World Health Organization’s first technical expert on female genital cutting.

Marielle Franco

Brazilian human rights activist Marielle Franco (1979-2018) drew on her experiences growing up in Maré, a slum in Rio de Janeiro, to campaign for the rights of slum residents, many of whom are Black. Much of her activism focused on addressing police violence and military intervention in the slums.

Marielle’s campaigns on these issues, as well as her work to improve the lives of poor Black women in the slums, made her one of the most-voted-for members of Rio city council’s 2016 local elections. She was assassinated less than two years later. Her legacy has ensured that four women closely connected to her have also recently been elected to political office.

Wangari Maathai

Professor Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), a Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist, was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. From her previous training and practice in veterinary anatomy, she understood the connection between environmental destruction, poverty and conflict. Through her work, she saw the negative impact of environmental destruction on the lives of women who were the main producers of food.

Wangari founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, a movement that focuses on poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. By 2004, the movement had expanded to over 30 countries and has now planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya alone.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigerian economist and politician Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to be appointed as director-general of the World Trade Organization. She worked previously as a development economist at the World Bank, where she led several projects that provided support to low-income countries during the global financial crisis of 2007-08 and the world food price crisis of 2008-09. As two-time finance minister of Nigeria, she worked to reduce corruption.

Ngozi has supported young people in Nigeria by launching programmes such as Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria, which has helped women to gain skills and employment. She has written several books and is the co-author of Women and Leadership: Real Life, Real Lessons, published in 2020.

There are many more women that are creating change in different ways, often in the face of great difficulties. Look around your local community and let us know of other Black women to add to this list.

This blog post is republished from an article written by Zibah Nwako and Afua Twum-Danso Imoh for The Conversation in March 2022.

The featured image shows Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.