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International Women's Day

International Women’s Day 2021: Celebrating the inspiring women leading the fight against Covid-19

Every year on 8 March the world comes together to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) – a day dedicated to the fight against gender inequality and also to celebrate the contributions of women worldwide.

This year the UN theme is #choose to challenge and this involves challenging all forms of gender bias and inequality.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, women have been at the forefront of the fight against Coronavirus. Dedicating themselves to helping others amidst a global pandemic, these women are utterly inspiring.

So, this IWD, here at Islamic Relief, we’re celebrating these women and their contribution through the pandemic. Read to be inspired!


Özlem Türeci

Özlem Tureci is an accomplished physician and scientist. In 2020, she led the way in the fight against Covid-19, as the co-founder of the company BioNTech.

Özlem’s organisation developed the first approved vaccine against Covid-19. This development has been a much-needed ray of hope for millions as the world emerges out of the pandemic.

What’s more, more than 1,300 people from over 60 countries currently work at BioNTech. And: more than half of them are women.

As a Muslim and a Turkish immigrant, she is also a great role model for Muslim women in science and her success with this vaccine is something worth shouting about!


Megs Shah and Fairuz Ahmed     

One of the tragic consequences of the global pandemic has been the impact on women, with lockdown becoming a prison for women facing abuse.

In fact, police forces across England and Wales in the first few months of lockdown alone saw a 7% increase in referrals compared to the previous year before the pandemic.

This is where many people have stepped in to support women in need – including the amazing duo Megs Shah and Fairuz Ahmed. Recognising the need for vital support services for women who are now further isolated from support networks and essential services, the pair set up the Parasol Cooperative.

This organisation uses innovative technology to reach out to those in crisis and signpost individuals to support services, allowing people to access help and support virtually.

This has proven to be a vital service for many during the pandemic and needs to be acknowledged for drawing attention to some of the lesser-known implications of the pandemic.


Ramida “Jennie” Juengpaisal

As the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread across the world, there was also another disease at work: the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news surrounding the pandemic.

However, one young bright spark in Thailand named Ramida Juengpaisal, aged just 24 years old, decided to work to combat this.

Ramida created a national Covid-19 tracker that collates all information regarding the pandemic and helps prevent the spread of misinformation.

The “COVID Tracker by 5Lab“ works to put out vital information collated from reliable guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19  and also signpost people to testing centres, whilst informing the public of the cost of testing.

This is no doubt a vital resource for millions of people in Thailand which has helped save many lives. When asked about the project, Ramida expressed her desire for women to be further included in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM):

For too long, the STEM fields have been shaped by gender biases that exclude women and girls.

There is [sic] a lot of women working in the tech industry, but they don’t have platforms to show their potential. Despite this, women and girls are pushing the boundaries every day.

We couldn’t agree more!


Basira Popul

It’s during times of crisis that exceptional efforts are required to fight monumental difficulties. And the story of Basira Popul is a perfect example of this.

When the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in Afghanistan, efforts focused on preventing the spread of Covid-19. As a health worker, Basira and her colleagues distributed soap and gave hygiene lessons to help stop the spread of the virus.

Basira had previously dedicated her life to helping vaccinate people against polio. However, when the pandemic hit, many vaccination services closed and ground to a halt.

However, this did not stop Basira, who instead worked tirelessly, going door-to-door to vaccinate people in their homes.

It’s people like Basira and her colleagues who are the true heroes of the global pandemic, risking their lives every day to help those in need. Here at Islamic Relief, we want to celebrate Basira’s great work!


Shilpashree AS

Whilst each and every one of us is managing the difficulties of the pandemic, it’s vital that we don’t underestimate the difficulties faced by those on the frontline who are testing people for the virus.

Indeed, for Shilpashree – a tester and a lab technician from Bangalore in India – testing people for Covid-19 means wearing heavy PPE in the heat of India while endless queues of people wait to get tested.

Not only is Shilpashree risking her life, but she’s also been kept far from her loved ones, relying instead on technology to communicate. When asked about her experience she stated:

I haven’t yet seen my children or hugged them… It is like seeing a fruit from up-close but not eating it… Still, there is no other job I would rather be doing right now.

Even though this involves risk, I love this job. It brings me happiness…

This can-do attitude and positive energy are both powerful and inspiring. It offers hope and motivation to others to try and to do all they can in the fight against Covid-19.

Shilpashree is indeed one of thousands of mothers across the globe who are selflessly putting others before their own needs every day. Thank you Shilpashree!


Sister Astridah Banda

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt during the pandemic, it’s that clear information is essential in combating the virus. And this is exactly what sister Banda is doing with her talk show in Zambia entitled: “Covid-19 awareness programme”.

Realising that much of the information being disseminated on the pandemic in Zambia was in English, Sister Banda recognised the need to present information in local languages in order to reach more people.

Although English is a national language in Zambia, there are also seven local languages, meaning that many people were missing out on vital information. Banda therefore took the lead.

With the help of Yastani radio, she began translating health bulletins into local languages and her show now boasts an audience of over 1.5 million people!

Thank you Sister Banda, you’re providing an invaluable resource to many people and have inevitability helped protect lives through your messages.


Laxmi Rayamajhi

For many women across the world, the pandemic has meant the closure of vital women’s health services as vaccinations and Covid-19 prevention and treatment have taken priority.

In rural Nepal for example, the disruption caused by national lockdowns and the fear of catching Covid-19, has left women without essential sexual and reproductive health services.

The results are worrying, with one estimate claiming that if these disruptions continue 49 million additional women in low and middle-income countries will go without contraceptives over the next year. It is vital for women to be able to plan when they have children and how many children they can have.

However, the efforts of community health worker Laxmi Rayamajhi have thankfully changed this.

Laxmi has worked tirelessly – often trekking long distances across dangerous terrain – to provide essential services to women in rural areas.

In her role as a health worker, she’s not only been providing critical services to women, but also drawing attention to some of the inequalities women face worldwide.


Felicia Kwaku

Felicia Kwaku, a clinician with more than 30 years’ experience and the Associate Director of King’s College NHS Foundation, recently received an OBE for bringing attention to the impact of Covid-19 on BAME health and social care workers.

Highlighting how the pandemic was disproportionately affecting BAME workers, Felicia (who is also the Chair of the Chief Nursing Officers Black and Minority Ethnic Strategic advisory group), also championed the cause of Filipino nurses disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

If that wasn’t enough, Felicia also documented the tragic stories of nurses not having enough PPE, of masks not fitting BME health care workers and more. Her contributions later led to better risk assessments to make conditions safer.

When accepting her OBE, she dedicated her award to all her “fallen colleagues”, as a reminder of the lives lost in the fight against Covid-19.


Female politicians

Female excellence and leadership during the pandemic have been something that has been praised across the world.

From New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Finland’s Sanna Marin, it is clear that female political leaders have done an excellent job of managing the response to Covid-19.

For those who may claim that this is purely coincidental: the proof is in the numbers. An analysis of 194 countries, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, found that countries led by women have done far better than their male counterparts.

Lockdowns, for example, were introduced earlier and death rates have been lower in countries led by women. Overall, their success is as a result of taking proactive and coordinated action.

We can certainly see the difference!


What an extraordinary group of women! Despite the challenges of the pandemic, these women have gone above and beyond to save lives.

As we celebrate these achievements, let’s also remember the struggles of women across the globe in accessing healthcare, facing domestic violence, and in being excluded from STEM subjects and careers and the political sphere.

We have a long way to go, but we’re not giving up yet!

In a Covid and post-Covid world, we must put gender equality on the map.

Happy International Women’s Day.


Feature image credit: Stefan Albrecht, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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