Seared in collective memory as the year the world ground to a halt, 2020 also saw remarkable achievement from women making an impact in politics, the arts, business, culture and science. Alongside female world leaders who drew international praise for their handling of the pandemic, and human rights campaigners impacting world events, were the countless acts of individual kindness that this year will also be remembered for.
Across the world, frontline workers risked their lives to help others during a global crisis that has killed more than 1.6 million people and upended economies. In the midst of the suffering, job losses and despair, the everyday courage of those risking their lives to help others has been a source of hope and inspiration during difficult and uncertain times.
Here are the women who blazed a trail in 2020.
Waad Al Kateab
No one who has seen For Sama is likely to forget the crushing horror of life in rebel-held Aleppo captured by Ms Al Kataeb’s camera as she transitions from teenage student to wife and mother amid the chaos of war in Syria. Living with the thunder of regime bombardments, she and her husband Hamza – one of the few remaining doctors in Aleppo – make the agonising decision to stay and help the wounded under siege, despite fears for the safety of their baby girl, Sama. The film, released in 2019, won a slew of awards, including an Emmy, and earned the activist, journalist and filmmaker a BAFTA for best documentary in 2020.
Within a few months of taking office and becoming the world's youngest head of government, Finland’s premier was plunged into the role of crisis leader as the coronavirus pandemic swept through Europe. The 34-year-old, who has been praised for her effective handling of the Covid-19 crisis, has also pledged to make Finland carbon neutral by 2035 and wants to close the gender pay gap. Backed by a young, female-led coalition, she is redefining the image of leadership and inspiring a new generation with her progressive politics and relatable Instagram feed.
The prominent human rights lawyer, who has dedicated her life to defending civil liberties in Iran, is currently serving a 38-year sentence for protesting the country’s discriminatory laws against women. The 57-year-old has conducted several hunger strikes to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners and earlier this year she was made a Right Livelihood Laureate in recognition of her "fearless activism, at great personal risk, to promote political freedoms and human rights in Iran."
Seen as a feminist icon after becoming the country’s youngest leader in 150 years and New Zealand’s first elected head of government to be pregnant in office, Ms Ardern has pursued a political strategy that foregrounds kindness and cooperation, prioritising minority rights and gender equality.
The Booker-prize-winning novelist, whose novel Girl, Woman, Other also scooped fiction book of the year at the British Book awards in June is a longstanding campaigner for inclusivity in the arts. Co-founder of Britain's first black theatre company in the 1980s, she has pioneered several platforms to support writers of colour, including The Complete Works mentoring programme, the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and Spread the Word literature development agency.
In the wake of the Beirut blast on August 4, the Lebanese nurse rescued three newborns from the debris and carried them to safety after the hospital she worked at was destroyed. The impact of the explosion on August 4 flung her out of the room and into the adjacent neonatal intensive care unit. Amid the confusion, she managed to pull the babies to safety and carry them to another hospital five kilometres away. "I would not have been able to stand the situation had I lost any of them. During all this, my main concern was to keep them breathing and unharmed,” she said.
Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi
The Sharjah royal became the first Arab woman appointed president of the International Publishers Association this year and will assume the role in January 2021. Throughout her career, she has championed the region's publishing industry, founding the UAE’s first Arabic children's publisher Kalimat Group and serving as founder and president of the Emirates Publishers Association. She also headed up the Advisory Committee that steered Sharjah's tenure as the Unesco World Book Capital 2019.
President-elect Joe Biden’s victory owes much to the efforts of politician, lawyer and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who rallied support in Georgia, turning the former Republican stronghold into a win for the Democrat campaign.
Her efforts came on the back of the years dedicated to expanding the electorate and boosting voter turnout in the state, where she narrowly lost the race for governor in 2018 in an election marred by allegations of voter suppression against Republican candidate Brian Kemp, who won by 55,000 votes.
Conjuring up memories of a sun-soaked city where the air smelt of flowers and courtyard houses lined the street, Ms Kaadan's book The Jasmine Sneeze captures the character and culture of Damascus for young readers in the years before the war.
The Syrian writer and illustrator has fond memories of her upbringing in Syria’s capital before moving to London, where she received the Arab British Centre's Award For Culture in recognition of her work building bridges between Anglophone families and the Arab world.
Speaking up for those most affected by climate change, the Ugandan activist has become a powerful voice for progress, demanding climate justice and holding governments to account for their environmental impact.
During a speech at the Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture in October 2020, the 24-year-old called on world leaders to "wake up" and recognise the poverty, hunger, disease, conflict and gender violence that can be linked to climate change.
Her organisation Rise Up Climate Movement amplifies the voices of climate activists in Africa, where she was the first Fridays for Future campaigner, staging sit ins outside the Ugandan parliament, inspired by Greta Thunberg.