Activism

7 Changemakers Who Fought For Change & Won

Celebrate International Women’s Day by following these women, still pushing for gender equality.

By Natalie Gil

Much (arguably too much) has been written about sisterhood and female empowerment in recent years. The dizzying number of brands that have co-opted these key tenets of women’s liberation has diverted attention away from the true point of feminism: to enable all women to live unburdened by gender bias, stereotypes and discrimination, and claim their power.

Indeed, there’s a huge difference between #empowerment and paying lip service to progressive causes, and actually walking the walk. Unlike the brands hijacking feminism to line their pockets – selling us everything from razors to cereal – without the values to back it up, there are, happily, many inspiring women making real-world change for women as a collective.

International Women’s Day is an opportune moment for us to celebrate the women bold and persistent enough to start campaigns for the greater good and see them through to a positive conclusion.

Ahead, we speak to seven campaigners who fought for change and succeeded, making the world a more hospitable and supportive place for women everywhere. While none of them are ready to step back from their respective causes, citing much work still to be done, their activism so far is a reminder of the power and potential of activism to improve all our lives.

Lavinya Stennett, The Black Curriculum

Lavinya Stennett

Lavinya Stennett, 25, is the Founder and CEO of The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise founded in 2019 to address the lack of Black British history in the UK curriculum. In 2021, it delivered training to 6,063 school teachers and senior leaders, and assemblies and student workshops to 1,805 young people.

At the time of George Floyd's murder [in May 2020], we felt it was important to shed light on how education can be a powerful tool in dismantling perceptions. It was the lack of truthful and accurate history being taught in UK schools that motivated me to start the campaign. The aim of the campaigning work we do is to embed examples of Black history in the national curriculum.

To start with, I worked with [team members] Bethany and Lisa to set up a series of focus groups to understand the issue more broadly, having applied for funding. We held the focus groups with students, and found out that we all shared similar experiences – of a lack of Black history, glaring omissions and narratives around slavery being the focus in our education and history lessons.

We soon garnered 200,000 downloads on our website for people to email their MPs asking for curriculum change and a letter from the government. It was a great feeling to have had so many downloads – we finally felt like the world was listening. The government declined to meet with us. We were disappointed but not shocked, as others have been campaigning for this cause for years without change.

Going forward, we’re working to achieve the goals of the campaign – mandatory Black history in the history curriculum and mandatory teacher training – by building our local community approach and working in different regions.

Payzee Mahmod

Payzee Mahmod

Payzee Mahmod, 30, from London, is a child marriage survivor and campaigner at the women’s rights organisation IKWRO. She campaigns to end child marriage in England and Wales so that every child has the opportunity to fulfil their full potential.

I experienced child marriage aged 16 and my sister Banaz, who was also a child bride, became a victim of a so-called “honour” killing for leaving her child marriage. It’s shocking that child marriage is legal and hasn’t been addressed sooner, especially with the pandemic and the risk of child marriage being heightened.

I started with working IKWRO, which led the Safeguard Futures Ban Child Marriage campaign, and delivered a TedX talk about my own story to raise awareness about the issue. It’s now been viewed well over one million times. Our online petition now has over a quarter of a million signatures. We held a drop-in session in Parliament to get MPs on board to support the issue and have worked with lawyers to draft the change in law we want to see.

The child marriage campaign has achieved historic success so far. At the end of 2021, MPs voted unanimously in favour of raising the minimum legal age of marriage in England and Wales from 16 to 18 and to make marrying a child a crime. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill is currently going through its final stages in Parliament.

I’m also working with IKWRO on the Virginity Does Not Define Me campaign to challenge myths around the harmful concept of “'virginity” and to ban virginity testing and hymenoplasty (hymen repair surgery). We’re celebrating major progress as the government has committed to banning both harmful practices, and funding an education programme.

Rose Stokes

Rose Stokes

Rose Stokes, 34, a freelance journalist from London, who campaigned alongside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) for Boots to reduce the price of the morning after pill after a Black Friday deal last year. In January, Boots announced it would start selling emergency contraception for the reduced price of £10.

I've been writing about the morning after pill, the misunderstandings about how it works, and barriers to access since I started out as a journalist. Over that time, I’ve closely followed the work of BPAS, who campaign tirelessly to improve the sexual and reproductive rights of women and people who menstruate. BPAS started a campaign on the price of the pill in 2016 and I hopped on board later on. They’re the real heroes of this story.

As someone who has been saved by the morning after pill a couple of times – and who wasn't saved once – I know how important this drug is and how traumatic an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion can be. Those who need emergency contraceptives should be able to access them as easily and as cheaply as possible.

Last November, I stumbled across a Black Friday sale on the morning after pill on Boots's website, which was offering 50% off this vital medication, the overinflated price of which they’ve always maintained couldn't be reduced. I tweeted about it and off the back of the tweet's success, BPAS and I decided to harness the momentum for positive results, so we joined forces with Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson. Between us, we had political, campaigning and media reach, so we were able to spread the message far and wide, applying pressure to brands who were pushing up the cost of these drugs unnecessarily.

The message was clear: it was time for Boots and other pharmacies to stop their sexist surcharge on emergency contraceptives – and we were able to prove how much they were marking up the cost. Ultimately, my goal is to get to a place where emergency contraceptives are free at all points of access, or at the very least more affordable, but one step at a time.

I hope people will take from our story that campaigning can work. If you care about something, you can make an impact, and though sometimes it may feel like screaming into a void, change is possible.

Naomi Connor

Naomi Connor

Naomi Connor, 49, is the co-convener at Alliance for Choice (AfC) (@All4Choice) in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a grassroots feminist organisation founded in 1996, which campaigns for free, safe, local, and stigma-free access to abortion for women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland. Today, AfC has launched ​​Lucht Cabhrach - Abortion Doula to coincide with International Women’s Day.

My own experience of the degradation of forced travel to Manchester to access abortion healthcare was the catalyst behind getting involved with Alliance for Choice. Abortion in Northern Ireland was criminalised and hugely stigmatised at that time eight years ago. AfC was the port in the storm for me and many women like me.

I started my activism by telling my abortion story anonymously. I didn’t want people to find out because of the stigma associated with it. Eventually, after being inspired by other women, I began to tell my story without anonymity. From there, my activism developed and because of the passion and dedication of other AfC members, abortion rights, access, and justice are something I anticipate I’ll be committed to for the rest of my life.

In October 2019, we finally achieved decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, following the repeal of the eighth amendment in the South of Ireland. But since then, the anti-choice Health Minister, Robin Swann, has refused to commission abortion services. While the DUP have continually tried to block the legislation through various parliamentary and legal mechanisms. The Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has stepped in again and directed the Department of Health to bring about full abortion service by the end of March 2022. Some trusts have tried to provide services without central government funding or framework in the meantime.

Until abortion healthcare services are commissioned, AfC can’t go anywhere. There remains a fervent, well funded anti-choice lobby across the globe, and Northern Ireland is no exception. Our aim is abortion justice – everyone should have access to stigma free abortion care. We need positive sexual health and relationship education and a move towards a more secular society, where religion doesn’t interfere with the human rights of women, girls, and pregnant people.

Mair Howells

Mair Howells

Mair Howells, 23, from Peckham, South London, is a creative director and activist who founded the drink spiking campaign, I’ve Been Spiked.

I was motivated to start the campaign after I had my drink spiked in February 2020, just two months after my sister was also spiked. This pushed me to ask how many people was this happening to? When I searched for answers online there was next to nothing, which was such an isolating experience. I wanted to make sure no one else felt the way I did.

I started the campaign by sharing my story. I believe social media is one of the strongest tools we have to make change. From there, I started making shareable assets to spread awareness, protesting on the streets, started a petition, poster outreach, and more. But it all started from sharing my story and listening to other people's.

We've created a large community and a safe space for victims. Our Change.org petition calling for an 'Urgent Review Into Drink Spiking' was discussed in Parliament as part of the wider drink spiking inquiry. Most importantly, we've raised awareness of drink spiking, letting people know about the signs and what they can do to help.

Going forward, my podcast, Pricks, is coming out on Mar, 11 and explores the drink spiking epidemic in the UK. As part of the campaign we’ll continue to work hard until we see a permanent and long lasting change to the way drink spiking is dealt with in the UK. We’ll also be campaigning for better education in schools and universities about spiking, but also surrounding sex education and consent. We’ll continue to work with the nightlife industry to ensure going out is safe for all. And finally, we want to set up I’ve Been Spiked as a charity in its own right to support victims on a wider scale.

Ella Daish

Lauren Shipley

Ella Daish, 29, from Brighton, is an environmental activist who campaigns for brands to remove plastic from their menstrual products through her #EndPeriodPlastic campaign.

When I discovered that conventional tampons and pads, which I’d been using for years, could contain up to 90% plastic, I was horrified. At the time, a lot of noise was being made about plastic bags, bottles, and straws, yet the hidden plastic in period products wasn’t being discussed. I felt a responsibility to raise awareness and hold brands accountable. While I felt powerless as an individual, seeing the success of other young women taking action, like Laura Coryton [founder of Stop Taxing Periods], motivated me to take a stand against period plastic.

The first step was planning and launching campaign action on brands, calling on them to change their products. In the first year, decision makers either wouldn’t engage with me or would send excuses. Thanks to the campaign’s increasing momentum, actions from thousands of supporters, and my persistence, they started listening. Another key step has been starting conversations on social media and raising awareness of the problem to a wider audience.

So far, the campaign has raised awareness of period plastic to thousands of people worldwide, and it’s led to changes within the period industry. Aldi, Lil-Lets, Sainsbury’s and Superdrug have removed plastic applicators from their products, and it’s sparked many others to develop and launch sustainable ranges. My work has influenced the Welsh Government to make the decision that 50% of period dignity funding across Wales must be spent on sustainable menstrual products. Five Welsh councils have committed to using 100% of theirs in this way, too.

Going forward, I’ll be approaching and calling for more governments to spend their period poverty funding on sustainable products. I’ve been working on a documentary with Outpost Pictures about my campaign, which highlights the extent of the period plastic problem and follows the journey as I took the campaign across Europe. It’ll be out later this year.

Angel Ezeadum

Angel Ezeadum

Angel Ezeadum, 17, from Cardiff, Wales, is a college student, Member of Youth Parliament for Cardiff, former member of the Welsh Youth Parliament, and a campaigner for Black history to be taught in Welsh schools. In 2021, Black history lessons became mandatory in Welsh schools.

As a student, I recognised the lack of diversity in my environment but also in my studies. I went to an independent secondary school – via an academic scholarship and bursary – in which I was one of four Black people including teaching staff, so I was used to constantly being singled out and not feeling represented. As a Member of the Welsh Youth Parliament, I wanted to use my platform to spotlight the injustices within my community and be a megaphone amplifying their concerns to lawmakers.

My first step was speaking to the National BAME Youth Forum to see what issues they'd like me to highlight. I then got the chance to perform a 90 Second Statement at the Senedd [Welsh Parliament] in front of my fellow members and adult members of the Senedd. After the Black Lives Matter protests reinvigorated the conversation in summer 2020, I was featured in news articles by the BBC and ITV Wales. Following further campaigning and meetings, we learned that legislation had been passed to make Black history in the curriculum mandatory.

Thanks to the collective effort of many educators, campaigners, and politicians, we achieved history. I believe this campaign will have an immensely positive effect on tackling racism and discrimination in Wales long term.

Lots of exciting things are happening going forward. I’ve been in contact with The Black Curriculum as I want to replicate our work in Wales in the English curriculum, and they’ve recently appointed me as a Young Ambassador for their organisation. In December, I filmed a documentary presented by professional footballer Troy Deeney, in which I was interviewed about my experiences in improving the school curriculum and how we can make this a reality in England and nationwide. It’s a life goal of mine to make this mandatory teaching UK-wide and then to take it internationally.