Who are the world's toughest women?

March 2, 2015

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  • This week we celebrate just a few of the world's toughest women. Santou is a mother of six, grandmother of one, and does backbreaking work every day to care for her family. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Each and every day, we encounter tough, resilient women all around the world. Their stories are different, but their strength in the face of hardship unites them.

They are mothers protecting their children from war, grandmothers learning to read, daughters working to open their own businesses, farmers feeding their communities, and teachers inspiring their students.

Mercy Corps believes that communities are strongest when women play an equal role in society — and when women and men, girls and boys work together to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

The brave women we work with are paving the way for a brighter future where women are respected and given equal opportunities.

This week, in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), we celebrate some of the toughest women we know — who are making the world better for their families and their communities. Meet them below, and share their stories of strength.

Concy in Uganda

Pioneering farmer: After finally recovering from years of civil war, people in Uganda are looking for new ways to build better lives. Concy, with her husband Charles, is pioneering a new crop that’s never been grown in Uganda before — chia.

Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

“At first we were afraid to grow chia,” says Concy. “We were nervous because we didn’t know how to grow it.” A Mercy Corps program helped them learn what they needed to know, and their first chia harvest was a success.

Concy is an equal partner to her husband, and the farming program requires women to be just as involved in the business as men. The young mother of two will use the profits from the chia to send the couple’s two children to school, and now they’re making plans to build a better home, too. Read her full story ▸

Heba in Jordan

Persevering refugee: Heba and her family moved from war-torn Syria to Jordan last year when their neighborhood was bombed. “They were shooting at my house, around the neighborhood,” she says. “I was scared for my life.”

Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

“All of the schools were closed. I had no hope for a future in Syria,” Heba explains. Now living in Zaatari village in Jordan, Heba can think about a better future for herself. She attends classes at a joint school for both Syrian and Jordanian students.

Heba is an excellent student. She has done so well in school that she’s been offered a scholarship to attend Johns Hopkins University next year. “I really care about my studies and my future. There is no future without education,” she says. “I’d like to be a chemical engineer.”

Nana in Niger

Community role model: Nana’s village in rural Niger has some of the highest rates of child malnutrition and illness in the country. But this mother of seven is working to change that.

Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

In addition to raising her children and doing the daily backbreaking work that comes with being a mother, Nana has become a role model for other mothers in her community.

She’s the leader of her local mother care group, where she teaches other women about breastfeeding, how to prepare healthy food, and when to take their children to the local health clinic. “There is no greater benefit than learning how to take care of our babies’ nutrition and health,” she says. “This will help us for many, many years to come.” Read her full story ▸

Berthe in Central African Republic

Courageous builder: In the southern city of Bangassou in CAR, there are few opportunities for education — especially for young women like Berthe. She lives alone with her three siblings, as their parents are too old and too poor to take care of the children.

Photo: Marie De Col/Mercy Corps

Looking for a way to improve her life and support her family, Berthe joined a Mercy Corps group and decided that she wanted to learn carpentry. After training alongside her male counterparts, Berthe can now build tables, chairs, beds and doors. “I can now send my brothers and sisters to school, have enough food and buy clothes for the four of us,” she says.

Berthe has proven herself to be a quick study and doesn’t flinch when others question her qualifications. “Sometimes clients prefer a man carpenter,” she says. “But once they see what I can do, they often change their mind”

Devi in Nepal

Savvy businesswoman: After marrying at 19 and having a child, Devi decided to finally go after her dream of opening a shop. “I always wanted to open my own business,” she says.

Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

With ambition to spare, she took out a loan from her local VSLA, started by Mercy Corps, and never looked back. Her little shop did well from the start, and Devi now embodies the smart businesswoman she hoped she’d become.

“At the time, 15,000 rupees seemed like handling 100,000,” she says of when she got her first loan. “Now 15,000 doesn’t even seem like much of a challenge.”

Business at the shop is booming, so Devi decided to take on a new challenge — raising baby chicks. Her husband fully supports her goals. “He’s working at the shop right now,” she says. “I hired him for life!” Read her full story ▸

Lina in South Sudan

Protective survivor: Being a mother in South Sudan is not easy. Violence still rages throughout the country, and food is hard to come by. Lina is doing everything she can to take care of her children, nieces, and nephews.

Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

“We had to flee our home and run by foot for safety,” she says. “We had to leave everything behind.” The family made the journey from Bentiu to the massive displacement camp in the capital of Juba, and now they are waiting for an end to the fighting. “Things are better but life is still very hard. We have some food, but not enough,” she says.

But Lina worries most about her family’s future. “My children aren’t able to go to school now, and I worry about their future if they miss their education. I just want peace. Without peace nothing is possible."

Shamsiya in Afghanistan

Brave student: Shamsiya lives in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, where traditional values rule and women are rarely seen in public. It’s difficult for young people to build careers, and almost impossible for young women.

Photo: Toni Greaves for Mercy Corps

Making the choice to get any kind of education is a brave one, but when Mercy Corps opened a vocational training center near Shamsiya’s home, she was quick to sign up anyway. “When I learned about the computer classes I got very excited from the bottom of my heart,” she says.

Shamsiya knows that education can improve her life. “I am now very happy because I am familiar with computer programs,” she says. Courageous young women like Shamsiya are paving the way for cultural change in Afghanistan and a brighter future for other young women. Hear more in her video ▸

Santou in Niger

Dedicated mother: Daily life in the Sahel is strenuous. Santou, a mother of six and grandmother of one, spends her days taking care of her children, gathering water and tending her garden.

Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Santou is always worried about having enough food to feed her family, but her bright spirit shines through. “I want to know there will be enough food for the year,” she says. “If you can get that, you’re going to laugh and be happy.”

The pair of goats that Mercy Corps gave her are a lifeline. They can provide milk during the dry season, and Santou can sell the resulting yogurt and cheese. Now, Santou’s pair of goats has turned into a herd of five. If the family faces a dire food shortage, they’ll have something to lean back on. “Now if I don’t have enough to feed my children, I can sell one of my goats to buy food for them,” Santou says. Read her full story ▸