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International Women's Day 2021: 9 Changemakers on the Challenges They Chose to Take On

Claudia Canavan
·9-min read

Happy International Women's Day 2021 – an occasion to shout about female achievement, make noise about persisting bias and to take action on inequality.

This year, the theme of the day is 'choose to challenge.' So, Women's Health thought it fitting to showcase those working in sport, nutrition, health and beauty who are pushing against the status quo to create tangible change for themselves – and for the collective.

From taking on the gender disparity in sport participation to working to dismantle the lack of diversity in nutrition, these changemakers are remarkable, inspiring – and sure to galvanise you this Monday morning. Scroll on to be impressed.

Asma Elbadawi: Sports Inclusivity Consultant & Poet

Chose to challenge: a rule disallowing hijab in pro basketball

'Not only did I enjoy basketball, but I also learned so many interpersonal and personal skills playing this team sport. The [International Basketball Federation (FIBA)] ban on headgear over 5cm prevented Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab from reaching elite levels in the game.

The lack of visibility further prevented many more Muslim women from being able to even dream of going pro or the chance to gain valuable life skills by playing a team sport at such high levels. I felt like it was my responsibility to challenge this ban and make sure that young girls who have talent can access the opportunities and pathways that lead to the WNBA [Women's National Basketball Association] and other leagues, in turn, inspire others to do so.

It felt extraordinary to know that I and the women that I campaigned alongside made history and changed the game. This was truly was a great achievement that in many ways, will continue to change basketball in years to come. It is an achievement that I often look back on as it is a reminder that, if I believe in equality and see something in the world that needs to be challenged in order for there to be an equal playing field for all, I need to speak up and challenge it. There may only be a few people who will support me in the beginning, but eventually, there will be many others who will, too.

As women, when we choose to challenge things, we are choosing a future in which all women and girls don't face the same barriers we faced, and are given the opportunity to dream and achieve great things.'

Follow @asmaelbadawi

Victoria Evans: Sports lawyer, athlete and campaigner

Photo credit: Jane Stockdale
Photo credit: Jane Stockdale

Chose to challenge: gender inequality in sport participation

'I choose to challenge gender-based inequalities in sport – I want to ensure that women and girls have access to the transformational benefits of sport.

This objective has never been more pressing, with the COVID19 pandemic having widened the gender gap, evidenced by a 42% decrease of activity levels amongst women. Whilst working for a number of sports brands and federations during the last decade, my own life changed dramatically when I found sport in my late twenties. Having battled with depression and an eating disorder in my younger years, it was my newly-found passion that drove positive change.

Despite having completed other adventure challenges, including successful summits of Month Blanc, Gran Paradiso and Kilimanjaro, I wanted a new project of a great enough magnitude to offer a platform for this message. I chose to seek to become the fastest woman to solo row the Atlantic, solo.

Though I was due to commence the row in February 2021, after 3 years of training and preparation, including quitting my job and moving out of my home, it had to be postponed after the Spanish government rescinded their previous green light for me to travel to Tenerife to meet my boat.

Understandably, this has been a crushing blow so close to the start line. I now hope to attempt the row in early 2022 if I can raise the additional corporate sponsorship needed, no mean feat having done this once. That said, I recognise that we are all living in a truly unique time and sometimes life gets in the way of our perfectly-made plans.

But postponement is not halting my efforts to raise £50,000 for UK Charity Women in Sport. I'm using the time gained from postponement to encourage activity closer to home. I've launched The #350Challenge which runs throughout the month of March.

Participants are invited to commit to undertaking 350 minutes or 350 miles of exercise a discipline of their choice during the course of the month, a nod to the 350 plus miles a week I would have been rowing from Tenerife to Barbados.

With membership building and a roster of athlete ambassadors on board, the aim is to provide a community to motivate everyone, particularly women, to get active and to drive change. True to my legal background I am a firm advocate of fairness and equal treatment, and I passionately believe that sport at every level should be accessible to all, regardless of gender.

Learn more at seachangesport.com or follow @seachangesport.

Tai Ibitoye, Registered dietitian

Chose to challenge: the lack of cultural inclusivity in healthy eating advice

'I’ve chosen to challenge and promote more diversity within the health and nutrition field. When I was training as a Dietitian, I didn’t see many qualified nutrition professionals who looked like me at first. I felt like I didn’t belong in that space but I decided to just be bold and make an impact in whatever way I can.

Also, when I started seeing more clients and patients from similar backgrounds, I realised that there wasn’t enough resources made publicly available tailored to my community and other ethnic minority groups.

I want healthy eating advice to be more inclusive so that people can feel like they do not have to choose between their culture and health. I want everyone to see their foods celebrated, recognised and normalised, too. I also want everyone to feel empowered to make better healthy eating choices without them feeling like they have to cut out their traditional foods from their diet.'

Follow @taitalksnutrition

Alice Dearing, GB marathon swimmer, co-founder of Black Swimming Association

Chose to challenge: what a 'swimmer' looks like

'I believe everyone should be able to belong where they want and feel comfortable doing so. Existing stereotypes create barriers preventing people from reaching their potential in certain areas.

Swimming is one of these areas. People of colour have historically been viewed to be “no good at swimming” – I think this stereotype is harmful and I’m challenging this status quo by showing people everyone can swim.'

Follow @blackswimmingassociation; @alicedearingx

Dr Sayyada Mawji, NHS GP and International Aid Worker

Chose to challenge: health misinformation on social media

'I've had the opportunity to partake in international aid work in conflict and war zones, providing immediate and long-term preventative health interventions. During my time, one of the most impactful elements was addressing long-held myths, misinformation and confusion about health.

It's led me to advocate preventative and lifestyle interventions, leading national and international health screenings of those most at risk of preventative conditions, particularly in minority ethnic groups. I've been honoured to see how our use of innovative methods like culturally-sensitive messaging has enabled us to impact so many lives.
With the Covid pandemic, there is so much focus on our health and so much misinformation spreading, it's been really hard for many people to know what's right and what's not.

When I saw my own patients struggling with this I knew I had to do something - that's when I created my profile. It's dedicated to challenging health misinformation and misconceptions by sharing evidence-based information and resources to educate and empower healthier lifestyles.'

Follow @doctorsayyada

Andrea Mason, Endurance athlete, advocate for female reproductive health and Wiggle brand ambassador

Chose to challenge: the taboo surrounding female reproductive health

'In the last few years I have completed a number of sporting events that people believed were impossible, but I couldn’t wait to take on the challenge and prove the naysayers wrong. I am currently training for my biggest Sea to Summit Extreme challenge to date. I can’t wait to see if I can push myself further than I have ever been.

Not only that, I have faced many challenges in my life including having my own personal journey with endometriosis and cervical cancer, but I always believe in myself and create my own epic!

My passion lies in encouraging other women to do the same and to break the taboo surrounding female reproductive health. I love pushing my physical and mental boundaries – it is here that I truly find out who I am and what I am capable of. My philosophy is everyone can “create their own epic”. I believe in being the best you can be and not comparing yourself to others.'

Follow @sea_to_summit_extreme

Nelly London, Body acceptance advocate

Chose to challenge: accepted body ideals

'I choose to challenge body ideals. We are all made to believe that we have a body "type", and that one type is better than the other, or some types need to work on certain areas, or that some of us should change the way our bodies are meant to look.

All body "types" are worthy and beautiful, and one should never be considered more aesthetically pleasing than the other. Shape, size, colour, they are all wonderful.'

Follow @nelly_london

Beth French, Ocean swimmer

Chose to challenge: how women achieve body confidence

'I choose to challenge the concept of how we get body confidence - I think we need to develop a positive relationship with our body, falling in love with what it can do regardless of what it looks like. That to me is true health and being in water gave me that.'

AGAINST THE TIDES, a film that deep dives into the life of Beth French as she attempts to cross the channels of seven different oceans – even whilst living with M.E, is out now On Demand in the UK / US againstthetidesfilm.com

Robyn Germyn, actor, model and content creator normalising alopecia

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Chose to challenge: beauty standards

'I choose to challenge beauty standards. In this society, we are made to believe that our worthiness, value, and femininity are all measured by our beauty. I choose to challenge those standards and show the world that we are so much more than our hair. We are worthy with or without it.'

Follow: @robyngermyn

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