From the battlefield in Ukraine, to the streets of Peru, to backstage at a Bollywood audition, every day women find ways to rise up against a world of challenges and fight back in a bid to improve people’s lives.
This International Women’s Day seems the perfect opportunity to showcase Al Jazeera’s digital documentaries about some extraordinary women doing extraordinary things.
For thousands of asylum seekers facing certain death at sea, the first sign that they are safe is seeing the face of Fulvia Conte.
The young Italian woman leads a team on board the Geo Barents, a search-and-rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea operated by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF).
For weeks at a time, she and her crew set out to rescue asylum seekers risking their lives to reach Europe by crossing one of the world’s deadliest migration routes. “This sea has become a graveyard, so every second, every minute is important,” Fulvia says.
Every day, six people die trying to reach Europe in vessels that are not seaworthy. Many of them embark off the coast of Libya, which has been a transit country for people fleeing poverty, persecution and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. But the lawlessness of war-torn Libya means corruption, abuse and torture by armed groups are prevalent.
“Imagine you put all your life in one bag, you put yourself and your family on a boat hoping not to lose your life at sea,” says Fulvia, describing the dire situation people face before making the treacherous crossing. “Many say that they would rather die at sea than go back to Libya.”
Fulvia has been involved with refugee NGOs for years, motivated by protecting vulnerable people on the margins of society. Now, she and her team work tirelessly to save lives at sea while navigating a crackdown on immigration by European governments.
Watch: Crossing the Mediterranean Sea: To Survive or To Die
The Principled Performer
The #MeToo movement brought down convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein and exposed, through the social media testimony of thousands of women, how often men in Hollywood wield their influence to pressure young women into unwanted sexual encounters.
That same practice pervades Bollywood, too, but the campaign has secured hardly any wins in India’s entertainment industry.
Satyaketi Mishra has been trying to break into a blockbuster role in Indian cinema for a while, but she finds that windows of opportunity slam shut when she rejects the advances of industry executives or sets boundaries about what she is comfortable doing on camera.
It took a minute for Satyaketi to realise what a casting director was asking her to do, and to make the decision to walk away. “He claimed he had a part for me and then asked me to visit his home, alone,” says the 27-year-old from New Delhi.
The aspiring actor’s experience with what is known as Bollywood’s “casting couch culture” underlines the challenges facing anyone seeking to break into India’s massive, multibillion-dollar, insiders-only film industry.
Unlike the children of celebrities, who are groomed for stardom and tailor-made debuts, outsiders have to contend with a gruelling routine of auditions – and rejections – and fend off lecherous men.
Determined and deeply attached to her principles, Satyaketi’s is a tale of perseverance against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including having a deeply disapproving father in a patriarchal society.
“I want my parents to understand that girls shouldn’t be limited to government jobs. They also have the right to dream big.”
Watch: Chasing Bollywood Dreams
The Medic Commander
When Yana Zinkevych was 18 years old, she ditched medical school and joined a unit of volunteer fighters in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. She was the only woman among them.
“You had to fight for your place to prove you’re three times more capable than a man,” she says. “Sometimes, I had to disguise myself as a man.”
It was then, while fighting against pro-Russian forces in 2014, that she realised her mission was to help injured comrades.
Today, the 27-year-old is the founder of the Hospitallers, a battalion of volunteer medics that provides first aid and evacuates civilians and wounded soldiers from the front lines of Ukraine’s war.
“There are so many injured people, injured physically and mentally. There is simply no chance for us to stop,” she says.
The wheelchair-bound leader with dyed blue hair leads a battalion of several hundred men and women who provide assistance to wounded fighters and civilians. Yana runs combat first aid courses, trains volunteers in the use of firearms and organises transport to the front lines.
“I organise things, I share my experience, I’m good at it, but this is not exactly what I would like to do,” she says, recounting how she is no longer able to go to the front lines after becoming paralysed from the waist down.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, this unstoppable woman and her team of medics work tirelessly to protect the injured from the horrors of the war.
Watch: Ukraine’s Unstoppable Medics
The Anti-Gun Campaigner
In the United States, gun violence kills, on average, more than 100 people every day.
Men, overwhelmingly, are the perpetrators. Some, like lawyer Hayley Lawrence, have argued that the theory of toxic masculinity can explain this disparity. Men also are disproportionately the victims, accounting for 86 percent of deaths from firearms, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
And almost every victim leaves behind a grieving daughter, partner, sister or mother. One of those mothers is Tracy Tate, who lost her son, Jaleel, to gun violence in 2020.
While grappling with her loss, Tracy found support through Mothers of Murdered Columbus Children (MOMCC) based in Ohio. The self-described “sisterhood” was founded in response to a record-breaking number of homicides in the city of Columbus in 2020 and 2021, by Malissa Thomas-St. Clair who also lost her son. The woman-led initiative provides support and resources to mothers who have lost a child to homicide.
“Sometimes, you feel like you’re the only one dealing with stuff, but I’ve seen so many mothers lose children,” Tracy says.
Despite battling depression and alcoholism, she ultimately soldiers on for her remaining family members and for other mothers who have lost children, by participating in vigils and rallies to demand action be taken against gun violence.
The film, produced by an all-woman crew, is about the immense weight of grief, solidarity through community work and the continuing ripple effects of gun violence.
Watch: US Mothers Fighting Against Gun Violence
The Revolutionary (and Counter-revolutionary)
When women come to power anywhere, it is often celebrated, perhaps naively, as a win for female empowerment and women’s rights.
But for Rosa Elvira Reyes, having Dina Boluarte lead Peru – the first woman to ever do so – is a disaster for the country.
Rosa is a teacher from a rural part of Peru. She is also a leading figure in the protest movement that seeks to remove Boluarte, seen as illegitimate by her critics, and strives to restore power to jailed former President Pedro Castillo who was impeached.
It’s a dangerous role. Confrontations between Peruvian authorities and protesters have killed dozens of people and injured hundreds. Rosa often had to dodge tear gas canisters while demonstrating against Castillo’s removal.
“I raise my protest as a Peruvian teacher. Why do our children have to keep dying?” Rosa asks.
The film also introduces Paola Escatte. She is a teacher, too, but with a very different vision. A vocal leader of a Christian anti-socialist group, Paola is worried about the “communist wave” sweeping through the country.
This is a documentary about two women at the heart of political turmoil and their opposing visions for the future of Peru.
Watch: Peru: A Divided Country
The Women of Football
For more documentaries about extraordinary women, check out Close Up’s series ‘The Women of Football’, which has profiled remarkable women breaking ground on and off the football pitch.
Watch some of their stories, from Salma Al-Majidi in Sudan, the first woman to coach a men’s team in the Arab world, to the Ghafouri sisters, Afghan refugees in Iran who also coach a men’s team and use sport to help get vulnerable refugee boys off the streets of Shiraz in Iran.
Celebrate these trailblazers with outstanding Close Up digital documentaries here.