Why we need an alternative list

23 Jun

– Hannah Davies, Director, One World Action

I have always loved lists. And although lists can be criticised for being superficial they can also be a useful way to synthesise and structure our thoughts. So I have to confess that I will always read with interest the lists in glossy magazines of the 10 most, or 40 best or the 100 richest, most powerful or influential, arguing about who’s included and who’s left out.

But one of the drawbacks of these kinds of lists is that they very often draw attention to what we already know. When it comes to lists of women, we often see women defined as powerful because of their husband or father: who they are rather than what they do.But there are all kinds of interesting, powerful, important, clever, talented women who are powerful because of their actions and choices who will never make it onto any list because their impact is unseen.

Women are powerful and take decisions every day. In all sorts of unrecognised ways they are educators and role models. Their work often keeps homes running as well as families and communities fed. It’s an often quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization that women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world’s food production.

Not only is so much of women’s work unrecognised or under-valued, there are also lots of barriers to women being able to fulfil their potential – particularly in public life: at One World Action we work with women to overcome some of them: violence against women politicians, cultural attitudes that limit economic opportunities for women home workers, and on a very basic level lack of sexual and reproductive choice that leads, for example, to forced marriage. So for many women, to go public and take on a leadership role – however small – often involves additional risks.

It’s through working with powerful women dealing with these challenges every day, without the benefits of a high-profile husband or father and lots of media attention that I came up with the idea for a list of 100 powerful – but unseen – women. We have many examples from our work at One World Action and I’m sure there are way more than 100 out there. So we will be looking for nominations from all over the world and from all areas of life: teachers, artists, migrants, health-care workers, farmers.

To get the ball rolling here are two powerful women that I’d like to nominate. They are definitely not invisible within their own communities but they’re still “unseen” in the wider world.

For more information and to nominate women please go to:


Luz Melon is a friend and an inspiration. She’s now a Counsellor at the Argentinean mission to the UN in New York but came to diplomacy late after working as a teacher in inner-city Buenos Aries. One of the things I admire about Luz is her capacity for hard work. But where I think she’s really shown leadership is championing human rights in the United Nations. She played a lead role in the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and has been a brilliant advocate for disabled people. Most recently she took on the more economically powerful UN member states to push for a convention on the rights of elder people. And she’s been a consistent advocate for sexual and reproductive rights.It’s sometimes difficult for diplomats from developing countries to really promote rights – particularly around gender and sexuality – because there’s sometimes a perception that human rights are a western construct. Luz won’t have any of this, and would argue that, growing up under an oppressive dictatorship in Argentina, there is a very specific and indigenous human rights culture in Latin America. Throughout her life she has also made brave personal decisions and has had the courage to challenge stereotypes.

Mary Taylor* is definitely a powerful woman. Mary had very little formal education and, when I knew here, she was already a pensioner. She’s not always the easiest person to deal with and she’s made a fair few enemies but she will always stand up for what she believes is right and is not afraid to take risks. She’s a long-term resident of council estate in South East London and when I was her neighbour for a few years she would be the person who knew exactly what was going on. She’d be the first to take on the local council if she thought that tenants’ interests were being taken for granted or that there were changes being introduced that would make life worse for the people who actually lived in the flats. She also took personal risks. While so many of us would “tut” and turn away when we saw people leaving litter or drawing graffiti in the estate, she would never be afraid of standing up to them and pointing out bad behaviour.There were people on the estate that didn’t like Mary and didn’t always share her views of how things should work but her energy and her commitment came from a very strong idea about her environment and why community mattered.

* Not her real name


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