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 an effort to improve people’s lives.
This International Women’s Day seems like the perfect opportunity to showcase Al Jazeera’s digital documentaries about extraordinary women doing extraordinary things.
For thousands of asylum seekers facing certain death at sea, the first sign they are safe is seeing the face of Fulvia Conte.
The young Italian woman leads a team aboard the Geo Barents, a Mediterranean search and rescue ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials Doctors Without Borders).
For weeks, she and her crew set out to rescue asylum seekers who risked 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,” says Fulvia.
Every day six people die trying to reach Europe in ships that are not seaworthy. Many of them embark off the coast of Libya, which has been a transit point for people fleeing poverty, persecution and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. But the lawlessness of war-torn Libya means that corruption, abuse and torture by armed groups is widespread.
“Imagine putting your whole life in one bag, putting yourself and your family on a boat hoping not to lose your life at sea,” says Fulvia, describing the dire situation people face before they reach the treacherous crossing. “Many say they would rather die at sea than go back to Libya.”
Fulvia has been involved with refugee NGOs for many years, driven by protecting vulnerable people on the margins of society. Now she and her team work tirelessly to save lives at sea as they navigate the crackdown on immigration by European governments.
Watch: Crossing the Mediterranean Sea: Survive or Die
The principle artist
The #MeToo movement took down convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein and revealed, through the testimonies of thousands of women on social media, how often men in Hollywood use their influence to pressure young women into unwanted sexual encounters.
The same practice has also permeated Bollywood, but the campaign has barely made any profit in India’s entertainment industry.
Satyaketi Mishra has been trying to break into a blockbuster role in Indian cinema for some time now, but she finds all opportunities slamming shut when she rejects the advances of industry executives or sets limits on what she likes to do in front of the camera.
It took a minute for Satyaketi to realize what a casting director asked her to do and make the decision to walk away. “He claimed he had a part for me and then asked me to visit his house alone,” says the 27-year-old from New Delhi.
The aspiring actor’s experience with what’s known as Bollywood’s “casting couch culture” underscores the challenges faced by anyone trying to break into India’s massive, multibillion-dollar, insiders-only film industry in India.
Unlike the kids of celebrities, who are groomed for fame and custom debuts, outsiders must contend with a grueling routine of auditions – and rejections – and fending off lewd men.
Determined and deeply attached to her principles, Satyaketi’s is a story of perseverance against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including having a deeply disapproving father in a patriarchal society.
“I want my parents to understand that girls should not be confined 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 completed her medical education 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 as capable as a man,” she says. “Sometimes I had to disguise myself as a man.”
When she fought against pro-Russian forces in 2014, she realized her mission was to help wounded comrades.
Today, the 27-year-old is the founder of the Knights Hospitaller, a battalion of volunteer medics that provides first aid and evacuates civilians and wounded soldiers from the front lines of war in Ukraine.
“There are so many injured, physically and mentally injured. There’s just no chance for us to stop,” she says.
The wheelchair-bound leader with hair dyed blue leads a battalion of several hundred men and women who provide aid to wounded combatants and civilians. Yana gives first aid courses, trains volunteers in the use of firearms and organizes transport to the front lines.
“I organize things, I share my experience, I’m good at it, but this is not exactly what I would like to do,” she says, telling how she can no longer go to the front lines after being paralyzed by the waist down.
As the war in Ukraine continues, this unstoppable woman and her team of medics work tirelessly to protect the wounded from the horrors of war.
Watch: Ukraine’s unstoppable medics
The anti-firearms campaigner
In the United States, gun violence kills on average more than 100 people every day.
Gentlemen, overwhelming, are the perpetrators. Some, such as attorney Hayley Lawrence, have argued that the theory of toxic masculinity can explain this difference. Men are also disproportionately the victims, accounting for 86 percent of gun deaths, 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.
As she struggled with her loss, Tracy found support through her Mothers of murdered Columbus children (MOMCC) based in Ohio. The self-proclaimed “sisterhood” was founded in response to a record homicide rate in the city of Columbus in 2020 and 2021, by Malissa Thomas-St. Clair who also lost her son. The women-led initiative provides support and resources to mothers who have lost a child to murder.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one dealing with things, but I’ve seen so many mothers lose children,” says Tracy.
Despite her battle with depression and alcoholism, she eventually fights on for her remaining family members and other mothers who have lost children, participating in vigils and rallies to demand action against gun violence.
Produced by an all-female crew, the film deals with the immense weight of grief, solidarity through community work, and the lingering ripple effects of gun violence.
Watch: American Moms Fight Gun Violence
The revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary)
When women everywhere come to power, it is often celebrated, perhaps naively, as a victory for female empowerment and women’s rights.
But for Rosa Elvira Reyes, letting Dina Boluarte lead Peru—the first woman ever to 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 seeking to remove Boluarte, deemed illegitimate by her critics, and seeking to restore power to imprisoned former President Pedro Castillo who was impeached.
It’s a dangerous role. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes between Peruvian authorities and demonstrators. Rosa often had to dodge tear gas canisters while demonstrating against Castillo’s removal.
“I protest as a Peruvian teacher. Why must our children keep dying?” Rosa asks.
The film also introduces Paola Escatte. She is also a teacher, but with a completely different vision. Paola, a vocal leader of a Christian anti-socialist group, is concerned about the “communist wave” sweeping through the country.
This is a documentary about two women at the center of the political turmoil and their opposing visions for Peru’s future.
Watch: Peru: A Country Divided
Watch for more documentaries about extraordinary women Close-up’s series ‘The Women of Football’, which has profiled remarkable women who are breaking new ground on and off the football field.
Check out 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 vulnerable refugee boys from the streets of Shiraz in Iran.
Celebrate these pioneers with excellence Close-up shot digital documentaries here.