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Human Rights

7 Female Trailblazers Who Took A Stand In 2016

Halima Aden wore a navy blue, embroidered burkini --€” a full-body bathing suit --€” during the swimsuit competition. Courtesy of Future Productions LLC hide caption

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Courtesy of Future Productions LLC

Halima Aden wore a navy blue, embroidered burkini --€” a full-body bathing suit --€” during the swimsuit competition.

Courtesy of Future Productions LLC

With so much attention paid to high-profile women in 2016, from Hillary Clinton to Wonder Woman, it's easy to lose sight of lesser-known women who are blazing a trail in low- and middle-income countries. In ways big and small, these women have moved the needle on gender equality by being activists, role models or simply taking a stand.

Here's a roundup of some of the many memorable women we profiled on Goats and Soda in 2016.

Halima Aden, the beauty pageant contestant who wore a burkini

The 19-year-old Somali-American wanted to compete for Miss Minnesota USA and didn't let the fact that she is a hijabi — a Muslim woman who wears hijab — stop her. In the swimsuit portion of the competition, she wore a burkini, a type of modest swimwear specially made for hijabis. She grabbed headlines for her confidence, from the States to Somalia. "Beauty isn't one-size-fits-all," she says. "If I can find different ways to spread that message, I will."

Sitawa Wafula, founder of Kenya's first mental health hotline

Sitawa Wafula found out she had bipolar disorder at the age of 24. In October, she was named one of Kenya's "40 Women Under 40." Courtesy of Thumbi Mwangi hide caption

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Courtesy of Thumbi Mwangi

Sitawa Wafula found out she had bipolar disorder at the age of 24. In October, she was named one of Kenya's "40 Women Under 40."

Courtesy of Thumbi Mwangi

Wafula has bipolar disorder, but she had a hard time getting diagnosed in her native Kenya. Some people thought she was cursed — and even worse, there just weren't many mental health facilities in Kenya where she could get good information about her condition or medications. So she established Kenya's first text message mental health hotline so anyone in the country could send in questions to trained volunteers. She's become a role model in Kenya — and this year, named one of her country's 40 women under 40.

Shahd Al-Swerki, a mom who slammed a teacher who shamed her daughter

When Swerki's 3-year-old daughter stripped nude in front of some boys in preschool, the teacher was frantic, acting as if the girl had ruined her future. At first, Swerki was filled with panic and shame. But she was determined to raise her daughter to be comfortable with her own body — an awareness she herself wasn't taught as a young Palestinian girl. "I will never allow anyone to control my reactions and feelings toward any incident happening to my daughter. To my husband. To me. To my life," she says.

Jacqueline de Chollet, a Swiss aristocrat who tackles child marriage

Jacqueline de Chollet of Switzerland, now 78, helped found the Veerni Institute, which gives child brides and other girls in northern India a chance to continue their education. Yana Paskova for NPR hide caption

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Yana Paskova for NPR

Jacqueline de Chollet of Switzerland, now 78, helped found the Veerni Institute, which gives child brides and other girls in northern India a chance to continue their education.

Yana Paskova for NPR

What was supposed to be a vacation to northern India ended up changing her life — and the lives of almost 200 child brides and other girls. After a chance encounter with a woman in a remote village, de Chollet, the daughter of a Swiss baron, was inspired to start a school for girls in Jodhpur. Called the Veerni Institute, the school requires parents to sign a contract stating that they won't send their daughter to live with her husband until the girl graduates from high school. In exchange, the girl gets free room, board and education.

Petrona Choc Cuc, a victim of sexual violence who testified against her abusers

It happened during Guatemala's civil war in the 1980s, but Choc Cuc hadn't forgotten. This year, the 75-year-old Mayan Indian went to court and told a three-panel judge how soldiers killed her husband, captured her and her daughter, and repeatedly raped her. Many women were too scared to come to court, but not Choc Cuc. Her testimony was critical. In February, two military officials were sentenced to over 100 years of prison each for their war crimes.

Rita Superman, a police chief who fights human trafficking

Rita Superman is the head of the police anti-trafficking unit in Cyprus. Kristin Adair/NPR hide caption

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Kristin Adair/NPR

Rita Superman is the head of the police anti-trafficking unit in Cyprus.

Kristin Adair/NPR

Superman has found that sometimes a five-minute conversation is all it takes to turn a victim's life around. She shares the story of Sylvia, from Bulgaria, who was arrested in Cyprus for prostitution. Superman asked her: Do you like what you're doing? Are you satisfied with your work? No one had ever asked Sylvia those questions before. Sylvia was inspired to go to a shelter and press charges against her captor. It's moments like these that moved the U.S. State Department to honor Superman this year for her activism against human trafficking.

Neetu, child bride turned prize-winning wrestler

Neetu trains nearly eight hours a day at a wrestling facility in Rohtak, India. Her coach says, "She doesn't take a break for even one minute." Poulomi Basu/for NPR hide caption

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Poulomi Basu/for NPR

Neetu trains nearly eight hours a day at a wrestling facility in Rohtak, India. Her coach says, "She doesn't take a break for even one minute."

Poulomi Basu/for NPR

She was a child bride. Today, she's a prize-winning wrestler eyeing the 2020 Olympics. Neetu, a full-time athlete, an occasional Bollywood actor and a mom of two, is seen as an inspiration in India. "She's changed everything," says a woman from her village. "Everybody believes that a girl can now say — 'I want to do something.' "