Women of the World

Global stories of girls

When I was a little girl, my father used to tell me women couldn't do certain things, like become doctors, mechanics, or firefighters. Then, after my sister and I had scolded him through a 20-minute debate on why, YES, girls could do those things and do them well, thankyouverymuch, I'd notice the glint in his eyes, the smirk he was trying to hide.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realised his game. He had been prepping my sister and me for a world in which we very likely would be told at some point that we couldn't do something because of our gender. He was teaching us to believe that we could do whatever we wanted, not because someone told us so, but because we told ourselves. He was training us to fight back.

There are many girls who weren't nearly as fortunate as I was in my upbringing. Around the globe, there are still girls struggling to be permitted an education, to gain equal job opportunities, to not suffer violence because of their sex.

That's why I'm so excited to be a part of this: Urban Adventures' first-ever multimedia package in honour of International Women's Day. Think of it as a love letter to all the women out there who are doing wonderful things, and to those who are still struggling to have their voices heard.

Below is a collection of stories featuring women around the globe, everything from opinions on modern feminism to finding faith in yourself. We talked to our female guides at Urban Adventures about what led them into travel, and to organisations that are working to improve the lives of women.

Some of the tales below are light and charming, while others are heartbreaking to read — because both sides show the real world for women today, on all ends of the spectrum. But all of them are inspiring, each saying in their own way that, yes, girls can do that.

- Tammy, Editor, Urban Adventures

Meet: Nikki in New York

Nikki Padilla is an Urban Adventures guide in New York City — one of the best in the brand, in fact, having won this year’s award for Guide of the Year. She's also an avid solo traveller who believes the best experiences are found beyond your comfort zone, and that as a woman, there's a modern-feminist joy in letting yourself run away from time to time, whether it's to Italy or Israel.

On why travelling solo is the best:

“I like to travel alone. I just think that you can do whatever you want, obviously, and there’s something to be said for having to go out and figure it out for yourself. That’s what I like about it. I lived alone for so long and now that I’m married, I feel like everything is a little easier because I have this partner but when I travel, it’s putting myself back out there: do it on your own, figure it out. It’s skill-building. I just feel like I need that every once in a while. I need to go out and be on my own and figure things out on in a foreign country and then deal with problems that come up. It just makes me feel very independent.”

On being uncomfortable:

“A friend of mine gave me a sign that says ‘Do something every day that scares you.' Travel, for me, is like that. I feel like, as a woman, I’ve been conditioned by society to not be overly assertive, or to not get in people’s way... So I have a hard time with things like going up to someone if I think they need help with something, or asking again if someone gave me directions I don’t understand. Little things like that. And when I travel, it forces me to do that. Travel forces me to go outside my comfort zone because you have no choice.”

On what travel can teach you:

“I’m so ignorant about the majority of the world and how they live and I find that whenever I travel, I always pick up things, like new ways of living or new philosophies that I wasn’t exposed to before. So, like, from Italy, I always learn balance. Yes, it’s important to work really hard but it’s also just as important to have time set aside where you’re doing nothing, or hanging out with friends, or relaxing, and that’s not selfish. From Israel, I learned to relax in the sense of, essentially, don’t sweat the small things… Every place I go, I always pick up something that I bring home that enhances my lifestyle and general well-being.”

On tackling your first solo trip:

“For someone who’s never travelled before and is terrified, I would say to join a group tour first, just to get you out of the country. But make sure it’s a small boutique company that’s going to give you lots of free time, because that’s going to give you a taste of going out on your own. You’ll slowly get accustomed to it. I just think you need to do it once, whatever it takes to get you to do it once. Once you’ve done it, you’ll be fine.”

On the changing face of feminism:

“Being a solo traveller is such an issue of female strength and individuality and independence, but it’s so interesting because my mom was very strongly a second-wave feminist and it’s so different from what her goals were when she was growing up. So I think it’s such a timely thing, so unique to right now. It’s about being independent from anything else as a woman: independent from your job, from your relationships. Going out and travelling is such a ‘find yourself thing’ and I love that it’s so selfish. It’s so interesting to me.”

On the perfect balance:

“Travelling solo is such a combination of being super safe and super aware but also, to a degree, throwing caution to the wind. You just kind of have to.”

Meet: Mahsa in Seville

Most of us would assume that a motorcycle accident that left you with two broken legs and wheelchair-bound would destroy any chances of you ever again wanting to climb atop a bike. But for Mahsa Homayounfar, an Urban Adventures partner operating in Seville, Spain, it made her want to hop back on and explore even more. With two wheels, she’s tackled months-long trips into regions such as South America and West Africa, and into countries like Morocco, Iran, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

On following your dreams:

“The Pamir mountain range is a very remote area, covering central Asian countries — Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan. They call it ‘the roof of the world’ because you’re always above 4,000 metres. And as a kid, I had this dream to go there but I never did it. After I recovered [from the accident], you know, I had this dream that before I die or before anything happens to me, I should do it. You know when you have a dream and you say, ‘I’ll do it later, the dream can wait because right now I have to work, or I have this or that to take care of.' But that accident made me aware that sometimes you don’t have to wait, you just have to do.”

On conquering your fears:

“I didn’t want to go to the Middle East as a solo female traveller. But I did it. I think we need to have more trust in others and more confidence in ourselves. I found that I could go everywhere in the Middle East as a female traveller. People would protect me. They’d think, ‘Oh, you’re a woman, you’re alone, how can I help you?’”

On aggression:

“When you’re a girl, there are always men who will think they can try something. I was in Sri Lanka with two friends in nice bungalows by the sea, and there was a local guide who said he’d show us to a beach, and my friends said 'yeah, let’s go.' Everything was fine, but then at night he tried to break into my bungalow. He was drunk and was banging at the door. There were other people there sleeping, but I felt really unsafe. It felt very violent, like there were no boundaries. That stuff happens sometimes, but not that often, actually. It also maybe happens more to me because I’m quite friendly… When you look young and you are friendly and you smile, some people misinterpret that and think, ‘oh, okay, I can try something.’ But there are some easy things [to do to protect yourself]. You just say, ‘I’m married and I have kids,’ and it’s usually okay. My mistake was the guy asked if I was married or not and I said not because I thought it was safe since he was working.”

On generosity:

“I was in Mauritania — this is a country where there are stories of killed tourists, and Al Qaeda is there. I was there with an ex-partner, on motorcycles in the middle of the desert. And it was getting dark, and as a foreigner, you’re not supposed to ride after dark. You’re to stop in a city and either check into a hotel or go to the police station. I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to camp. In a village, I asked — well, I tried to ask — the locals for water. But I’m thinking, 'It’s the middle of the Sahara and they’re not going have any to share, and we’re going to die.' I said, ‘water, do you have water’ — I knew the word in Arabic for water — and they said, ‘Of course. How many litres do you want?’ It was rewarding because that was something I didn’t expect. They were genuine. They seemed happy to see me. They were like, ‘Here’s your water, here’s my house, if you want to take a shower, I’ll fill the shower.’ People really are friendly and will help you and share with you.”

On what travel can teach you:

“It’s a very democratic thing, travelling. You can be from a certain class or have certain habits, but as soon as you get on the road, you can meet the rich, the poor, the intelligent, the women, the kids. You see everybody… it’s about not just meeting people but learning about their experiences, how they live, what their worries are, what their problems are, how they handle the same situations as you but in a different way.”

On women’s work:

“No matter where I go, I see that women really are repressed. It’s like a form of slavery. They are the ones that work, that do everything. Today I was riding through tea plantations, and it was hot and they’re very steep, and there were only female workers there, walking with heavy bags of leaves. No matter where you go, it’s the same thing. If you go to Vietnam, you see the rice fields and the women working; if you go to Ethiopia, you see the women carrying 20 litres of water on their heads. Even if you go to Spain or elsewhere, women work but they also take their kids to school and they make dinner, and it’s just constant work. And then on top of that, we have to be beautiful.”

On going alone:

“You have to develop your instincts, to know what, when, how, where. How to dress, what to say, what not to say. It takes practice. It’s like anything else — the more you do something, the better you get at it. Confidence in yourself and trust in others. It’s a basic skill you need to do anything. We can do a lot of things, and many times we can do them better or at least the same as a man. So many women are afraid. Where does this fear come from? Many times it’s a self-imposed limitation. It shouldn’t be. It’s much easier than that. Women should have faith in themselves.”

Meet: Olga in Moscow

Olga Sitnik is the owner of Moscow Urban Adventures, as well as the director and co-founder of ExploRussia. Despite running two tourism businesses, she actually doesn’t have a background in the tourism industry — which is the way she likes it, instead viewing travel from the traveller's perspective. Her business ideas first formed when she was a university student on an international internship program. After spending some time in China and the Balkans, she realised the stereotypes and curiosities people have about her homeland. And from there, a business idea was born.

On running your own business:

“The best part is you’re creating something that is your own. For me, it’s great that I decide on my own what I do and what I strive for. When a company is a small business, you can make fast decisions and be flexible. That’s really awesome. It drives me. In big companies, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, but here, it’s, ‘Okay, we need to decide this, we don’t have a procedure on this, so let’s decide now.’”

On the hardest part of being your own boss:

“The hardest part is you’re on your own. There’s no one here to tell you, ‘Hey, let me motivate you, or you’re such a great employee.’ You realise you have a lot of obstacles, a lot of things you are doing on your own. And especially when you first start out, you have to wait until you have results — then the results become what motivates you."

On being taken seriously as a woman:

“We went to India for a tourism exhibition exactly one year ago. That was the beginning of stormy times for Russia and the Russian economy, especially from a political point of view, so we didn’t know what to expect from our traditional customers from English-speaking countries. We thought that maybe with the political mess, everyone would start cancelling all their trips. So we decided to go to India to learn about the market there... All the companies had mostly males there as representatives. No one even looked at us. No one took us seriously. And that’s when we realised that we needed to take a man with us, that we needed a man so they would look at us. But then, once we started having conversations and they found that we actually knew something, then we were heard.”

On the female business mind:

“We have four shareholders who make the key decisions, and we have it gender balanced: two versus two. But it’s two girls from that group of four who are working full-time on the project, and we make all the decisions conservatively — we don’t go with big risks. For example, we won’t take out big loans or invest big money for marketing strategies just to try them out. Instead, we take smaller steps, which will maybe take more time but will be more secure.”

On just doing it:

“Don’t give up until it starts. Don’t give up until you have the first result. Our main strategy is just doing things. With some start-ups, they get stuck with the big planning — they have everything only on paper. But I think the main thing is to start doing things. Then sooner or later it’ll show results. Keep trying.”

Meet: Cecilia in Venice

When she’s not running the Urban Adventures brand in Venice, Italy, Cecilia Cambero Yllera is wandering the world, and making friends. She’s travelled solo to destinations such as Mexico, Morocco, Turkey, Brazil, and Jordan, and says the best rewards have been the people she met. In Vietnam, she met Israeli travellers who approached her specifically because she was alone; they ended up sharing a taxi that day and stayed friends who still visit one another. But she also points out that the things you learn about yourself when you travel solo is the most valuable souvenir.

On finding yourself:

“People think, 'Oh I’ll go to India or to Bali, and I’ll find myself.' No. You won’t find yourself anywhere. But you do learn many things about your character. Because when you’re at home in your comfort zone or your routine, you don’t realise how you actually are. No, you’re not going to find yourself, but you’re going to learn a lot of things about you — and often surprisingly good things.”

On the best part about solo travel:

“The amazing people you meet. The people I’ve met while travelling are still friends, after many, many years. Maybe it’s because you don’t see each other as regularly and because when you do see each other again, you have so many memories in common, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful friendships you can have. It’s stronger because it was short. Maybe it was only a couple of days because you were travelling the same way, sometimes it’s a couple of weeks, but the timing makes that friendship stronger than something you might have with someone you’ve known for years. It’s much more powerful; you feel it more richly.”

On being a solo woman abroad:

“I really love and I really hate that by yourself, you get approached more... And as a woman, sometimes you’re wary. It’s too much attention on you. Sometimes when I travel, I pretend I’m married. I always travel with a ring and pretend that my husband is waiting for me somewhere.”

On fearing the unknown:

“If something is going to happen, it will happen. It doesn’t matter where you are. It can happen to you at home, it can happen to you in your city, it can happen in another place. It’s more likely that something will happen to you at home than when you’re abroad, because when you’re abroad, you’re always more aware of what’s happening around you. You’re paying attention to what you’re seeing and everything is new to you, so you are more likely to be looking out for yourself. When you’re at home, you’re more in your own world.”

On just going for it:

“At least once in your lifetime, you have to travel solo. It’s compulsory. Even if you’re married, even if, whatever. At least once. Even if it’s just a short break in another city in your own country, you have to do it.”

The Seven Women of Kathmandu

Words by James Shackell | Photos by Ben McNamara

Our taxi pulls up outside some rusty wrought iron gates. Inside is one of Nepal’s philanthropic success stories: a tiny business that’s slowly changing the lives of local women.

It’s called Seven Women, and it began in 2006 as a grassroots project to help (literally) seven women who were suffering discrimination as a result of their disabilities. Nine years later, the project has expanded big time, with two centres in Kathmandu and four more in outlying villages. This is the largest, a three-storey building lost in the warren of Kathmandu’s slightly crumbling backstreets. In the 80s and 90s this was all green fields. Now it’s a maze of houses and apartments — tall, whitewashed structures, their paint peeling around the edges.

The gate opens up and our group wanders inside. The courtyard is boiling in the late October sun, but inside it’s quiet and cool. About 15 women in sarees sit behind black Singer machines, feeding fabric through flashing needles with their fingers. The sewing machines are all old, classic models, powered by a foot peddle, and they fill the room with a soft mechanical jingling, like the noise a slot machine makes when it pays out. One of the project managers, Padam, comes over and shakes our hand.

Seven Women is a small operation by international NGO standards, but its achievements are substantial. Since its inception it’s employed and trained over 900 local women, many of them disabled, and their handicrafts are sold online and overseas.There is a volunteer-run Seven Women Australia office that focuses on fundraising and creating sales channels for the products the women make. They run literacy and numeracy classes, a small cooking school, and promote fair trade goods that help everyone along the supply chain. Many of the school kids running through Thamel owe their uniforms to the trained women tailors at Seven Women.

The women who work here are usually single and over 45, members of poor rural communities in the lowlands around Kathmandu. They might be divorced, or suffer from some disability like glaucoma, blindness, or polio — the ones who fall through the cracks, the ones who may have lost their husbands, whose families won’t support them, who have no experience of the workforce. Here they can work, earn a wage and learn transferable skills. Padam says that most go back to their villages and start their own small businesses. It’s charity in its most sustainable form: an initial investment that repays itself a hundred fold.

Seven Women is part of a broader movement in Nepal, one in which women’s rights (and working conditions) are gradually improving. Traditionally women haven’t had many opportunities here. The society is pretty linear and entrenched: girls receive basic schooling and are then forced into arranged marriages within a particular caste or family group.

Or at least that used to be the norm. Today’s younger generation are starting to mix things up. There are now more women in industry and government than ever before. In fact, Padam says girls are leading the way in medicine, engineering, and law, with more women than men now going on to secondary education. It’s not a perfect system yet by any means, but the signs are good. Nepal is changing for the better.

“We used to grow maize and corn here in the 70s and 80s,” he says. “Now we grow houses. Now we grow people.”

We spend a bit of time wandering through the house. There’s a little library on the second floor where the women can learn literacy and borrow a few old paperbacks to take home. Learning how to read and write at the Seven Women Centre has enabled them to help their children with homework. There is an upstairs kitchen for cooking classes. A roof garden with some big black water tanks and a few veggies. I can see some white rabbits hopping between the planters.

Padam leads us back outside and around to the little shop attached to the house. There are cashmere pashminas, tiny felt finger puppets, silk scarves and shaggy woolen beanies.The quality is high, and you can feel the pride woven into the fabric. Any retailer back home would stock this stuff in a heartbeat. We all buy a few souvenirs and head back out into the sunshine. The women have gathered to see us off.

This is why I travel, to see stuff like this: a small project, doing some good, for no reward other than the satisfaction of making the world a slightly better place.We wave goodbye to the women and hop back into the taxi. I watch them as the car pulls away. The last thing I can see is their smiles, then they turnaround, walk into the nondescript house, and go back to work.

Urban Adventures partners with Seven Women to operate our In Focus tours in Kathmandu, with net proceeds going directly back to the organisation.

Seven Women will be screening its documentary, Bringing the Light, in Melbourne on May 26, 2016, and in Sydney on May 18 and 19, 2016. For more information, visit trybooking.com/KLFK. See a sneak peek of the film below.

A new home in Istanbul

By Jen Hartin

The future of Syria may be uncertain, but the future of Syrian students and families doesn't have to be.

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Shannon Kay is the Co-Director of Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) and the manager of the Olive Tree Centre in Istanbul. We talked to her about her involvement with SPI and the Olive Tree Centre.

Shannon Kay

Shannon Kay

How did you get involved in Small Projects Istanbul?

"In 2014 I travelled to Istanbul to complete a semester in International Studies. I stayed with SPI founder Karyn Thomas and started volunteering for the centre. I have a strong passion for human rights and social justice and SPI is an amazing opportunity for me to work in community development and education, putting my passion into action. SPI is run entirely by volunteers and I have re-located full time to Istanbul and and am completing the last semester of my degree by distance."

What's a typical day for you in the Centre and beyond?

"I plan, implement, and staff the Centre’s educational and vocational programmes, which operate seven days a week. I spend the mornings on administrative tasks, and the afternoon into early evening overseeing our daily programmes. Outside the Centre there is plenty of running around to do, lobbying a local business for assistance in employment or re-training opportunities, visiting a school to register a student to re-enter formal education, or negotiating the bazaar for craft supplies for our women's collective."

What keeps you going on those long days?

"The challenges are energising and I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work so closely with a community of individuals whom I find extremely inspiring in their attitudes and wisdom throughout the hardships of their daily realities – these people inspire me."

What drives you?

"Through my studies and work I have developed a deep belief and passion for the need for transformative change in our current world systems. I am attempting to enact these beliefs in my daily activities with SPI and in my life in general. This is not the kind of work that can be achieved in isolation and I have been fortunate enough to meet and work alongside countless others who share my vision."

What's next for the Olive Tree Centre and Small Projects Istanbul?

"We are growing so quickly we have outgrown our centre. Currently we are looking for an additional building so that we can expand our vocational education program. We are actively raising money for both the expansion of the space so we can serve more families in the neighbourhood, as well as broadening the programming.

We are trying to re-train the women who come to the Centre. They are educated and have held positions like accountants or teachers in Syria, but without the right to work in Turkey and with the language barrier, it is hard for them to gain employment. We have created craft projects as a means for them to earn some money and look after their families.

We are always trying to find new ways to work with the needs of the community, and respond creatively to a constantly changing situation, it's hard to predict exactly what the future will be for SPI. What I do know is that we will be here, with the community, working together for a brighter future."

What's next for Shannon?

"I love what I do and want to take this a far as I can. I am also currently completing my final year of an International Studies degree at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, with a focus on anthropology, political science and history, with a specific interest in the Middle East.
I believe that individuals can make adifference, and grass-roots efforts like SPI do change lives. I challenge you to commit to one small change in your life. Be brave, see the power of your actions, and inspire those around you."

Small Projects Istanbul is a grassroots NGO with a mission to provide access to formal and supplemental education for Syrian newcomers to Turkey. SPI's support helps pave the way for students and families from Syria to succeed in Turkey and beyond, helping to rebuild their lives and provide them with a chance at better opportunities and a positive future.

The Olive Tree Centre opened in July 2015, and has welcomed over 150 participants across all of its programs, which include weekly classes for children and a craft collective for women. The Centre is open seven days a week.

On Tuesday, March 8th, 2016, International Women's Day, Urban Adventures and Small Projects Istanbul will start their new tour collaboration as part of Urban Adventures' In Focus tour series.

The story of Hanh

By Michael Brosowski

This story originally appeared on the Blue Dragon blog.

Every morning, millions of people wake up far from home, in slavery. Children in factories and on farms. Youth forced to beg and steal, or sell on the streets. Girls and women in brothels.

“Hanh” (not her real name) was 17 years old when she was rescued by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation from a brothel in China. She had been tricked by a friendly classmate, who had helped arrange for her to be kidnapped from northern Vietnam and sold into a Chinese brothel, where she was raped day after day for six months. The brothel was located underground: from the street, customers walked down a flight of stairs into a windowless basement that housed a dozen or so rooms for Chinese and Vietnamese sex workers.

Hanh made friends with a Chinese sex worker who was free to come and go, and earned her trust to borrow a mobile phone. The sex worker, in her 20s, knew that she could be in terrible trouble for allowing Hanh to use her phone, but caved in to Hanh's pleas and gave her the phone for just two days.

Those two days were all we had to find and rescue Hanh.

We flew in to the nearest big city and then drove overland to the town where we believed Hanh was being held. Our only information was that the street frontage was red, and the brothel was below street level. That wasn't much to go on, but a rapid search through the main streets lead us to the right location in just one day.

Finding the brothel turned out to be the easy part. We had never engineered an escape from an underground site before, and security here was the highest we’d ever seen. Hanh revealed over the phone that there was another Vietnamese girl there, "Thi," who also had been kidnapped; she was just 16. Neither of the girls was ever allowed outside without a security guard.

Calling police wasn’t an option. Hanh had been rescued by police once already. They had raided the brothel and took her back to the Vietnamese border and released her — but her traffickers knew she was coming. Freedom was only an illusion. She was grabbed immediately, taken straight back to the brothel and forced right back to work.

We were going to have to do it ourselves.

Next door to the brothel was a hair salon. Hanh and her friend asked permission to get their hair done, which was a fairly normal thing to do. The security guard stood inside the doorway of the brothel while they stepped next door, as they had done many times before.

This time, though, we had a car parked across the street with the motor running. As the guard stood dumbly in the doorway, the girls dashed across the street and jumped into the escape car. We were racing down the street before the doors were even closed.

It was all over in about five seconds.

We drove straight back towards Vietnam, over 450 kilometres away. To be doubly sure of safety, we switched cars twice along the way. The girls hid in the backseat, half thrilled and half terrified.

Even a change of car wasn't enough. Long before we reached the border, a Chinese patrol pulled our car over — apparently at random, but the coincidence seemed too great. For a while, the whole rescue was in jeopardy. Thankfully, we have some friends in the Chinese police, and a few phone calls were enough to have us on our way again after 40 minutes.

Back at the China-Vietnam border, the police on both sides were helpful and supportive. They expedited the border crossing so that the girls could cross over the next morning. A lot of paperwork is involved in getting a victim of trafficking back across the border, so the Blue Dragon staff worked through the night to complete the procedures.

That night was the girls' first night of real freedom in months, but still they couldn't sleep. They longed to see their families, and until they were safely home, they feared that something could yet go wrong.

The next morning was not uneventful, but it was certainly a success. The "handover” took place between the Chinese and Vietnamese police, and Hanh and Thi were officially returned to Vietnam.

While the danger of anything happening to Hanh now is extremely low, she has to go on living with the knowledge that terrible events were started at the hands of a classmate. People who know her have abused and exploited her in the worst possible way. How can a 17-year-old girl cope with such betrayal at the hands of people she knew and trusted?

Blue Dragon is a charity dedicated to rescuing kids in crisis in Vietnam. Their work includes emergency care and services for street kids, education opportunities for children from rural communities, and rescue operations and advocacy for youth trafficked into the child labour and sex trade. As part of Blue Dragon's educational component, Urban Adventures works with the organisation to offer employment training for youth who are interested in working in the tourism industry.

Since 2005, Blue Dragon has rescued 492 victims of human trafficking, including 121 young women from forced marriages and brothels; the youngest girl was seven years old when she was trafficked. In addition to rescue efforts, Blue Dragon provides advocacy support to victims of trafficking in court and training to authorities on how to prevent trafficking.

Lighting up lives in India

Pollinate Energy is a social business dedicated to improving the lives of India's urban poor.

With a focus on sustainable solutions such as solar lights, Pollinate Energy helps families living in India's tent slums to reduce indoor pollution from kerosene and wood stoves, enjoy better quality light, and save money.

They work with local people with an entrepreneurial spirit and who are passionate about helping slum communities. "Pollinators" are given training so they can start their own business while also helping to improve the lives of fellow locals, often forming very close relationships with their communities.

Pollinate Energy currently operates in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Kolkata, with plans to expand to two additional cities later this year. Urban Adventures partners with Pollinate Energy to operate our In Focus tours in Kolkata, with net proceeds going directly back to the organisation.

Meet: Soma in Kolkata

"I'm 29 years old, and a single mother of an 11-year-old son. I was forced into marriage to a 33-year-old man when I was 16. I didn't want to get married. I wanted to study but my father forced me to marry.

My husband was very sick early in our marriage and his medical bills were so expensive that sometimes I couldn't even buy milk for my son. [My husband] died of a heart attack at age 40. That same year, my father also passed away so my mother came to live with me.

I always felt like I deserved better. If my father would have allowed me to study I would have been better able to support my son. Since then, I decided I would do everything I can, so he could do everything I couldn't.

I used to make paper packets for a livingonly 500 rupees (approximately US $7) per month. My brother-in-law had to help me out for my son's studies, and other family members would sometimes provide us food. But it wasn’t enough.

I got a loan from Ujivan, a microfinance institution. When I asked the manager at Ujivan if he had a job for me, he introduced me to Pollinate Energy. With their support, I started my own business selling solar lights. I'm able to manage my money, and even save a little bit some months.

I am very proud of my son. He's a very good student and wants to be a doctor and help poor people get affordable treatment. He's even helping me sell lights! He talked to his teacher about my work and they want to buy a light for the school."

In search of safe cities

Photos by Stephanie Simcox

ActionAid Australia is a global justice organisation working to empower women to fight injustice and claim their human rights.

In 2015, ActionAid launched its Safe Cities for Women campaign, calling for cities in which women can move about freely and access essential public services like transport, education, and healthcare. Cities should be and can be places of opportunity for women and girls but people in power around the world continue to turn a blind eye on day-to-day crimes and injustices against women.

The world’s cities are growing at an alarming rate. 2011 marked the first time in our history where more people lived in cities than rural areas. Rapid urbanisation means that cities that were already unsafe for women are becoming more precarious and are exacerbating women’s vulnerability — but governments are neither acting on the causes of migration nor accommodating its impact on cities.

Women everywhere, however, are coming together and rising up to claim their rights.They are speaking out against the experience of rape, assault, and sexual harassment with which women live and fear. They are calling on their governments to uphold their responsibilities in ensuring the safety of women and girls by providing adequate public services — transport, public lighting, infrastructure, and healthcare — that supports their rights. Public services are the key to safe cities for women.

Woman and child. Narayanganj, Bangladesh. 
Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

Woman and child. Narayanganj, Bangladesh.

Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

It is the journey to and from a workplace or college that poses the highest risk of harassment. Most women avoid travelling alone on buses walking home in large groups is preferred. The dwellings are gated and padlocked at night 'to protect our women.'

Women and cargo. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 
Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

Women and cargo. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

Women wait on a train at Dhaka train station an hour prior to departure in order to secure a seat for themselves and their children. They are sitting in a carriage marked women and cargo. This carriage is reserved for women only, but this rule is rarely adhered to as the trains are so overcrowded.

New Market. Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

New Market. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

Samantha is a local university student and visits the markets like most women whenever she needs new sarees, clothes, food, or textbooks for her studies. She lamented how common it is for women to be harassed in public, and worse, and that the attitude held by many is that it is normal and expected.

“You are always in a crowd [at the market] and there are too many people to blame if anyone touches you. If you are touched or verbally harassed it’s always the woman’s fault —this is what we are taught from an early age.”

Woman at Night. Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

Woman at Night. Gazipur, Bangladesh.

Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

“The journeys [home] are the worst. In this area the trees and alleyways make it easier — more opportunity for misconduct. There are a lot more women working too, so they are easier targets, especially coming home at night. Everyone knows the patterns of the female workers.” - Mathuba, 26 (not pictured).

Sex worker. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

Sex worker. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Photo by Stephanie Simcox. 2014.

“I was robbed by gangsters on my way home after seeing a client at a guest house.”

Meet: Sok Leang in Phnom Penh

“Sometimes the gangsters pay me for sex, then beat me and take back the money.”

Sok Leang is a 37-year-old mother of three who works Phnom Penh’s streets at night as a sex worker to support her 18-month-old daughter. Sex work in Cambodia is a black market industry and very unsafe. Most women, like Sok Leang, are forced into the sex trade out of economic necessity.

Sok Leang struggles to find basic sexual health services.

She does not know if her daughter has HIV or not.

The stories for tomorrow

For the women of the world, there's no one story to be told.

This year's theme for International Women's Day is #PledgeforParity, as the World Economic Forum has predicted that the global gender pay gap won’t close until 2133 — that’s right, it’ll be another 117 years before the average woman makes an equal wage to the average man. But the issue of gender disparity goes beyond wages. Around the globe, women are still struggling to have equal opportunities for education, to hold equal influence in politics, and to feel equally safe when they walk home alone at night.

But the stories above are the key to changing that. Stories have the power to spark new conversations and inspire great ideas, which will in turn help other women to make their own stories, told on their own terms.

In compiling this collection of tales, we saw that around the globe, women's stories may all be different, but the messages are all the same: We want to be strong. We want to be safe. We want to be heard.

If the stories above have inspired you, and you'd like to learn more about the realities of women around the globe, we'd love to keep this conversation going. You can meet some of the women profiled above and experience their worlds for yourself through our In Focus series of tours, which are run in partnership with local NGOs, social enterprises, and non-profits.