Women Like Us

By Isang Awah

As the International Women’s Day approached, I thought of the year’s theme, and of the many women I know whose lives in some way epitomize the words ‘boldness’ and ‘change’. I can’t possibly write about all the women here, but I have chosen to write about three amazing women who inspire me in different ways. I like to think of these women as ordinary women (in the sense that they are not celebrities) who are doing extraordinary things with their lives. It takes courage to try our hands at something new, or make any kind of change. And when things do not go as planned, the easy thing to do is give up on our dreams and settle for our present reality. However, these women remind me that regardless of what curveballs life may throw at us, with the help of God, we can bounce back, reach for our dreams, and make a positive difference in the world. Today, I will write very briefly about each of these women, but I hope that someday, I will write more about them 🙂 . As you read their stories, I hope you are inspired to step out of your comfort zone, boldly reach out for your dreams, and whilst at it, strive to make a difference in the lives of others. Whatever you do, don’t settle for less than you are capable of! #BeBoldForChange #MakeADifference #HeroinesLookLikeUs

P/s Thank you, Gill, Aliya, and Emem, for being who you are, and for giving me permission to share a little bit of your stories here. You must know how much you all inspire me!

Gill Althia Francis
17190504_10212414404375559_6480535368812935764_nWhen I think of Gill, words such as ‘focus’, ‘persistence’, ‘goal directed’ come to mind. Gill finished secondary school in 1999 in her native country, St. Lucia, but could not immediately continue with her dream of pursuing a higher education. She got pregnant just as she was finishing final secondary school examinations. She chose to get married and start a family at age 18, and in 2000, her daughter was born.

A year went by, then two, five, and eventually, it was ten years since she left secondary school. In those ten years, Gill became a primary school teacher (she thought this was a good family oriented job ), and was trained to become a qualified teacher. Unfortunately, things did not go so smoothly at the home front. A victim of domestic violence, Gill became separated, and subsequently divorced, from her husband. In spite of all the changes in her world and the responsibility of raising a young daughter, Gill never lost sight of the dream of a higher education. More than ever, she was determined to go back to school.

Gill and her daughter

In 2009, Gill began undergraduate studies in her country. After a few years, she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Educational Assessment, but her quest for knowledge was far from over. She dreamt of pursuing a course of study abroad, so she applied for her country’s nominated Commonwealth Shared Scholarship to pursue a Masters’ degree at the University of Cambridge. Sadly, she was not nominated by her country. Not one to easily give up, Gill petitioned the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and was invited to apply for the Cambridge Commonwealth Shared Scholarship which she won. She was awarded a scholarship to pursue a Masters’ degree at the University of Cambridge in 2014.
On the completion of her Masters’ program in 2015, she applied for, and was awarded another scholarship to pursue a PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge. Gill is on track to get her PhD, and her research will make significant contribution to knowledge about the role of pretend play in child development.

Gill is determined to be a role model to her daughter, and to inspire her and other young girls that “the sky has no limits, and no matter what life throws at you, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep moving forward!”

P/S: I hope you take a cue from Gill and take a bold step towards whatever dream you have or once had. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” Goethe


Aliya Khalid 


Aliya comes from Pakistan, a beautiful country that is, regrettably, badly affected by terrorism. Growing up in Peshawar city in Pakistan, she saw “schools turn to rubble and large families reduced to just a few.” In a region where the ‘right to education’ for women remains largely unaddressed, girls’ education has naturally, been hard hit by the militancy. Of the half of the country’s child population that is out of school, almost two-thirds are comprised of girls. Fortunately, Aliya, who is from an enlightened family, was able to work her way up the education ladder to The Institute of Management Sciences where she graduated with a Master’s degree in Public Administration, and this she did, with top honors and a gold medal. However, she aspired to do more than create a better life for herself; she desired to help in improving the lives of others, especially women in Pakistan. 

Aliya and her kids

Her passion to help others led her to volunteer in the social and development sectors, and to work with women bound in court cases, female convicts in jails, conflict victims, and internally displaced persons, etc. Aliya has also been involved in youth leadership development, managing an education system, and being part of the Institute for Policy Reforms, a Pakistani think tank. I must add that she did all of these while facing personal challenges in her own life.
Presently, Aliya is a Gates Cambridge scholar who is pursuing a PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge. Her research seeks to investigate what influence mothers have on the decision to educate girls in Pakistan, and aims to illuminate factors that possibly affect this influence.

We live in a gendered world; this is the truth regardless of what our personal experiences or reality may be. Aliya reminds us that it is not enough for us to have certain rights at the individual level; we must work towards ensuring that others have the same rights and opportunities, too. We may not be able to change the world, but in our little corner, and in our own way, we can make contributions towards creating a better and safe world for ALL girls, and indeed, all children, everywhere.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

Emem Ini Umoh


Every time I speak with Emem, I observe an unmistakable cheerful note in her voice. Now, I do not know if it had always been there and only came to my notice at some point for the simple reason that I did not expect it to be there after certain experiences, or it is something she acquired in recent times. But whichever, I am glad it is there 🙂 !

In 2014, Emem’s husband of fourteen years died after a very brief illness. She was left with the responsibility of single-handedly raising the couple’s five young daughters. Now, that is a daunting task for anyone, but it is even more challenging for someone who teaches in a government-run secondary school in Nigeria where the demands are onerous and the pay is minimal. Rather than bemoan her fate or give up on life, Emem drew strength from her faith and chose to make the best of her circumstances. Although she’s a 1997 graduate of the University of Uyo in Nigeria, in 2015, Emem got training on how to make beaded jewelries. When her day job (teaching) is done and she still has moments to spare, she makes beaded jewelries which she sells to get extra income for her family. As admirable as this is, it is not what I find most remarkable about Emem.

Emem and her kids

For many years, Emem had observed that many of the girls in the school where she teaches needed mentoring. As is often the case with teenagers everywhere, these girls were going through stuff they would not discuss with their parents or guardians. Some of the girls had suffered abuse, and felt helpless to do anything about it. Emem listened to these girls and counselled them, but she wanted to do more than that. In 2016, in fulfillment of a dream she had nursed for several years, Emem started a Girls Club in the school. Through the club, she created a platform to mentor the girls in her school. In the Girls Club, she talks to the young girls about values, choosing friends wisely, dealing with peer pressure, relationships, etc. “I want them to be able to make informed choices,” she says.Emem hopes to impart the right values to the girls she mentors, so that they grow to become confident and capable individuals who in turn pass on excellent values to their own children. According to Emem, “…the problem of society really begins with the family unit, and tackling the problem from the root will provide the most sustainable solutions.”

Remember that “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.” -Nelson Mandela


2 thoughts on “Women Like Us

  1. I love this Women Like Us series. It’s very inspiring especially through the kind and compassionate way you knit your words. It doesn’t come off as overwhelming and patronizing as I find a lot of ‘inspiring’ stories to be.

    It’s simple, yet, powerful. Thank you!

    Thanks to Enem, Gill and Peshawar who’ve let you tell their stories to us.

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