Inspirational women

Nicholas Mensah

This year the Commonwealth celebrates ‘Women as Agents of Change’. Member states’ women are working to transform society through their tireless efforts in sectors as diverse as education, health, business, human rights, youth empowerment, peacebuilding and politics. Below we profile three outstanding individuals who epitomise the way in which Commonwealth women take up challenges that many would consider to be impossible. They have made a positive difference to the lives of others and their dedication and accomplishments should be an inspiration to women everywhere. 


Nana Apaade Abam I –  Queen Mother of Gomoa Brofoyedur, Ghana 

Queen Mother Nana Apaade Abam I has helped to bring socio-economic change to many communities throughout Ghana. She was the first woman to be appointed to the Effutu-Awutu-Gomoa Council, serving on this body from 1979 to 1988. Through her dedication and hard work, women and youth have been provided with employability skills training, as well as education on health and environmental issues, and disaster prevention. She has helped women’s groups gain access to economic facilities, and set up workshops and training on widowhood rites, reproductive health issues, and HIV and AIDS. In 2001, she formed organisations in six communities working to enhance local responses to the disease and to improve women’s access to antiretroviral medications. 

Though poverty has denied many children the right to education, the queen mother’s work has given hope to many orphans and vulnerable children. “There is a saying that if you educate a woman you educate a whole nation but if you educate the boy you educate a single person,” says Nana Apaade Abam. “I was a teacher at a secondary school [where] the girls’ intake was very few. So, I decided to ask the parents to send their girl children to school. I was able to increase the intake from 30 percent to 60 percent, and right now, if you go to the school, the girls’ intake is far more than the boys’.” 

Nana Apaade Abam is currently taking care of over 500 children across the country. She has organised education and career guidance programmes for street children and provides basic school amenities every academic year to schools across the country. She is a remarkable woman whose dedicated work to improving the lives of women and children in Ghana have been recognised by the Commonwealth. 


Visaka Dharmadasa – Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation, Sri Lanka 

The civil war in Sri Lanka, which began in July 1983 and ended in May 2009, caused devastation and hardship for the population, damaging the environment and the economy of the country. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 people were killed during the conflict. 

Visaka Dharmadasa took part in the peacemaking efforts in Sri Lanka and was closely involved in speeding up the negotiation process. She designed and facilitated Track II dialogue processes, bringing together influential civil society leaders to help find ways to end the conflict gripping the country. She also educated soldiers, youth and community leaders about international standards of conduct in war, and promoted the economic and social development of women across conflict lines. 

In 2004, Dharmadasa filed a lawsuit against the government of Sri Lanka to force DNA testing on soldiers’ remains, enabling families to confirm the death of a loved one in combat; a particularly personal success since she herself had a son missing in action. 

For this and other work, Dharmadasa was appointed to the National Commission Against the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms. She is also a member of the South Asia Small Arms Network, working against the misuse of light weapons. Dharmadasa is determined to be a new kind of female leader with support from a robust women’s movement that she has created. She is a brave woman who has contributed significantly to change in her society. 


Dame Billie Miller – Former Deputy Prime Minister, Barbados 

The first woman to sit on the Cabinet of Barbados, Dame Billie Miller is the Former Deputy Prime Minister, Senior Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados. She was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1968 and one year later to the Bar of Barbados. For several years, she was the only woman practising at the private Bar and was involved mainly in a civil court and chamber practice, specialising in family law. 

In 1997, Dame Billie became the first woman chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and her dedication and contribution to the sector has positively affected both her home country of Barbados and the entire Caribbean region. In June 2006, the CTO presented her with its Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Internationally, in 2002 she was appointed Co-ordinator of CARICOM Ministerial Spokespersons, for which she was responsible for external negotiations with international trade organisations. At the national level, she is a member of the Barbados Family Planning Association, the Barbados National Trust, and the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. 

During its 50th anniversary celebrations, the International Planned Parenthood Federation/ Western Hemisphere Region also honoured Dame Billie for her significant role in the field of sexual and reproductive health. In 2008, she was selected as the Laureate for the United Nations Population Award, in recognition of her outstanding success in raising awareness on population issues. The Commonwealth has also recognised and honoured her extraordinary achievements.

About the author:

Nicholas Mensah is an Intern at the Social Transformation Programmes Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat


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