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These 13 Women Inspired Us in 2016

9 minute read

Tuesday marks International Day of the Girl, a U.N. initiative celebrating the power of girls and campaigning for greater gender equality worldwide.

The event includes a special #GirlsTakeover, where girls all over the world—from Canada and Ecuador to Uganda and Sri Lanka—will be taking over key leadership positions in political offices, police headquarters, TV stations and businesses to raise their voice for justice and equality, and to highlight the barriers to these roles that girls face worldwide.

To celebrate the International Day of the Girl, here are some of the female leaders who have inspired us this year:

Fu Yuanhui
The Olympic swimmer earned the respect of women worldwide after she mentioned in an interview that her period impacted her performance in the women’s 4×100-meter medley relay. “I feel I didn’t swim well today. I let my teammates down,” she said, in Mandarin. “Because my period came yesterday, I’m feeling a bit weak, but this is not an excuse.”

With this seemingly simple statement, Fu helped break the stigma of speaking about how periods affect women in sport. The video went viral overnight on the Chinese social media site Weibo, with many shocked by her revelation as traditional Chinese beliefs hold that woman should avoid contact with water when they are menstruating. Fu’s loveable personality also made her one of the stars of the games and generated a host of memes guaranteed to make you smile.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Nigerian author of Orange Prize-winning Half of a Yellow Sun did what seems unthinkable in today’s social media world. She had a baby earlier this year, and managed to keep her entire pregnancy a secret from the media.

Chimamanda—whose TEDx Talk on feminism was sampled by Beyoncé—slipped the news into an interview with the U.K.’s Financial Times in June, where she criticized living “in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy”. Even when asked her new baby’s name, she simply said “No, I won’t say.” Good on her.

Simone Biles
No list of inspiring women would be complete without a mention of Simone Biles. The 4ft. 9inch. American gymnast won five medals in Rio (four of them gold), demonstrating unparalleled talent. However, what truly made her stand out was her inspiring response to being compared with fellow Olympic superstars. “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” she said. “I’m the first Simone Biles.”

Biles also made history when she became the first gymnast to be the flag bearer for Team U.S.A. at an Olympics closing ceremony, and garnered praise from none other than Serena Williams. The gymnast was also one of the athletes whose medical records were leaked in the hacking of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Biles tweeted an inspirational message following the leak disclosing what her medication was used for and that it was nothing to be ashamed of.

Amber Heard
Back in August, actor Amber Heard announced that she will divide the entire $7 million she received in her divorce settlement with actor Johnny Depp between two different organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union, to aid the group’s efforts to stop violence against women, and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, where she worked as a volunteer for the past decade.

“I know these organizations will put the funds to good use and look forward to continuing to support them in the future,” she said, in a statement. “Hopefully, this experience results in a positive change in the lives of people who need it the most.”

Michelle Carter
After becoming the first American woman to win gold in the shot put at this year’s Olympics, make-up artist Michelle Carter had an inspirational message for women concerned about their appearance.

“One of my sayings is: look good, feel good, do good,” she told Reuters. “If you are feeling good, you look good, you are confident about yourself, you are going to go out there and you will rock it.” The 30-year-old has often spoken out against body shaming and called for larger women to embrace their appearance, or as she puts it, “just have fun”.

Daisy Ridley
The Star Wars: The Force Awakens star took to Instagram to speak openly about her struggles with endometriosis and PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) last July. She explained, in a lengthy post, about how the condition has affected her self-esteem.

In the past, the 24-year-old actor shut down an Instagram commenter who told her she “set unrealistic expectations.” To this Ridley replied “‘Real women’ are all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities, all levels of brave. I am a ‘real woman’ like every other woman in this world.”

Yusra Mardini
Another Olympic hero, 18-year-old Yusra Mardini is a Syrian refugee who now lives in Germany. She amazed the world with tales of her bravery; when the boat she was travelling in to flee Syria began to sink, the butterfly and freestyle swimmer pushed it for three hours, along with three others, until it reached the safety of Lesbos.

Mardini competed as part of the Refugee Olympic Team—the first year the Games featured a group made up of stateless refugees.

Jillian Mercado
Earlier this year, the blogger and disabled model with muscular dystrophy, was cast by none other than Beyoncé to model her new fashion collection. She was photographed wearing slogan sweatshirts, t-shirts and hats that featured lyrics from Beyonce’s hit singles 7/11 and Formation.

Speaking about her breakout Diesel campaign in 2014, Mercado said her aim is to give “hope to people who are maybe saying ‘My life is over,’ because they are disabled,” adding “You can totally do it, nothing should be stopping you.”

Nadia Murad
In September, Nadia Murad, who survived captivity by ISIS in Iraq to become an activist for her Yazidi people, was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N., the first time ever that a survivor of such atrocities has been appointed by the organization.

Murad, a 23-year-old member of the ethnic Kurdish minority Yazidi group, briefed the U.N. Security Council last year in the first-ever session on human trafficking. She was subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of ISIS fighters and was bought and sold various times. An advocate for victims of ISIS in Iraq, Murad was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016. Murad has also met with various heads of state and global leaders to raise the plight of Yazidi victims of trafficking.

Geraldine Roman
In a nation with a history of hostility to the LGBT community, Geraldine Roman’s success as the first transgender congresswoman to be elected in the Philippines is truly inspiring. Roman ran for the House seat that was previously occupied by her mother and won with 62% of the vote in May this year.

Since being elected, she has lobbied persistently for an anti-discrimination bill and campaigned for greater LGBT rights, saying “Recognizing our rights and dignity will in no way diminish yours. We are not asking for special privileges or extra rights. We simply ask for equality. With inclusiveness and diversity, our nation has so much to gain.”

Beyoncé and Solange Knowles
2016 has been a busy year for the Knowles sisters. Queen Bey released her second visual album Lemonade in April to massive critical and commercial acclaim. Seen as a political statement as much as an extended music video, the album had everyone hooked with its sampling of Malcolm X and the appearance of the mothers of men murdered by police brutality. Not only did she have everyone wondering who ‘Becky’ was, but Beyoncé also sold out a 40-date worldwide tour and dropped a new clothing line, Ivy Park, this year.

Not to be outdone, younger sister Solange released her new album, A Seat at the Table, in October and scored her first number 1 on the Billboard chart. With beautiful aesthetics (who can forget that fluffy pink sweater?), the album, just like Lemonade, has an inherently political message. Solange has also spoken out about her personal experiences with racism, showing that the Knowles sisters are using their powerful platforms for advocacy as well as their art.

Hillary Clinton
She has been called “the devil” and threatened with jail by her opponent Donald Trump, but Hillary Clinton has remained steadfast and steely-eyed in a presidential race that would have unsettled many. In an historic election race where gender issues have played a huge part, Clinton took the comments that Trump has made in the past about women and turned them on their head for her own campaign video, indicating her different approach to women’s issues compared to her opponent.

Clinton has already made history in becoming the first female nominee for a major party in the presidential race, and could go one step further come Nov. 8. Earlier this year, she said “I do think it will make a very big difference for a father or a mother to be able to look at their daughter, just like they can look at their son and say, ‘You can be anything you want to be in this country, including President of the United States.’”

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Write to Kate Samuelson at kate.samuelson@time.com