Zainab Salbi knows what it means to be a woman in a war zone. As a child growing up in Iraq in the ‘80s during the Iran-Iraq War, Salbi witnessed firsthand the resilience of the women around her.
“Women fought back. Not with weapons, they fought back by keeping the essence of life going,” the 53-year-old humanitarian tells TIME, recalling how her mother would often perform puppet shows to keep her children distracted during raids. Per Salbi, news coverage at the time focused too much on the military aspects of the conflict and rarely reflected the human lives that were carrying on alongside it. “The news was not showing what I was experiencing and it was predominantly women who were running the show,” says Salbi.
Salbi left Iraq when she was 20 and moved to the U.S. When the Bosnian War broke out in 1992, Salbi knew she wanted to support survivors of gendered violence in the region. She co-founded Women for Women International the following year. Since then, the charity has invested in over half a million women in conflict zones across the globe as they rebuild their lives and communities. The initiative provides “sister-to-sister” connections between women, as well as economic support. “I believe in the power of cash and the freedom [of recipients] to do whatever the heck they choose to do with it,” Salbi says. “Her choice. Her dignity. Her freedom.”
From the organization’s inception, Salbi made a promise to herself about the type of leader she wanted to be. Then 23, Salbi vowed that after two decades, she would pass the reins to someone else. “I didn’t want to be one of those founders who doesn’t know when to let go,” Salbi says. “I measure myself by consistency in my values. What's the point in criticizing dictators for not letting go of their power if, in my small world, I do not exercise that same letting go.”
Salbi delivered on her promise 10 years ago, when she departed the organization she calls her only child, though gender equality remains a central theme in her work. Above all else, Salbi believes that inspiring women is the “secret sauce” to affect meaningful change, when paired with education and economic empowerment. In 2015, Salbi started what she describes as an “Oprah-esque” talk show called The Nida'A Show, which ran until 2016 on the TLC network in 22 countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Episodes of the show platformed an Egyptian mother fighting against female genital mutilation, Yazidi survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by the Islamic State, and member of the transgender community hailing from a religious family. “That was the hardest thing I've done,” says Salbi, noting that the show’s focus on taboo subjects invited both recognition and criticism from within the region. “I realized it's easier to work in a foreign land than it is in your own home territory.”
Most recently, Salbi has turned her hand to uplifting the female leaders working to address another critical issue—climate change. She co-founded Daughters for Earth in 2022, inspired, in part, by a near death experience in 2019 that led her to recuperate in the countryside. “I felt like Earth kept me alive,” she recalls. The organization created an advisory council of women experts—from Uganda, Egypt, Ecuador, Indonesia, and beyond—and entrusted them to distribute $1 million between women-led grassroots initiatives focused on regenerative and renewable innovations.
For Salbi, centering women's voices in climate discussions doesn't only further her goal of a more egalitarian world—it also just makes sense. Women, she says, are already at the forefront of finding nature-based solutions, noting that they form 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries (and exceed that metric in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.) According to Salbi, many women in agriculture are already engaged in environmental work, such as sustainable farming or river conservation, without realizing it. Salbi’s attention will be focused on these women for the next chapter of her career: “This is my third act, and I hope it will be my biggest.”
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