What does it mean to be a humanitarian? In simple terms, a humanitarian is someone who actively promotes human welfare and social reform; a person who tries to save lives and alleviate human suffering for causes they are passionate about. Throughout history, our world has seen great deals of suffering, but we have also seen great amounts of strength and bravery. Our world is far from being perfect. Issues of racial injustices, infectious diseases, food insecurities, refugee and economic crisis and numerous civil wars overseas continue to inflict pain among so many of us. Humanitarians from all around the globe work together to foster hope, peace and equality for a more unified, stronger future.
Here are five inspirational humanitarians who dedicated their lives to forever changing our world for the better:
- Princess Diana
By the year 1981, Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne. The media became instantly fascinated with Princess Diana and she was swept up into a whirlwind of star celebrity status, with paparazzi following her every move. She became a member of the royal family, future Queen of England and the most famous woman on earth overnight. With the whole world’s attention and adoration at her feet, Princess Diana strategically used the media to shine light upon the humanitarian causes she deeply cared about.
HIV/AIDS is one of the many humanitarian causes Princess Diana advocated for throughout the ’80s and ’90s. The illness was a severely growing health crisis, with a homophobic stigma, as it was disproportionately affecting gay men. The many myths and misinformation about the transmission of the illness caused immense fear. At the time, most people truly believed they would contract HIV/AIDS by simply touching someone with the illness.
Princess Diana defied traditional royal standards and did not wear gloves at her public engagement with HIV/AIDS patients. Instead, Princess Diana reached out her glove-free hand, and confidently shook hands with an HIV/AIDS patient. This simple gesture completely shook the world’s perception of the disease.
The newspapers were flooded with images of Princess Diana making skin-to-skin contact with a patient suffering from HIV/AIDS. The handshake completely changed the false narrative surrounding the illness with one photograph. People began to think “If the Princess of Wales isn’t afraid to make physical contact with HIV/AIDS patients, then I shouldn’t be afraid either.” Princess Diana debunked the myths and misinformation about the transmission of the illness with one simple, yet powerful gesture.
Throughout her lifetime, Princess Diana dedicated herself to many other humanitarian causes such as banning landmines, eating disorder awareness and helping with homelessness. She will forever be remembered as the people’s Princess and for touching the lives of everyone she met.
- Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela became heavily involved with political activism in his early twenties. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) and developed the ANC Youth League to support youth activism and to end racism in South Africa. A few years after the development of the ANC Youth League, apartheid began, which dissolved black South Africans from their rights and started racial segregation. As a black political activist and protestor, Mandela was arrested for treason numerous times and ultimately was sentenced to life imprisonment.
After spending 27 years in prison, Mandela was released on February 11th, 1990. He dedicated his life to traveling the world and advocating for racial equality, and encouraging political leaders from across the world to support sanctions against the apartheid government. By 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa. It was the first year in South American history in which people of all races were allowed the opportunity to vote.
Mandala championed and advocated for social and human rights organizations like ONE Campaign and SOS Children’s Villages. He started his own organization Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund which sought to improve the well-being of youths. He additionally founded the Nelson Mandela Foundation which sought to create strategic networks to achieve true social justice. His political activism and fight for racial equality will never be forgotten.
- Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr., an activist, and humanitarian, is respectively known for his role in leading the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He was the powerful voice and key spokesperson behind peaceful protests and boycotts in an effort to achieve civil rights and equality for all. He followed in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, demanding change and justice through nonviolence.
He assembled and actively participated in marches advocating for black voting rights, desegregation, and many other civil rights. King organized and led one of the most famous marches in American history in 1963, known as the March on Washington. It was at this march, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the very steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The same President whose legacy was abolishing slavery. Without an ounce of fear, King made direct calls to action, never letting anyone silence his voice.
- Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa had a uniquely powerful soul and knew from a very young age that she had a calling to help those in need. In 1948, Mother Teresa was granted permission from Pope Pius XII to go serve the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. Of all the ironies of Mother Teresa’s life story, the greatest is this: She was as poor as the people she was trying to help.
The fear of not having a secure home, food or money did not stop Mother Teresa from fulfilling her soul’s destiny and duty in life. She would beg on the streets for food and supplies, not for herself, but to give to others in desperate need. During this time, she saw the need to educate the youth and taught English to underprivileged children. With no paper or pencils to write with, Teresa taught lessons by carving into the dirt on the ground. Children would gather around in a circle and learn about the lessons of life.
In 1950, Mother Teresa officially founded the Missionaries of Charity with only twelve members. The members dedicated their lives to helping the dying, the sick, the orphans, the disabled, and AIDS victims by establishing secure homes for these individuals. Mother Teresa spread love and kindness everywhere she went. She will never be forgotten.
To this very day, the Missionaries of Charity has thousands of members from all around the world.
- Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi, also known as “the father of India”, took nonviolent approaches to political change and sought to help India gain independence from British colonial rule. The British colony of Natal stripped Indians from their right to vote, leading Gandhi to organize Indian resistance and protests against the colonial ruled government, along with fighting legislation in court.
He campaigned against a British law that forced all Indians to purchase British salt instead of producing it on their own soil. In light of this, Gandhi encouraged the boycotts of British goods and led a 241-mile-long protest march along the Arabian sea and harvested salt. The British imprisoned over 60,000 peaceful protesters for this act.
Arrested numerous times, Gandhi did not stop fighting for independence from Britain. It was only soon after he was released from jail when Britain decided to slowly withdraw from India. The country finally gained its independence in 1947, but Gandhi did not get to live in the world he fought so hard to have. A Hindu extremist assassinated him in 1948. Gandhi will forever be a long-lasting legacy in Indian history for his acts of civil disobedience.