This year's theme for International Women's Day, "Inspiring Change," prompted me to rethink what truly inspires me about the young change makers I've met over the years. Initially I think of the social activists I so admire: the young Egyptian leader raising her fist at a pro-democracy rally surrounded by armed police; the 22-year-old Afghan woman whose outrage at the Taliban for shutting down schools for girls led her to open her own; the American college student who upon learning that blindness was often due to poor health care founded what became a global NGO dedicated to saving people's sight.

Yet more and more I find myself awed by the difficult personal journeys that so many young women undertake to forge a new direction in their own lives, often against terrible odds. Are not their struggles to lift themselves up inspiring stories of change as well?

For more than a decade, I've had the privilege of interviewing young people across the globe—many of them young women—about their lives, the barriers that keep them from realizing their potential, and what they've done to take ownership of their futures. I've seen how hard many have had to fight simply to take the next step forward.

In the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, I met a young woman who, deeply discouraged by a string of dead end jobs, had recently gained the skills and confidence to start her own business. With US$4 borrowed from friends, she began selling bottles of perfume on the street and later used her meager profits to open up a popcorn stand. Early on, a gang of kids stole some of her merchandise, and in her poor neighborhood, the electricity needed to run her pop-corn machine was often turned off. But she hung in there; today, through her growing success as an entrepreneur, she is helping to send her younger sister to school and has created a few desperately needed jobs in the community.

I recently visited a young woman in St. Lucia who was in jail for committing a violent crime. Instead of simply giving up, she enrolled in a vocational training course to help her find a job after leaving prison. She plans to draw on her own experience to help troubled youth in her community turn their lives around before it's too late.

In Medellín, Colombia, I spent the day with a young mother who lived in a drug- and crime-ridden neighborhood above the city. She had become pregnant as a teenager, dropped out of school, and despaired of being able to support her family. When she signed up for a job training course her friends and family didn't support her. "They said, 'This won't lead anywhere, so why are you making such an effort?' " she recalled. While physically and emotionally exhausted, she completed her training. As a result, she has a good job, a new home for her and her daughter -- and real hope in the future.

I am deeply moved by the daily struggles of young women everywhere who seek to rebuild their lives. On this International Women's Day, let's honor their courage and resilience to become responsible citizens, support their families, and contribute to their communities no matter what hardships life throws their way.