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There is clearly no shortage of inspirational women in Britain today. Since we began our search for the country’s most dogged campaigners and selfless community leaders, we have been inundated with nominations.

Now, entry to the Inspirational Women Awards, held in partnership with M&S, has closed and our judges must make the difficult decision of whittling down hundreds of entries to just five winners.

The victors will attend a WOW Foundation event at Buckingham Palace, before receiving their trophies and a £500 M&S voucher each at a gala dinner in London.

We will announce the panel’s verdict in April, but until then, TESSA CUNNINGHAM speaks to just a few of the incredible women who you have nominated…

Veterans’ champion: Claire Lilly

When Claire Lilly’s ex-husband, Alan, went missing, she immediately worried for his safety. A former lance corporal in the Coldstream Guards, he suffered from complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was given to bouts of severe depression. But Claire couldn’t convince the police of just how vulnerable he was.

Tragically, three days after he was last seen in May 2020, police found the 40-year-old’s body in woodland near his home in Stockton-on-Tees. He had hanged himself.

‘I spoke to 11 different police officers over a three-day period,’ says Claire, 47, a holistic therapist who lives in Essex with the couple’s 22-year-old son, Josh. ‘I explained that Alan had tried to take his own life in the past. But nobody grasped the severity of the situation.’

Alan suffered PTSD from the horrors he witnessed while serving in Northern Ireland and Kosovo.

‘He suffered from night terrors,’ says Claire. ‘We were too young and naive to know how to cope. And when he started self-medicating with drink and drugs, I felt we had to separate for our son’s sake. But I still cared for him deeply.’

Discovering that one veteran a week takes his own life in Britain, Claire decided she had to act.

With the backing of Minister of State for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer, Claire persuaded Greater Manchester Police to implement the Forcer Protocol. The strategy aims to locate missing veterans at risk of self-harm and ensure they receive the help they need.

Introduced as a pilot scheme in November 2023, it has already successfully traced 49 veterans, and is set to be rolled out through other police forces.

Claire says: ‘There’s a saying among the Forces, “When the guns go silent, the battle begins.” For our veterans’ sake, we have to do all we can to help them.’

Vital help for black girls: Ebinehita Iyere

Ebinehita Iyere (pictured) founded Milk Honey Bees, a youth organisation offering a safe space for black girls aged from 11 to 22 through mentoring sessions and creative group projects

Listening to the young girl pour her heart out, Ebinehita Iyere realised she had to do something to help. The girl’s 16-year-old friend had been murdered, but no one seemed to understand how badly she was affected.

‘All the boys in the community were getting support, but she wasn’t,’ says Ebinehita, now 31, who was then fresh out of university and only three months into her first job as a youth worker in Brixton, South London. 

‘I listened and then suggested we meet the following week at a fast food restaurant. This time she turned up with friends and the group kept growing week by week. I ended up with 30 girls.

‘We talked about their feelings, what was going on in school, at home and in their relationships. I realised that black girls were being failed because no one was listening to them.

‘I understood their challenges. After leaving home at 15, I was placed in a hostel for over 18s. It was tough, but I got to university. Now I’m determined to use the pain I’ve been through to help my community.’

Milk Honey Bees, founded by Ebinehita in 2017, is a youth organisation offering a safe space for black girls aged from 11 to 22 through mentoring sessions and creative group projects.

The organisation plays a vital role in helping black girls deal with knife crime. The knock-on effect in terms of girls’ mental wellbeing and educational chances can be devastating. ‘They’re losing brothers, cousins, uncles, their first love,’ says Ebinehita.

So far Milk Honey Bees has worked with more than 500 girls and has an online community of 4,000. ‘I’m determined to support girls to become the women they want to be,’ she says.

Supporting cancer kids: Kathy August

Kathy August (pictured) launched Teach Cancer A Lesson, a campaign to spread the word and change educational policy so kids with cancer get extra support from their schools

Sitting in a hospital coffee bar, retired teacher Kathy August was shocked by the conversation she heard a mother having with her cancer-stricken son.

‘Her 16-year-old boy had endured 12 months of treatment and hadn’t been able to take his GCSEs,’ says Kathy, 71. 

‘He had been accepted by his local sixth form college, but they insisted he sit English and Maths GCSEs. He was very anxious after missing an entire year’s schooling while he was ill. And they were offering no extra support or tuition.’

A ‘super-head’ who received a damehood in 2014 for services to education, Kathy led one of the country’s first city academies in Manchester and knew what a mountain the lad had to climb.

So she was appalled when she discovered that schools are not obliged to offer any extra support to children with cancer.

‘Every year, around 1,500 children aged five to 19 are diagnosed with cancer in England. It’s an injustice that has been hiding in plain sight,’ says the mother of two.

This was in 2018. Despite being in the middle of treatment for breast cancer herself, Kathy (who is now in remission) launched Teach Cancer A Lesson, a campaign to spread the word and change educational policy.

‘We want additional statutory protection in place, and for every local authority to be obliged to consider the special educational needs of a young child within 28 days of receiving a letter from a GP confirming a cancer diagnosis,’ says Kathy.

Period equality: Molly Fenton

Molly Fenton (pictured) launched Love Your Period, an online community which aims to end the stigma around periods and to ensure all schoolgirls have access to sanitary products

Molly Fenton was just 15 and serving on her school council in Cardiff when she realised that teachers were happy to talk about boys’ bodies, but periods seemed to be another story. 

‘We were taught nothing about periods,’ she says. ‘The topic of menstrual cycles was seen as something shameful and taboo. If we are not taught what is normal, how will we know when things are wrong?’

Enraged, Molly, now 21, took to Instagram to launch a campaign, Love Your Period. It aims to end the stigma around periods and to ensure all schoolgirls have access to sanitary products. 

‘Girls were missing lessons because they ran out of period products or didn’t have any with them and were too embarrassed to ask,’ she says.

Six years later — and due in no small part to Molly’s campaigning — there are period products in school toilets throughout Wales. And Molly, who lives with her parents and sister Tilly, 16, is advising the Department of Education on how to put talking about periods on the national curriculum.

Love Your Period has an online community of 10,000 women aged 13 to 87. ‘They share their stories so everyone has a “big sister”,’ she says. ‘It’s vital women’s voices are heard, because the effects of ignorance can be catastrophic.’

Incredibly, Molly has done all this while coping with a benign but inoperable brain tumour. ‘This has taught me that life is too short to waste.’

Running for hospice: Barbara Thackray

Barbara Thackray (pictured), now 85, has raised more than £20,000 for St Ann¿s Hospice in Stockport by competing in the Altrincham and Trafford 10k races every year since she turned 77

When her beloved older sister Audrey died of lung cancer, Barbara Thackray decided to do something to help the hospice which had cared for her.

So she asked friends and relatives to sponsor her on a 10k road race. All very normal — except Barbara was 77 and had never done anything more than a gentle jog.

Now aged 85, this remarkable grandmother competes in the Altrincham and Trafford 10k races every year, and has raised more than £20,000 for St Ann’s Hospice in Stockport. She will be running again on her 86th birthday next month. 

‘I’m a keen walker, but I’d never run in my life,’ says Barbara, who lives in Altrincham, of her first race in 2013. ‘My son told me to alternate 10 walking steps with 10 running steps so I did.’

Buoyed by completing the race in one hour 24 minutes, Barbara, a former college counsellor, decided to enter again the next year. This time she decided to train properly. 

She has a strict regime — running two 10k races along the streets near her house every week. ‘I go out at 8am when the world’s just waking up,’ she says. ‘I love it.’

Her enthusiasm even caught the eye of Adidas. The sports brand feature Barbara in their latest global TV and print advertising campaign ‘Impossible is Nothing’, alongside Liverpool footballer Mo Salah. 

She says, ‘Everyone deserves to have the care Audrey had, and I will do all I can to try and make that happen.’