04.02.1312:28 PM ET

Zainab Salbi’s Incredible Journey

She once called Saddam Hussein “uncle.” Now she fights for women’s rights all over the world.

An average weekend in Zainab Salbi’s childhood included time with Saddam Hussein, whom she called “Amo,” or “Uncle.” But you would hardly know that now, as she has spent the past 20 years campaigning for women’s rights, starting with a stop on her honeymoon in Bosnia and Croatia. Since then she set up the charity Women for Women International, which has helped more than 300,000 women in its work with socially excluded women from eight different countries affected by war and conflict.

Each month, a sponsor from Women for Women International sends around $33 to a “sister” in a conflict zone—an amount that covers a woman to enroll in a yearlong jobs-training program. The fund’s money comes from foundations as well as a network of sponsors. Salbi was nominated by President Clinton as one of Harpers Bazaar's 21st Century Heroines and was honored as one of Barclays Women of the Year in 2012.

Salbi has stepped down from the charity after 20 years, and instead she’s taking a more hands-on approach: she’s going to spend half her time in the Middle East, a region she calls “one of the most critical parts of the world in terms of negotiating for women.” She is co-producing a documentary about the role of women in the Arab Spring and writing a book about the region, and she will launch a foundation that will focus on how to train young women in the Middle East to be citizen journalists—and run campaigns.

“Worldwide, less than 3 percent of decision makers in media are women,” Salbi says. “They make up only 18 percent of politicians … We have to own these areas.”