Claire Charamnac, a graduate of Georgetown University, is the co-founder and stateside executive director of Women LEAD, an educational NGO dedicated to making leaders out of underprivileged women in Nepal.
Life can seem seem overwhelming most days for the women of Nepal. 1/3 of girls aged 15 to 19 are married, and 60% of women are illiterate. Less than 2 cents of every development dollar goes to girls, and 9 out of 10 youth programs are aimed at boys.
These grim statistics are not, however, indicative of the potential we see in the young women we serve.
In 2010, when I was 20 years old, I co-founded Women LEAD with my close friend and classmate, Claire Naylor. A leadership development organization serving young women in Nepal, Women LEAD was founded to address one of the biggest inequalities of the 21st century: the lack of female leaders around the world.
Despite growing up and living in different parts of the world (Claire in Nepal and myself in Singapore), both of us had always been profoundly impacted by strong young women; we’d been astounded by their ability to not only survive, but embrace life, even in the midst of violent conflict, or the denial of basic human rights.
They convinced us of the necessity to provide young women with leadership education, resources, and opportunities—which Nepalese women need direly.
When Women LEAD started, they already had the passion and vision to create change in their communities; they simply lacked the resources and support to do so. Our girls come from diverse backgrounds, but share a passion for building a more equal and inclusive Nepal, and for the past two years in Kathmandu, we and our young staff (all under 24) have been working to empower them; Women LEAD provides them with the skills to pursue their vision for change. We provide them with leadership, mentorship, social entrepreneurship, and internship opportunities to help them become brilliant school and community leaders.
Women LEAD has a tangible presence in Nepal; our staff works and engages in person—hands-on and one-on-one—with our young women, cultivating real relationships and genuine understanding. Women LEAD wouldn’t be a legitimate—much less effective or successful—effort if it were somehow run from the other side of the planet on a laptop.
Like other Everyday Ambassadors, we value local ownership; our interns, most of whom are program alumnae, are always involved in our decision-making and in the design, execution, and evaluation of our programs. We also value youth ownership. We are youth-led and youth-driven; our young participants trust our staff and are comfortable approaching us with honest feedback about our programs because they can relate to us. As one participant laughingly told me when we held our pilot project, she was expecting “a very old and boring person” talking about leadership, but when she saw that my co-founder and I were leading the sessions, she was pleasantly surprised.
We were astounded by their ability to not only survive, but embrace life, even in the midst of violent conflict, or the denial of basic human rights.
We strongly believe in their natural ability to create and lead change, and thus we trust that they know what’s best for them. Women LEAD works with them as supporters—not authorities.
The dramatic transformation we had witnessed in each of the 30 girls in just the first two weeks of our pilot program two years ago marked only the beginning of their leadership journeys. For Claire and me, it marked the beginning of our leadership journeys, too.
Co-founding a non-profit at 20 with my (lack of) experience certainly wasn’t easy. While many have reached out and supported us, there’ve also been many doors slammed in our faces. Apart from managing a team on two continents, working efficiently in a country as politically and economically unstable as Nepal is challenging. We’ve had to adapt to labor strikes and shortages of electricity and fuel; working around 5-hour daily quota of electricity involves a lot of creativity!
Furthermore, we work in a traditional, male-dominated culture, having faced opposition from many men, including school principals, high-caste males in partner NGOs, and even relatives of our participants. Even Claire and I aren’t always afforded the respect granted to our male counterparts.
Women LEAD wouldn’t be a legitimate—much less effective or successful—effort if it were somehow run from the other side of the planet on a laptop.
While we cannot change this culture overnight, we challenge it daily by engaging activists and maintaining high standards of performance and professionalism. Despite the limited resources and rampant gender discrimination, we’ve grown from a 2-week pilot program serving 28 young women to an organization with 3 yearlong programs serving 200 young women.
It was one of our proudest moments, listening to our graduates speak at last summer’s closing ceremony. We were thrilled to see them not only self-identify strongly and confidently as leaders for the first time, but be taken seriously by their peers, parents, and communities as well.
The ceremony reminds us that, despite all the challenges we face, Women LEAD and the young women we help can accomplish so much, and we’re more committed than ever to providing resources for young women across the world to pursue their vision for change. We’re building a movement that empowers young women to be leaders they were born to be.