Megan Foo's Blog

Breaking Barriers to Girls' Education – Interview with Claire Charamnac of Women LEAD

All around the world, be it in the impoverished tea estate communities of Sri Lanka, the sordid favelas of Brazil, or the war-ravaged neighborhoods in the Congo, girls continue to face a set of obstacles to education. Sometimes, abject economic conditions precipitate these hurdles; families may be unable to cover the costs of tuition and uniforms. Other times, these barriers spring from regional traditions; in some LEDCs, families place more emphasis on boys’ education, seeing early marriage or child labor as a suitable alternative to investing in a girl’s schooling.
For many young and adolescent girls worldwide, the prospect of going to school remains an idealistic chimera, a distant dream. Educating girls, however, poses plethoric benefits that extend far beyond the realms of academia. The powerful impact of giving a girl in a LEDC a quality education reverberates in familial, societal, and generational contexts; the National Academies Press reports that [url=]girls with eight years of formal education are four times less likely to be coerced into child marriage[/url], and the World Bank states that [url=]with each extra year of education, a girl’s income increases by 20% as an adult.[/url]
Philanthropists and nonprofit leaders all over the globe are making groundbreaking strides in providing educational opportunities for girls, realizing that girls’ education is instrumental in catalyzing gender equality, economic empowerment, and women’s leadership. Claire Charamnac, the co-founder and United States Executive Director of [url=]Women LEAD[/url], is the living exemplar of the advocate who is hell-bent on triggering a revolution in girls’ education. As a young female leader, Claire understands “the importance of empowering girls with the same opportunities as those given to boys” and believes fervently in “the power of women to create change in their communities and nation”.
Women LEAD operates mainly in Nepal, a landlocked country famed for its undulating hills and majestic monasteries. Nepal’s breathtaking Annapurna range and outstanding heritage sites, however, belie the grim reality faced by many girls of economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Claire notes that in Nepal, “60% percent of women are illiterate and one third of girls ages 15-19 are married”, and that adolescent girls form an “under-served population”. The dedicated team of volunteers at Women LEAD works with the belief that education, including leadership training, is “critical in lifting girls out of poverty” and “ensuring their economic, political and social rights”, and essential to “sustainable peace and development”.
Claire Charamnac conceived the idea of Women LEAD as a junior at Georgetown University, where she studied International Politics and Foreign Service. Women LEAD is the first and only leadership development organization for young women, led by young women in Nepal. Her co-founder, Claire Naylor, saw firsthand the pervasiveness of “child marriage, illiteracy, and feminized poverty” in Nepal’s rural villages when she moved to Nepal after her third birthday. Claire Naylor realized that these women had the potential to “accomplish great things if they were given a good education and leadership opportunities”, but that the girls’ impoverished economic conditions hindered them from accessing this education.
Women LEAD adopts a philosophy that the “full participation of women at all levels of decision-making is crucial to create peaceful and inclusive societies”. Women’s leadership rates “remain low across all sectors” in Nepal; decisions are often made about critical issues affecting girls’ lives, whether early marriage or education, without the input of girls themselves. Claire Charamnac stresses the need for women’s leadership in the organization’s well-planned training programs: “Being an adolescent girl doesn’t mean you’re not able to participate in major discussions shape your country”. By equipping young women with leadership skills, Women LEAD prepares women to become “leaders not just for the future, but starting today”.
Furthermore, the leadership workshops engender a virtuous cycle among the adolescent girls; the girls actively involved with the programs not only advocate for women’s rights, but also encourage other women to be leaders. Women LEAD’s mission revolves closely around sculpting a culture that treasures young women’s leadership by “identifying and investing in a small group of diverse young women who have the potential to become the next generation of leaders” in Nepal. While in many countries women’s opinions are largely swept under the rug due to gender bias, the volunteers at Women LEAD value the ideas and voices of young women, imparting the message to women that they are taken seriously and can make a difference where they are. Both Claire Charamnac and Claire Naylor are strong proponents of the power of girls’ leadership: “Every time a girl we work with self-identifies as a leader, we are one step closer to establishing gender equality in Nepal”.
Women LEAD recruits high school students in Kathmandu from diverse backgrounds, with the aim of providing female high school students with “the skills, support and opportunities to become leaders and change-makers in their schools, communities and nation”. Claire Charamnac notes that before attending Women LEAD’s programs, many of the organization’s participants have “never written a resume or spoken up in public”, and have never envisioned themselves as leaders.
Over the course of the program, however, the women started to dream incredible dreams for themselves and Nepal. On the first day of the Leadership Institute, the Women LEAD team canvassed the girls for their views on themselves, asking them how powerful they were on a scale of 1-10. Initially, Claire recalls, “they said ‘not very powerful’, but by the end of the Institute, they said they felt ‘very powerful’”. This stark contrast in self-esteem validates the meaningful role that education plays in helping girls gain empowerment and a passion for pursuing a vision for change.
Another fine testament of Women LEAD’s impact on girls and women is Rajina, one of the Leadership Institute’s students. Before attending Women LEAD’s programs, Rajina was quiet and shy. The training sessions at Women LEAD’s Leadership Institute, however, were essential in bolstering her confidence; Rajina now plays an integral role in mobilizing youth around election period and organizing voter registration! After the program, the Indian government awarded her a full scholarship to study Biotechnology at Bishop Cotton Women’s University, where she was selected as a Google Ambassador. In the near future, Rajina aspires to complete a joint Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Masters in Biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University.
Other Women LEAD alumni have been accepted to top engineering and medical schools, written op-eds to newspapers on women’s issues, advocated for women’s rights, and met with international representatives, including Melanne Verveer, the former US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Since 2011, Women LEAD has equipped 500 leaders with “leadership training, skills building, mentoring, and a peer-support network”. The leadership programs at Women LEAD come complete with internships, social entrepreneurship ventures, leadership workshops in Nepal’s schools, and opportunities for awareness or advocacy campaigns in the local community. As a result, women and girls not only improve their self-confidence, skills and feeling of potential, but become the vanguards for change in their communities, and the reaches of the wider world.
Many of Women LEAD’s alumnae take the reins of the organization after graduation; the Board in Nepal is comprised completely of alumnae, forming an enviable locally-owned organizational model. Although Women LEAD’s primary aim is to imbue girls with leadership skills and a sense of self-pride, its hospitality and receptiveness is reflected in its inclusion of male students in the programs. In fact, the Leadership Track Program includes 30% boys, although the organization itself is run by young women under 25 years of age.
Women LEAD has volunteer networks in both Nepal and the United States. United States volunteers focus on a variety of activities, ranging from creating chapters in their communities to fundraising for a girl’s scholarship, to blogging and web design. Volunteers in Nepal lend their talents to helping with specific programs throughout the year, including teaching and leading programs. Women LEAD offers programs that see students learning from their peers in a creative way that is vastly different from the Nepali rote style of learning.
As Claire Charamnac puts it: Women LEAD supports young women as they pursue their vision for change, and respects “what our participants have done to create change”. She stresses that Women LEAD does not transform the girls’ lives; rather, Women LEAD “supports [the girls] as they change their own lives and their nation”. The girls are not beneficiaries; they are Women LEAD’s partners in a relationship predicated on equality. By educating girls, Women LEAD sows the seeds of social change, building and supporting the next generation of confident, compassionate and qualified female leaders who are well-equipped to tackle the deep-rooted injustices in Nepal’s patriarchal society.

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