They grew up in two different countries — Claire Charamnac in Singapore and Claire Naylor in Nepal — where they independently became conscious of the disadvantages women faced. After meeting at Georgetown University, they decided to do something about it.
They focused on Nepal, which in recent years has made strides in equality, such as creating a ministry dedicated to women’s and children’s affairs, and mandating that 33 percent of the candidates for Constituent Assemblies (Nepal’s version of parliament) are women. But Charamnac and Naylor could see that in general, women were not equipped to take advantage of the opportunities, and still faced deep-seated biases against women.
“We said this is something we need to start working on with the younger generation of women in Nepal to be prepared to take on those leadership positions, and be the very competent, ethical and passionate leaders that their country needs,” Charamnac said from Women LEAD’s U.S. office in Arlington, Va.
With a $1,000 grant from Ashoka’s Youth Venture and a Georgetown fellowship, they traveled to Nepal in summer 2010 to run a two-week leadership program for 28 girls.
Their pilot program was geared toward teaching leadership skills and showing the girls what female leaders can do by hosting a series of women speakers. It was so popular that after graduating from Georgetown in 2011, Charamnac and Naylor officially launched Women LEAD (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Advocacy and Development). They’ve since had more than 700 women complete their program.
The way it works is 30 girls are selected for two-week leadership training at Women LEAD’s Kathmandu facility, where Naylor is based. They learn about the challenges women face in their communities and bone up on the political process. They also practice public speaking, resume-writing and interviewing.
Participants then choose their next year-long venture. One option is to co-run an afterschool leadership program for 30 girls and boys, ages 14-15. (Charamnac said it’s important to involve boys in some programs for inclusivity, but also to normalize the concept of women in leadership roles for both genders.)
As a second option, participants can intern at a local company or nongovernmental organization in a chosen subject area. After graduating from Women LEAD, many students stay connected to mentors and colleagues as they advance to their next step in life, usually going to college.
Dipeeka Bastola was one of the first participants. She said when she first heard about the leadership program starting at her high school in Kathmandu, it sounded appealing because it would be a place to discuss issues with other girls. “That kind of platform was missing for us,” she said.
“When you live in the capital, it’s easy to live in a bubble and not know what’s going on around you and not be aware of the issues or know the leaders in the community.”
Those issues can include domestic violence and early marriage in rural areas, or discrimination in jobs and lower pay in urban settings.
Bastola signed up but didn’t know quite what to expect. In fact, when she and her friends saw the shared name “Claire” of the two founders, the girls assumed it was a married couple. They were surprised and inspired to see two young university students leading a program for other young students. “They’re very democratic. Our opinions were taken into account. It was a very youth-led, youth-focused organization, and it made me want to stay involved.”
Bastola ended up taking a year off after high school and interning with Women LEAD. She’s now a junior at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, studying accounting and international organizations with a minor in Spanish.
The government in Nepal is working to help people in rural areas, but it lacks programs for young women at the university level who just need some guidance, said Bastola. That’s where Women LEAD, which is funded by foundations and individual donors, fills the gap, she said. “It helped me branch out and network with other girls who have that passion to do something for their country.”
“We don’t claim we completely changed their lives, but I think we’ve been able to bring something in terms of support and tools and connections. We help them with scholarship applications and professional skills,” said Charamnac.
Bastola said after graduating, she’s thinking about earning a master’s degree and possibly starting a business in Nepal.
In the meantime, though, she’s putting her leadership skills to work as head of her university’s student resident adviser program.