In 2007, when Claire Charamnac and Claire Naylor met as freshmen at Georgetown University, they discovered they had far more in common than their first names. The Claires found they were both passionate feminists, each shaped by their encounters growing up around strong, young women in different parts of the world – Singapore and Nepal, respectively.
Their discussions, both in and out of the classroom, led Claire C and Claire N to realize that they were tired of women’s voices being silenced, and wanted to put their own voices to good use. That spirit quickly materialized in the form of a tangible idea: create a pilot project that could empower young women on the other side of the globe to become leaders. After its foundation in January 2010, their Women LEAD project quickly evolved into a full blown leadership development organization for young women in Nepal that Claire and Claire have been building ever since. This is the inspiring story of how they did it.
Growing up in Singapore, Claire C was confronted by the abuse of female migrant workers, which set her on the path of feminist activism. Claire N’s family moved to rural Nepal 19 years ago, where her earliest memories were shadowed by ingrained gender discrimination with child marriage and illiteracy being the norm there. Though living in separate parts of the world then, both Claires were inspired by the resilience, strength and compassion of the young women they encountered during their formative years. The young feminists-in-the-making were each astounded by these women’s ability to not only survive but embrace life, even in the midst of violent conflict and societies that deny them basic human rights.
In recanting and sharing their earlier life experiences with one another once they met and became friends in college, the Claires agreed that empowering women is key to sustainable peace and development. The more they talked, the more convinced they were of the necessity to provide leadership education and resources for young women in other parts of the world. So, from the comfort of their dorm room, the industrious Georgetown undergrads took matters into their own hands and developed a pilot project called Women LEAD to make their vision a reality.
The young women zeroed in on Nepal as the focus of their pilot project after looking at the development challenges facing the post-conflict country. They saw opportunity for women at this pivotal time in Nepal’s history. According to the statistics Claire C shared with us, “Women in Nepal face overwhelming challenges: 1/3 of girls aged 15 to 19 are married and 60% of women are illiterate.” Confronted with this reality, the Claires realized that no direct intervention on their part could affect change at the magnitude and depth that they had set their sights on. They concluded that they didn’t want to transform Nepal’s unjust structures and institutions; they wanted Nepalese women and girls to do that themselves, from the grassroots level all the way up to high level policy. They were certain that young Nepalese women had the passion and vision to pursue necessary change in their nation by tackling the root causes of poverty and discrimination themselves; they just needed the resources that could teach them how to become confident, compassionate and qualified leaders. The premise of the Claires’ pilot project was simple, yet so profound.
In 2010, after winning a grant from Ashoka’s Youth Venture, Claire C and Claire N got their Women LEAD pilot project off the ground. It started as a two-week, after-school, intensive leadership development course – The Leadership Institute – for 30 female high school students in Kathmandu, Nepal. The goal was to empower these young women to gain the self-confidence necessary to become leaders, by providing them with support, experience and opportunities. For many of their participants, this was the first time they had spoken up in public and self-identified as leaders.
When the Claires returned to Nepal the following summer, they hadn’t anticipated the enormous impact their Leadership Institute would have on the girls. Reconnecting with them and seeing their enthusiasm for the program and desire to expand it made Claire C and Claire N realize that they had an effective and unique model, one that had become much bigger than they ever imagined. Their 2 week pilot project rapidly expanded into 3 programs.
To date, Women LEAD has equipped 200 promising students (aged 14 to 19) with skills and resources through their leadership programs: Summer Institute, School Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship, Internships and Mentoring. In two short years, from the dorm room inception of their idea, the Claires now have a youth-driven and youth-led organization that contributes to the Nepal they envisioned, one where women and girls speak with amplified voices, families and schools support and applaud girls’ accomplishments, and institutions prioritize the professional development of women.
As Claire Charamnac – Executive Director, US of Women LEAD – shared with Women You Should Know, “We’re committed to providing resources for young women across the world to pursue their vision for change. We’re not working FOR these girls; we’re working WITH them. As partners, we respect what they’ve already done to create change. We’re not transforming their lives – we’re supporting them as they change their own lives and their nation.”
To find out more about Women LEAD visit women-lead.org.
We are truly astounded by the conviction, selflessness, drive and accomplishments of Claire Charamnac and Claire Naylor. These are two Women You Should Know and we are honored to be able to share their story here. Can’t wait to see what the future holds with them leading the way.