Written by Claire Charamnac, co-founder of Women LEAD.
The lack of female leaders is one of the most enduring forms of inequality in the 21st century: fewer than 20% of all decision-making national positions are held by women (World Economic Forum). Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, said in an interview that “the biggest challenges [for women] everywhere are political participation and economic empowerment — and ending violence against women.” Entrenched problems such as gender discrimination can only be overcome by investing in a new generation of female leaders working alongside men to create sustainable change.
Across the world, and in Nepal, adolescent girls are an under-served population (UNICEF). While “education for women is the most profound intervention in development” (Dr Osotimehin, UNFPA), it needs to be paired with economic and political empowerment. Less than 2¢ of every development dollar goes to girls and 9 of 10 youth programs are aimed at boys (TIME). It’s time for donors, big and small, to recognize that investing in the leadership of young women should be one of the international community’s biggest priorities in development. Many programs focus on primary and secondary education for girls, but very few (around 30 around the world, in our count) focus specifically on empowering adolescent girls to be leaders. We know that we are the only organization in Nepal to do so.
Nepal recently established a 33% quota for women in Parliament, a promising new opportunity for women in the wake of a decade-long civil war. The only hope for overcoming the myriad of national challenges in Nepal is for passionate, competent women to take the lead and initiate change alongside men. However, schools and civil society are failing to equip women with the tools needed to access and leverage these positions. Quotas are not enough to encourage young women’s political empowerment. We believe we must intervene early on in a young woman’s life to empower them to become leaders and effect sustainable change at all levels, from schools and communities to national policies. Until women influence decisions at every level, Nepal’s development will not be inclusive and gender-sensitive.
Young women in Nepal face overwhelming challenges: 1/3 of girls aged 15 to 19 are married and 60% of women are illiterate (UNICEF Nepal). Young women have the passion and creativity to solve these problems, but simply lack the necessary resources. Nepali society does not recognize either youth or women as leaders, nor prioritize their needs despite youth constituting a quarter of the population (Alternatives Nepal). Young women are thus doubly disadvantaged. While the parliament quota is undeniable progress, it is not representative of the reality many women face in fields such as business, law and medicine, where they continue to be systematically excluded from influential positions. Facing restricted mobility, prescriptive gender-roles and a scarcity of male allies, few women are able to realize their full potential.
We believe the best way to break the cycle of discrimination against young women is to equip them with the skills, opportunities and resources to become leaders. We target high school girls in Kathmandu who come from diverse backgrounds but share a passion for building Nepal. The young women in our programs gain skills and resources, unavailable in their schools, that will enable them to access and leverage leadership positions. This new generation of qualified female leaders will work with men to transform Nepal’s unjust structures, building a culture of gender sensitivity in their schools, communities and nation.
Listening to our confident young women leaders speak at our Leadership Institute closing ceremony this past summer was one of our proudest moments. The ceremony celebrated so many aspects of the Nepal we are working towards: women and girls speaking up, families and schools supporting and applauding girls’ accomplishments, and institutions prioritizing the professional development of women. We were thrilled to see them not only identify as leaders for the first time, but also be taken seriously by their peers, parents and communities.
We’re committed to providing resources for young women across the world to pursue their vision for change. To be clear, 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.
We need to invest more in young women, especially in their leadership. Education is not enough. Young women are holding the solutions to problems plaguing their communities and nations – will we listen and support them?