One Year Later, Girls’ Voices Are As Critical as Ever In Nepal’s Earthquake Recovery Efforts

This post was written by Aparna Singh, Women LEAD’s Communication and Programs Associate, and Stephanie Arzate, Research and Communications Fellow

Imagine the longest fifty-six seconds of your life.

This is how I remember the April 25th Earthquake that struck Nepal exactly one year ago today. That Saturday morning, I was at the Women LEAD office facilitating a workshop with around fifteen girls in our year-long leadership program when the office began to shake violently. For a mere minute, we watched as the office swayed in every direction. By 11:57 AM, we emerged from the office to find that our country had changed forever, sometimes in ways that we could never imagine.

The April 25th Earthquake brought us closer to death than anything else many of us will ever experience, and unfortunately took away the lives, homes, and hopes of thousands of people. But amongst all the sorrow and pain that came from that tragic day, I remember seeing something that was truly magical. For a year, Women LEAD selects 30 high-achieving girls in the Kathmandu Valley and equips them with the skills they need to become leaders in their communities. The Nepal Earthquakes presented our program participants, or “LEADers,” with the ultimate test. After a couple of days, Women LEAD’s work resumed—albeit slightly differently—and I watched as the girls in our program, both past and present, sprung into action. 

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Program alumni, Sujata, distributes supplies following the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes

The leadership displayed by the girls in this devastating time was truly amazing. Women LEAD staff and alumni prepared basic supplies to distribute to the LEADers, staff and families affected by the earthquake. Two of our alumni, Reeti and Samikshya, established the “LEAD Education Relief Project,” which provided study kits to high school seniors who had lost their books during the earthquake, but were facing rapidly approaching exams. Saniya, a 2013 LEADer distributed mosquito nets and flashlights to 53 families in one of the hardest hit districts in Nepal: Sindhupalchowk. And 2012 LEADer, Sujata, launched a crowdrise campaign and raised over $500 to sponsor school uniforms, textbooks, stationery, and exam fees for 10 students affected by the earthquake. In a time when the voices and needs of many individuals were not being heard, these girls stepped up and became the inclusive, responsible leaders Nepal needed. 

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Participants collecting and distributing supplies to those in need.

When I look back on how far we’ve come since that day, I can’t help but to think about time. In fifty-six seconds, we lost over 8,000 lives. In  fifty-six seconds, centuries-old temples turned to rubble. In  fifty-six  seconds, everything changed. And yet, while the exact moment of impact was short, a year has not given us enough time to recover. Just months after the earthquake, Nepal faced a blockade that prevented a shortage of fuel, food, and vital supplies from coming into the country. It took the  National Reconstruction Association (NRA) over nine months to begin post-earthquake reconstruction effort. Women’s rights activists have urged that the NRA, which oversees the country’s rebuilding process, have more women involved to ensure the needs of women and children are heard, with little success. Meanwhile, reports have found that incidents of violence against women have increased and thousands of children, mostly girls, have been trafficked since the earthquake

In many ways, what we’ve seen a year since those devastating fifty-six seconds in Nepal has been a leadership failure. And what I’ve learned in the time since the April 25th earthquake is that women and girls must be key players in the reconstruction of our country moving forward. As Samikshya powerfully told us, “Girls’ voices in Nepal’s earthquake relief efforts are important because without their voices, the problems of many survivors cannot be heard.” Like Reeti, Samikshya, Sujata, and Saniya prove, girls’ voices in Nepal’s earthquake relief efforts are as vital as ever. 

Featured image credit: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi / UNDP Nepal.

Originally published on Women LEAD.

Celebrating Women Changemakers Should Be A Concerted Effort

Originally published on The Huffington Post

Recently, Marie Claire introduced a “20 Women Changing the World” magazine section in honor of its 20th anniversary. In a list including Chelsea Clinton, Eva Longoria, and Melinda Gates, Marie Claire spotlighted “20 movers, shakers, mavericks, and badasses who are boldly, bravely, audaciously blazing new paths for women and girls.” From Kimberly Bryant’s founding of Black Girls Code to empower young women of color through technology education, to Rachel Lloyd’s establishing of GEMS to help victims of domestic trafficking reintegrate into society, these stories were nothing short of amazing, wholly affirming my passion and deep sense of purpose in the movement to empower women and girls.

Moved by these women’s untiring efforts to effect positive change, I immediately thought about one of my favorite extracurricular pastimes: running a weekly “Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight” column as a volunteer with Women LEAD, a nonprofit organization that provides girls in Nepal with education and leadership development training. Nearly a year ago, I started conducting interviews for this column on Women LEAD’s blog because I wanted to highlight the efforts of female community and organizational leaders across the world. At the same time, I wanted to know more than what I could find on a biography or a nonprofit website. I hoped to learn, on a personal level, about a woman leader’s philosophy for change, why she believed her toils and struggles to enact women’s empowerment were worth it, and what advice she had to offer current and future generations of women leaders.

I have been able to interview women leaders working in Hong Kong, where I live, and in the US, Canada, UK, Sweden, Laos, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and Guatemala through Skype calling and emailing. These women leaders include journalists, entrepreneurs, academics, medical professionals, authors, high school and college students, who are all united by a common passion for removing bulwarks to gender equality.

My weekly experiences canvassing these women for their views on issues including reproductive rights, violence against women, maternal health, and gender pay gaps have been so refreshing and enlightening, offering me alternate perspectives that contribute to my overall understanding of women’s issues. I’ve acquired an intimate knowledge of organizations that expedite women’s empowerment in both developing and developed countries, and the various socioeconomic forces that blockade gender equality in the communities where these organizations are based. The words that these women speak and write never cease to inspire me to continue fighting for women’s empowerment worldwide.

Yet, as I interviewed these women leaders, I noticed that beyond the occasional celebrity spotlight in a magazine, there rarely is an active effort to regularly underscore the untiring work of women advocates and changemakers, whether online or offline. Girls’ Globe, a blog I write for that advocates and raises awareness of issues concerning women and girls across the world, frequently features blog posts about organizations and women working to secure a gender-equal future, and even organized a “Women Who Inspire” blog series to highlight the enlightened efforts of women changemakers. And The NextWomen, a women’s business magazine where I am an Editorial Assistant and Regular Contributor, boasts a “Female Heroes” section that specifically accents women leaders pursuing business and entrepreneurship-related paths. But excepting the few platforms that emphasize the power of women changing the world, where is this much-needed coverage?

I call for a concerted and regular effort to celebrate the work of women changemakers for the very reason I love conducting weekly interviews for Women LEAD’s Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight column. Spotlights like those in Marie Claire and on Women LEAD’s blog have the potential to encourage nascent women leaders to fight for the causes that matter to them, irrespective of any discrimination they may face, because they are armed with the knowledge that someone else has been there before them, succeeded, and inspired others. And when someone feels empowered by these personal stories of hope, passion, and resilience, who knows what phenomenal things they may be able to accomplish for women and girls now, or in the near future?

Read these Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlights with our Girls’ Globe bloggers and partners on Women LEAD’s Blog!

 

Featured image photo credit: Gates Foundation Flickr Account

Half the Sky: A Life-Changing Read

It all started my sophomore year of high school, after I read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. A riveting call to arms against the injustices that women face, Half the Sky not only underscores the alarming dimensions of discrimination that women experience, but also highlights the urgent need for us to tackle these problems and turn the tides against gender inequality.

After reading Half the Sky, it became self-evident that education is not only a catalyst for positive social change, but also a crucial springboard for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The compelling stories of women whose voices had been silenced inspired me to advocate for women’s and girls’ education. I wanted to help women escape the myriad poverty traps in which they found themselves, desired to move them one step closer to being adequately equipped to contribute to the fabric of society, independent of any hurdles that worked against them.

Givology pioneers a new model of "crowdfunding" philanthropy to make the largest impact at the lowest cost. Since its launch in 2008, Givology has raised more than $300,000 to help over 2,800 students in 26 countries through 46 grassroots partnerships (Source: Givology)
Givology pioneers a new model of “crowdfunding” philanthropy to make the largest impact at the lowest cost. Since its launch in 2008, Givology has raised more than $300,000 to help over 2,800 students in 26 countries through 46 grassroots partnerships (Source: Givology)

The first step I took after I finished Half the Sky was to apply for a volunteer position at Givology, an online giving marketplace that leverages dollar donations to grassroots education projects in the developing world, making my first foray into the world of nonprofit management. Givology’s enlivening mission of giving every child access to a quality education and its phenomenal network of volunteers, giving teams, grassroots partners, and donors resonated with me deeply, ultimately motivating me to start a Givology chapter in Hong Kong in support of Givology’s women’s education-focused partners.

I have had the time of my life so far leading local advocacy campaigns and fundraising initiatives with Givology’s Hong Kong chapter, which is currently raising funds for family violence intervention training and vocal empowerment programs for women in Guatemala, for Starfish One by One. Through education and mentorship, Starfish One by One harnesses female momentum to accelerate change, achieving this in Guatemala, the Western Hemisphere’s worst context for women.

Through an innovative program and bar-setting mentorship, Starfish One by One, one of Givology's grassroots partners, is creating a generation of 500 empowered, rural indigenous women that will unlock the doors for thousands of others and break cycles of poverty (Source: Starfish One by One)
Through an innovative program and bar-setting mentorship, Starfish One by One, one of Givology’s grassroots partners, is creating a generation of 500 empowered, rural indigenous women that will unlock the doors for thousands of others and break cycles of poverty (Source: Starfish One by One)

In Guatemala, Mayan women and girls live on the fringes of society, trapped on the bottom rung of the Guatemalan social ladder. Only 5% of rural Mayan girls complete their elementary school education, 70% of women are illiterate, and an estimated 9 in 10 women have been a victim of domestic violence. These foreboding figures should propel us to act, to give in a sustainable way that transforms these girls’ families and communities into more healthy and equitable entities.

Equally close to my heart is my work with Women LEAD Nepal. An incredible nonprofit with the mission of empowering adolescent girls to become leaders, Women LEAD Nepal values the voices and opinions of young women, expediting women’s access to the same educational, professional and leadership opportunities as their male counterparts.

In societies that are patriarchal and male-dominated, women form an under-served population and for the most part find it difficult to stand their ground. Having kickstarted a Women LEAD chapter in Hong Kong as a junior in high school, I witness the manifold returns of investing in women’s education and leadership training, namely bolstered confidence, the ability to self-identify as a leader, amplified voices in acts of advocacy, and clearer work-life goals. We see Women LEAD’s students pursuing tertiary study and professional paths in avenues of their choice, see a rise in sustainable family units and further inter-generational transmission of literacy.

Women LEAD's Leadership Institute in 2013. 90% of Women LEAD’s graduates are attending university in Nepal, India, the USA and Bangladesh - an amazing feat! Women LEAD’s programs equip young women with leadership skills not just for the future, but starting today. (Source: Women LEAD Nepal)
Women LEAD’s Leadership Institute in 2013. 90% of Women LEAD’s graduates are attending university in Nepal, India, the USA and Bangladesh – an amazing feat! Women LEAD’s programs equip young women with leadership skills not just for the future, but starting today. (Source: Women LEAD Nepal)

One component of women’s empowerment that Women LEAD also stresses is solidarity. It’s not about individual success or personal development, but advancing together as an empowered, enlightened community of women. Women LEAD’s Leadership Institute provides hands-on leadership training that adequately equips girls for career success; it simultaneously redefines traditional masculine roles and foregrounds sisterhood, underlining the potency of women’s alliances. A crucial synergy of friendship and mentorship is at the crux of Women LEAD’s vision of effecting real and sustained change for women; it is this synthesis that can, with education, break cycles of poverty and set girls on the path to prosperity.

My acquaintance with these two remarkable organizations began only after I read Half the Sky, a true testament to the fact that a little help can transform the lives of women and girls around the world. I can only imagine how many millions of others were spurred into action after reading Kristof and WuDunn’s stories of resilience and courage. Such is the immense power of Half the Sky, which strikes chords within us and imbues us with the confidence that we can – as part of the movement to improve the lives of women and girls – make a difference.

External Resources:

The Half the Sky Movement is dedicated to ending the oppression of women worldwide. Through inspiring stories of extraordinary women, this movement hopes to not only raise awareness of women’s issues, but also provide concrete ways to empower women.

Givology is a 100% volunteer-run social enterprise that connects donors and volunteers to grassroots education projects and student scholarships around the world. From school supplies to library construction to empowerment workshops, it emphasizes transparency and maximizing the impact per dollar given.

Women LEAD is the first and only leadership development organization for young women in Nepal. Having empowered more than 200 young women to become leaders in their schools and communities, Women LEAD’s programs women with intensive yearlong leadership training, skills building, mentoring, and a peer-support network.

Women LEAD, a volunteer’s reflection

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By Megan Foo

Volunteering with Women LEAD has opened my eyes to the harrowing reality that many girls in Nepal face: the reality of being denied a quality education.

The initiatives I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of, be it conducting research on girls’ education in Nepal, blogging about the importance of women’s leadership, or leading our Hong Kong chapter and organizing fundraising events to provide leadership training to Women LEAD’s girl pioneers in Nepal, have reminded me of the host of deep-rooted obstacles to education equity in countries ravaged by extreme poverty. The prospect of attending school remains a distant dream for girls in Nepal, many of whom face cultural, gender-based and economic barriers to education.

But more significantly, volunteering with Women LEAD has shown me the importance of leveraging the power of women. Women LEAD has adopted an enlightened philosophy: the full participation of women in schools and decision-making levels is crucial to creating peaceful and inclusive societies. Our untiring advocates, who are hellbent on fighting for gender equality and women’s leadership, work with the belief that neither a family’s economic situation nor deep-rooted social stigmas should limit a girl’s potential to succeed in school and become a game-changing leader in her community.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once said,

Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.

The impact of giving a girl an education reverberates in myriad contexts and changes the very fabric of our society, turning the tides of gender inequality and safeguarding our global economy. Claire Charamnac, Women LEAD’s Co-Founder and United States Executive Director, is a relentless champion of women’s education and leadership. A young female leader herself, Claire understands the importance of empowering girls with the same opportunities as those given to boys, and believes absolutely in the power of women to create change in their communities and nation.

In Nepal, 60% percent of women are illiterate and one-third of girls ages 15-19 are married.

A meager 18% of Nepali women have a secondary education or higher and 10% of the country’s leaders are women. However, the dedicated team at Women LEAD stresses the need for girls’ education, and emphasize that education, including leadership training, is critical in lifting girls out of poverty and breaking the glass ceiling.

Our Leadership Institute’s results are astonishing: 90% of Women LEAD’s graduates are attending university in Nepal, India, the USA and Bangladesh.

The girls who come into our programs lack family support for their academic and vocational choices, and have limited access to financial and educational resources needed for their professional success. Women LEAD’s programs, however, equip young women with leadership skills not just for the future, but starting today. Over the course of the leadership programs, our participants actively channel their skills and knowledge to empower hundreds of girls in their community.

Leadership workshops for younger girls shed light on issues typically swept under the rug, including domestic violence, reproductive education, gender-based discrimination and corporal punishment.

Women LEAD’s dynamic Internship Track allows women to intern at Nepali NGOs and hone their professional skills, gaining work experience in their chosen field. Through our School Leadership and Internship Tracks, women will learn more about themselves and their country, and potentially spearhead Nepal’s political and economic initiatives.

But Women LEAD’s work does not stop here.

We hope to provide scholarships to 160 promising young women leaders: 10 year-long scholarships, and 150 four-month scholarships. By supporting Women LEAD and sponsoring scholarships for our next generation of women leaders, you will engender a safe community of young leaders where women realize that their opinions, passions and talents matter. Bygiving these girls a chance to attend school, you will be empowering them to gain confidence in their skills, and encouraging them to raise their voices and become the vanguards for change. You are not just investing in one woman; you’re investing in the future of Nepal, and the future of our society.  

Donate, spread the word, and help Women LEAD change Nepal, one young woman leader at a time.

Inspiring Nepali Women: Parijat

Written by Rajina, a former Women LEAD participant and intern.

The woman I most respect and get inspired from is Parijat. Born with the original name Bishnu Kumari Waiba, she later changed to Parijat, the name of a flower. She was physically handicapped, but achieved greater things in life than other healthy people could. Being a woman in a highly male dominated society is itself a challenge, and it only gets harder when you are a pioneer. Getting out of the typical literature, she is one of the women who started portraying women’s sexual psychology through her writings. An author of a total of 21 published books, she didn’t have a tough childhood, but lost her mother when still young. After getting paralyzed at the age of 26, she lived with her sister, and never married. Although her life seems lonely, with few friends and family, she learned to live through her dreams, poems and stories. Her zeal and determination inspires me. She was in physical pain, which she depicted through most of her writings, but she never gave up and I truly respect her for that.

The Leadership Gap: one of the most enduring forms of inequality in the 21st century.

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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?