Post-Conflict Empowerment: An Interview with Claire Naylor
“[T]he more I work on peacebuilding, the more I’m convinced that it isn’t a job, it’s an identity- so I love that what I do is an extension of who I am, or at least, who I try to be.”
Below is an interview with our Generation Peace Award winner, Claire Naylor. Claire is the Co-founder of Women LEAD, an organization that works to empower women and girls in Nepal. You can hear more about her project on December 5th, at our Women, Power, and Peace Awards. Get your tickets today!
1) What is your background? What got you interested in work empowering young women?
My family’s move to rural Nepal shortly after my third birthday meant my earliest memories were shadowed by incredible material poverty, ingrained gender discrimination, and a decade-long civil war. A childhood where I daily observed, but failed to fully understand the effects of a rigidly patriarchal society, left me with many unarticulated questions as I transitioned first into Kathmandu, then boarding school in south India, and finally university in DC.
Although child marriage, illiteracy, and feminized poverty seemed to be the norm, the impressions of Nepalese women and girls that remain with me are their resilience, compassion, and laughter. Their ability to not only survive but embrace life, even in the midst of violent conflict and a society that denied them even basic human rights, inspired me from an early age. Witnessing the resourcefulness and strength of my friends’ mothers gave me a profound respect for Nepali women and started me thinking how much their daughters could accomplish if only they had the privilege of a strong education and leadership and professional opportunities.
Spending my childhood playing, learning and getting into trouble alongside friends whose lives were on a totally different trajectory than mine gave me a drive to transform the injustices preventing them from pursuing their passions and following their dreams. It wasn’t until a couple years ago, however, that I realized I didn’t really want to transform Nepal’s unjust structures and institutions- I wanted Nepalese women and girls to do that themselves- from the inside out, from the grassroots level all the way up to high level policy, and started Women LEAD to do just that.
2) Why did you decide to found Women LEAD? What are its strengths and accomplishments as an organization?
There was no specific turning point in my realization that I needed to turn my academic pursuit of understanding the gendered discrimination and feminized poverty I had been surrounded by into action. Rather, a series of ‘ah ha’ moments- some from professors and publications, others from 3am debates in our library’s coffee shop, and more from the internships and volunteer work I did throughout college. It was an opportunity from ‘Projects for Peace’ that turned the ‘someday’ into ‘why not now?’ (although we only got the grant the following summer). As [my co-founder] Claire [Charamnac] and I examined, and were very quickly overwhelmed by all the development challenges facing post-conflict Nepal, we realized that no direct intervention on our part could affect change at the magnitude and depth that we had set our sights on. That it was foolish to think that any outside intervention would result in the sustainable, inclusive, and nationally-owned solutions Nepal needed. Instead, we would help establish a culture of peace by working to build up and support a generation of confident, compassionate, and qualified female leaders to tackle deep-rooted injustices.
Women LEAD’s core strength is that we don’t work FOR anyone, instead we work WITH our participants, partnering with talented, visionary girls and women to help them achieve their personal visions for Nepal and hopes for their own lives. From an organizational standpoint, another strength is that we embody our core values- we are youth-driven and youth-led, and are constantly reflecting and growing as a learning organization.
I would say one of our biggest accomplishments is that we are still here and that we’re growing. The very fact that Women LEAD exists is a testament to the dramatic change Nepal has undergone- it’s amazing that an organization focused on women and girls’ leadership, entrepreneurship and advocacy development exists in a country where it’s a struggle to persuade families to invest in their daughters’ basic education. Bringing high-caste male principals in our partner schools to the ‘ah ha’ moment of how valuable and powerful their female students are, was a huge achievement
I can’t claim the individual achievements of our participants as Women LEAD’s achievements- although we help the girls find their voice, provide them with the support, platform, experience and opportunities needed to create change; their voices and successes are their own. On the first and last days of our Leadership Institute, we asked the girls how powerful they were on a scale of 1-10. Watching the girls move from the 1-3 range to the 7-10 over the course of two weeks was a huge achievement. Although they had gained a deeper understanding of the challenges women face in Nepal; developed leadership and followership skills; wrote a resume for the first time; and now knew basic self-defense, nothing radical had changed- except that they now identified as leaders and had first identified and then articulated their power.
Every time a girl we work with self-identifies as a leader, we are one step closer to establishing positive peace in Nepal- ultimately our biggest accomplishments are in the instantaneous moments that start the girls out on a journey… and we can’t wait to see where they end up! For now, we come alongside them, sharing in their joy and pride of gaining admission to the top engineering and medical campuses in the country; of challenging their community’s perceptions and treatment of child domestic workers; of returning to their schools to train and mentor middle school students; and of impacting national change through internships at leading women’s NGOs.
So far we’ve trained 64 amazing young women to be leaders not only in the future, but today. Through our School LEADership, Social Entrepreneurship, and Internship programs, they’ve already impacted their schools, communities, and vulnerable women and children throughout Nepal. Through our School LEADership program, the girls are challenging the assumptions of over 100 middle-school students as they work to establish leadership identities, foster mutual respect between male and female students, and empower them as changemakers.
3) What is your favorite aspect of peacebuilding work?
My favorite aspect of peacebuilding work, by far, is that every day (even on my worst days) I get to be part of something bigger than myself. When I reflect on all the amazing women who have gone before my generation, like Leymah Gbowee, who have built an incredible legacy for us, and look forward to the promise and passion of the next generation of girls who are already raising their voices for peace, I’m awed by the power of the movement and honored to play a part in it.
Also, the more I work on peacebuilding, the more I’m convinced that it isn’t a job, it’s an identity- so I love that what I do is an extension of who I am, or at least, who I try to be. I feel so blessed to be part of something that holds me to a higher standard and challenges me to reflect on my actions and attitudes on a daily basis as I try to not only build peace through my work, but enact peace in my relationships and every-day life.
Don’t miss the chance to celebrate Claire’s word at our awards ceremony on December 5th. We hope to see you there!