By: Claire Charamnac *
I can’t pinpoint one event that transformed me into a feminist activist – rather, a succession of small personal events led to a decision to co-found my own women’s rights organization and make a lifelong commitment to fighting gender inequality wherever it may be.
I feel like I always knew I was a feminist. There were things in life that bothered me, that I knew were wrong. Walking to take the bus to school one morning, at 17 years old, a nagging realization bothered me. The domestic worker (or maid as she is called in Singapore) was washing the car in her employer’s driveway at 7:30 in the morning. I heard that she wasn’t given a day’s rest, ever. She could only leave the house when her employer allowed her to. She worked long hours and often went hungry. And she was exactly my age, 17. She would never have a chance to go to school, pursue a career, make choices for herself. She was washing cars, and I was walking to school.
It was a nagging thought, which grew into small actions. I read an article in the Straits Times, the national newspaper, that said that women watched soccer just for the hot dudes and were as good to look at as cars. As a budding feminist and avid soccer fan (I know what the offside rule means, thank you very much), I wrote a riposte with my sister to the Editor, which eventually got published in the newspaper.
It was a small victory, but it tasted sweet.
Those two events remain seared in my memory, along with recollections of teachers in my high school light-heartedly teasing me for my feminist views. I’ve gotten many remarks, more flippant than anything else, about my feminism from people clearly uncomfortable with what I was doing. “Women are equal now, remember?” What am I complaining about?
I went to college in the United States and was welcomed to a diverse and tolerant campus – where feminists were still kind of considered to be “complaining”. I discovered a wonderful community of feminist activists and had conversations that challenged and shaped my feminist mindset.
And I became more and more exposed to gender discrimination. Two of my friends were sexually abused. I felt helpless. I tried to be there for them as best I could, and that’s when my feminist went from theory to practice.
I met a fellow feminist activist and that encounter changed my life. My friend Claire had grown up in Nepal and witnessed 13 year old girls being married off in her rural village or joining the civil war. Most were not able to pursue an education. Our dorm room discussions grew into an idea: why not start a project that empowered young women to become leaders? We were sick of women’s voices being silenced, and wanted to put our own voices to good use.
The project started in the summer of 2010, our junior year. We organized a two-week leadership development course for 30 female high school students in Kathmandu, Nepal. This is not one of those stories where a privileged girl meets a disadvantaged girl in an exotic locale and that experience just changes her life and she makes it her life goal to save her. There was no saving. There was no me telling them what to do. There was listening. Listening to their hopes and dreams and goals and finding out what we could do to support them in pursuing their passion.
The two-week course has become a growing organization, Women LEAD, which has now trained 64 girls in leadership development. And the whole process of setting it up has made me realize what my feminist activism will be focused on for the next few years. I’m committed to providing resources for young women across the world to pursue their vision for change. I’m not working FOR these girls; I’m 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.
My advice for women who want to help other women around the world is to make sure your relationship is based on equality. They are not our beneficiaries: they are our partners. They define their own needs and the success of our program. As we work to ensure women are treated with dignity and respect, we must make sure we work with them as equals.
*Claire grew up in Singapore and moved to the United States at 17. She just graduated from Georgetown University and is the co-founder of Women LEAD, a leadership development organization for young women in Kathmandu, Nepal. You can learn more about Claire’s organization by going to the organization’s website (www.women-lead.org), Twitter (@womenLEADnepal) and facebook page (www.facebook.com/womenLEAD). Claire’s personal blog is tosinbysilence.tumblr.com.