Inspirational Woman Interview: Claire Charamnac

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Claire Charamnac has worked in international development at women’s rights organizations and international development agencies in Nepal, Tajikistan, Washington, DC, Singapore and Madagascar. She is currently working for Catholic Relief Services in Madagascar and is the co-founder of Women LEAD, a leadership development organization for young women in Nepal. She is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and serves as a Board member of the Red Thread Foundation for Women.

What is your background?

Claire Charamnac: I have a very multicultural background; my Dad is from France and my Mom is from the Philippines but I grew up in Singapore. My career has mostly been focused on youth development and gender, and has been in Asia, specifically Nepal. I have also worked in Singapore, Tajikistan and lived in the US for almost 10 years for undergraduate and graduate school and worked in DC for the US operations of Women LEAD. After graduate school, I took a position at the Catholic Relief Services in Madagascar and I have been there since September.

You are currently an International Fellow at the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Madagascar. What inspired you to join the CRS and can you tell us about some of the initiatives you’ve been working on?

Claire Charamnac: The two big things that inspired me to join CRS were 1) Its values – it’s an organization focused on serving the poorest and most marginalized; it is an organization that intervenes in the most severe humanitarian crises and works in agricultural and health. 2) Its reputation – the CRS works in over 90 countries, reaching over 100 million people. These are astounding numbers.

When I was applying for jobs after graduate school, I hadn’t heard of the CRS which was surprising as they are one of the biggest development agencies in the world. When I spoke to my professors and peers, they had very high praises for the CRS and its programs. Right now, I’m working on business development but the fellowship offers a year-long opportunity to rotate between business development, operations, monitoring and evaluation, and research. That’s been very interesting for me and I wanted to go from working at a very small organization to working at a very large organization as there are benefits to both and I really wanted to see the inner workings of a large organization.

The biggest misconception about the CRS is that you have to be a Catholic to work with them, but you don’t have to be a Catholic or of any religion at all – this doesn’t factor into their hiring decision process. The key thing is that you have to share their values: caring about the poor and the marginalized. The CRS doesn’t do any religious activities and proselytization and we serve communities regardless of their religion.

You are the Co-Founder and formerly Executive Director of Women LEAD Nepal. What motivated you to found Women LEAD and what has been its impact on the community so far?

Claire Charamnac: The impetus was the inequality women face everywhere but in Nepal that is a larger degree; in Nepal, women’s access to education, employment and healthcare is one of the most limited in the world. Women face more of the brunt of being unable to access opportunities and are really discriminated against; they face a lot of violence. I think that a society cannot move forward unless its leadership reflects half of its population. It was very important to us to equip women with personal and professional tools to become leaders in their lives, schools, communities and nation; that they can do this wherever they are or whatever age they are.

Women LEAD has helped unearth the potential they already have and provided the, the opportunities they can take hold of that can help them become the leaders they can be. It looks like a lot of different types of leadership, for example, excelling at university, pursuing internships at NGOs, or being involved with the media. The girls learned how to serve in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal; they went back to their communities, did self-directed campaign to support victims of the earthquake and wrote media op-eds. I think the successes are really in the girls, their stories, their lives and the opportunities they’re taking advantage of and the ways they are paying it forward for the next generation of women leaders.

Can you tell us about some of your research related to women’s issues, and your most valuable takeaways from these experiences?

Claire Charamnac: One of the research projects I did at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security was about economic empowerment and violence against women. For example, how are organizations that are working on economic empowerment working on violence against women. The reason why I asked this question was because there was a lot of data and theories that said that when a woman gains earning power, she can face backlash from her husband. However, in some cases, she could also gain more power in the household and the violence decreases. We don’t have a lot of data in a lot of countries and within each context, it’ll be very different. The research experience showed me that it’s important to look at the connections; if we’re working on economic empowerment, we must make sure there is no unintended consequence that there is increased violence against them at home. If we’re facing violence against women, the solution to that for the most part is to provide them with more economic independence so they can assert themselves and have the ability to leave very terrible situations.

The intersections are really interesting and the issues that come up during this research is that there is often not enough funding to research that. Even if you’re looking internally within an organization, you’ll have one Gender Advisor in an organization and that person is expected to do everything related to gender. We have to be connected in our thinking and consider the consequences on all sorts of vulnerable populations; we have to think about those who are marginalized and how our policy actions will impact them.

In your opinion, what are the biggest issues facing women in Madagascar and Nepal?

Claire Charamnac: Thankfully, in the past 20 years we have seen an increase in education for women and girls; we are seeing almost an evening out especially at the primary school level. Girls who are out of school in Madagascar and Nepal are often the most vulnerable girls – girls with disabilities, girls of ethnic minorities, girls who live in remote areas. That’s still a remaining issue but there are still many girls out of school and they are in the hardest-to-reach areas. These are extremely poor countries and poverty will affect these women and girls the hardest. That results in many health issues; you see high mortality rates of women under five. Forced marriage also contributes to girls’ absence from school, which is incredibly high in Nepal and also high in Madagascar.

Violence against women is also a key issue. Around 35% of women in Madagascar say they have been affected by violence and when women are perceived to be of a lower status in society, they will be more likely to face violence. Also, so many women work in the informal economy; they are working poorly paid jobs that put them in the risk of violence including sexual violence. The issue is how to get women in regularized jobs with better pay and enable them to support their families; to give them the economic independence to give them the lives they want to lead.

You are also the Vice-President and a Board Member at the Red Thread Foundation for Women. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives you have been involved with?

Claire Charamnac: It’s primarily a scholarship for women who are first-generation college students. This is super important because women are able to have higher education. It’s a small scholarship but it covers books or anything else that could be a heavy burden. Red Thread also covers mentorship and it’s important because if you’re the first person in your family to go to university, it’s very overwhelming especially if you don’t have someone to help guide you through it.

From your experiences, what have been some effective nonprofit and governmental strategies to further women’s participation in educational institutions or professional fields?

Claire Charamnac: There has been so much more investment from governments for education for girls; that investment has partly been fueled through cash transfer programs. That cash is given to mothers in exchange to ensure that your child goes to school or gets vaccinations. It’s proven to be an effective way to get kids to go to school as it relieves parents’ financial burden which is the primary reason they don’t send their children to school. It ensures that kids stay in school because shocks occur (financial or natural disasters) and they’re pulled out of school to work. Cash transfers help acts as a buffer against that. Another effective mechanism has been to remove school fees; there are still a lot of hidden fees but a lot of fees have been removed or lowered. By no means is this perfect (sometimes parents still struggle to cover the costs of the books, uniforms, and more)  but it’s become an important policy across developing countries. This has, however, been mostly at the primary level and there still needs to be a greater emphasis on the secondary level.

In terms of professional fields, a lot of women sadly are still in the informal economy. But when you lift an economy out of poverty effectively the rising tide lifts all boats. There will still be a lot of inequality but in those situations, a lot of women will have access to more jobs. The remaining issue is childcare; if you don’t provide affordable childcare, it’s hard for women to take on a structured job 9-to-5 that requires them to be in the office all day. There definitely have been strides but it’s uneven across regions and countries and it’s nowhere where it should be at.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Claire Charamnac: I think it matters because it’s an issue that almost every woman will face in some way; it can be in subtle ways like getting an uncomfortable comment when walking down the street or it could be blatant like violence against women. The fact that there’s so much work to be done makes me so motivated to work on this.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Claire Charamnac: Most women can point to coming from a legacy of really strong women. In order to survive and move forward in this world, you have to be strong and resilient. From both sides of my family, I have very strong female relatives who have worked in farms and fought for their rights – we stand on the shoulders of giants.

I am very inspired by nuns; in my work, I get to meet nuns. In poor countries, the church fills the void for where there are no governments or NGOs. A few months ago, I traveled many hours on nonexistent roads in a remote part of Madagascar where there is a drought and a famine. One of the nuns I met there blew me away because she helps us run a food distribution program for a village that’s been the most affected by the famine. This site serves hundreds of people and she runs it all almost by herself; she woke up every week for six months at 3 AM to serve these people. It’s inspiring. She never stops: she wants to get funding for a well and give youth access to income-generating activities. I wondered how she could do all this! These women are the ultimate no-exaggeration heroes – they don’t get paid, they do this every day out of faith, patience and courage.

What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to women’s empowerment and international development?

Claire Charamnac: I tend to read The Guardian’s Development Professionals website, IRIN, News Deeply’s Women and Girls Hub that I subscribe to as it gives a deep dive into the issues that women and girls face worldwide. Plan International does a lot of good work related to women’s empowerment. I also like Foreign Policy Interrupted, which is foreign policy articles written by female foreign policy professionals which sadly are few in the field. I admire people who are talking about these issues like Anne-Marie Slaughter who in her book Unfinished Business discusses issues like how to talk about childcare and about involving men in the conversation.

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