Women LEAD’s new office shows a strengthening of the past—and a look towards the future.
When Menuka Gurung entered Women LEAD’s new office in Jawalakhel in September 2011, she was at a loss of words—but not in a good way.
“My first thought was ‘Oh my god, we are going to have our new office here?’” recalls Menuka, a 2011 LEADer. “When I first came into the old office, it was totally nothing. It was just two buildings and a small garden.”
There had been a lot of excitement surrounding the move. Women LEAD had spent the last year working out of a small, two-room office that was neither easily accessible by public transport nor foot. The new office brought with it the space desperately needed for a rapidly-expanding NGO, even if it did come with its own limitations at first. The run-down buildings had no running water or electricity; staff from the surrounding offices were using the abandoned property to grow corn and other crops.
But Women LEAD’s Program Manager Sonu saw the potential in the run-down quarters and soon enlisted past program participants in renovating the space. That weekend, alumni from the past two cohorts gathered the two boxes that contained all of the organization’s belongings and lugged them down the road to the new location. Menuka and her peers spent the rest of the day turning the abandoned buildings into a home, uprooting weeds, finishing up the gardening, and giving the walls a fresh new coat of white paint.
Over the next three and a half years, Women LEAD would go on and train 120 LEADers in the space. The small training room became the defining space of the property, and soon became filled with the LEADers’ most cherished memories of their Women LEAD journey. From the beginning, dating back to that September morning Menuka remembers so well, Women LEAD’s own program participants had created the space. The office would go on and gather murals and paintings created by the girls from each cohort. In the corner were stacks of posters from previous activities and pictures hanging on the wall of program activities, dating back to 2010, when Women LEAD ran its first successful pilot program. When guest flew in from around the world to visit Women LEAD, they would be greeted by a “Wall of Hope,” designed by the 2013 LEADers, with multi-colored handprints and messages like “Respect Women” and “Born to Lead.”
“It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours,” says 2012 LEADer Aishwarya Shrestha, who also came out to help move into the new office that September day. “When we were doing the training in a rented space, we had to face certain restrictions. We were not allowed to do so many stuffs because we did not own the place. So maybe it wasn’t perfect, but we owned it. And, no matter how our home is, we love our home.”
That training room would remain the center of Women LEAD’s work until April 25, 2015.
Build Back Better
April 25th was a Saturday. No one should have been in the office, but Women LEAD alumni had gathered in the office that day partake in a two-part workshop that included a talk on mentorship by a female commander in the U.S. Army. The day quickly turned into one of the most devastating moments in Nepal’s recent history. The 7.8 earthquake would claim the lives of more than 8,000 individuals and caused physical and psychological damage that Nepalis are still coping with.
But LEADers quickly put any sentiments of personal sorrow and fear aside and instead sprung into action by collecting and distributing supplies to those in need. For Women LEAD, it became important to ensure that young women play a strong role in rebuilding Nepal not only in immediate relief work, but also in the country’s long-term efforts.
The need to rebuild after the 2015 Earthquakes was apparent almost immediately. Two separate earthquakes—one in April and one in May—left Women LEAD’s training room structurally unsound, making it dangerous to continue using. The trauma from that day still lingered as well, quickly usurping many of the memories that once filled the space.
“I remember seeing the bricks falling from the Steel Tower [across the street] and thinking I was going to die,” recalls Niharika Kafle, a 2014 LEADer, who was there on that tragic day. “Every time I came to Women LEAD after that, it reminded me of that. I would think, ‘What if there is another earthquake? Will I be safe this time?’”
Despite everything that had happened in the past few months, the moment seemed opportune. A safe, earthquake-resistant venue would allow Women LEAD to continue developing the next generation of female leaders in Nepal and alleviate some of the trauma the young women in the program felt while entering the space. A new space would let Women LEAD to continue delivering cost-effective programs and function as a shelter in the event of a future disaster. The investment would almost triple the current facilities, enabling Women LEAD to scale its impact and achieve its vision of women leading change alongside men in Nepal.
In October, more than half a year after needing to keep using the unsafe structure, Women LEAD began raising funds to rebuild its on-site training hall. Supporters in Nepal and around the world came together to fund the new training room and renovate the rest of the existing structure.
Women LEAD officially broke ground on February 24, 2016. For the next four months, Women LEAD’s staff would work out of a neighboring office, patiently waiting for their old office to be built back, better.
“Women LEAD built a new office for us.”
Menuka no longer had the same doubts she did when she re-entered Women LEAD’s office in June 2016.
“I first walked into the training hall and my first reaction was ‘wow,’” says Menuka. “I was praising the architecture. The room was so big. All the rooms were so big.”
Indeed, the newly-renovated space expanded the size of Women LEAD’s facilities from 885 square feet to 2225 square feet. The restoration doubled the size of the previous training room, added an additional bathroom and two new office rooms, and is equipped with state-of-the-art solar panels . The space is also one of the few in Kathmandu that is wheelchair accessible.
Menuka saw something else when she walked into the training room that day. “I could imagine another 30 girls in that room. That was my first impression,” Menuka recalls. “I thought, we could have our Leadership Institute in that room.”
The new, spacious training room allowed Women LEAD to hold its two-week long Leadership Institute on-site, rather than in rented spaces nearby like in years prior. As an intern tasked with recruiting the new batch of LEADers, Menuka, along with the other interns that summer, would help make that happen. During the two weeks, Women LEAD’s 30 newest participants experienced the Leadership Institute in a way no other group ever had before: at the Women LEAD office.
The Leadership Institute is just the beginning of all the possibilities this new space will allow Women LEAD to do. Over the next three years, this safe, earthquake-resistant space will create an effective learning environment for the over 5,000 young women that will use it. Women LEAD also will begin renting out the training room, providing an extra source of income and financial stability for the organization.
“The bigger space has given Women LEAD an opportunity to have resource center, a conference room, and more in the future,”explains Menuka, when asked about the impact of the new space. “It has opened up that door of opportunity. With bigger space comes bigger opportunities, not just for the girls, but also for the organization.”
LEADers like Aishwarya also see the expansion as symbolic of all the progress Women LEAD has made since its founding in 2010.
“Women LEAD built a new office for us. It represents our growth and that we were determined not to stop… This new office gives a message to others that we were standing strong and we were going to keep working to achieve our goal and create change in Nepal.”