"I had never done anything like this before. I’d never run my own organisation, and certainly never run an exchange programme. But I just thought, you know, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll jump off the cliff and give it a try."
Julia Lynch founded the Global Girl Project, a leadership development exchange programme that immerses participants in different cultures, languages and ideas, in 2014. It operates in Nepal and other developing countries including Haiti, India and Rwanda.
The charity’s "exchange scholars" learn about self-confidence, resilience and community development during their time on the programme. They also each work on a personal project on a subject of their choosing – gender equality, teenage pregnancy, discrimination, for example. They continue to work on the project when they return to their own communities, receiving educational grants to put their new skills into practice.
"Our goal is to mobilise young women throughout the developing world who live in poverty, to create social change, community change through community development and social leadership," says Lynch, who is a former social worker.
"Nobody ever told me I had power as a woman. If I had known that a lot earlier in my life, I might have made some different choices."
The project initially operated from the US, but Lynch soon realised this was not only practically challenging, given the difficulties in obtaining visas for people from marginalised and war-torn countries, but was also inconsistent with the vision of bringing as many cultures, languages and religions together as possible.
"I was never comfortable with the idea that we were telling our girls that you had to go to a rich, white country to learn how to be a leader," she reflects.
Relocating to a developing country was the obvious solution and, with its open borders and welcoming attitudes to people from different countries, cultures and religious backgrounds, Nepal became the perfect candidate for the initiative’s home. "It just clicked," Lynch says.
For a small charity, the Global Girl Project has captured the hearts and minds of organisations and donors alike, and partnerships have been integral to its success. Sponsors include Women@Disney UK&Ireland and Sierra Leone Rising. A local Nepali NGO and a partner school provide local support because the wider charity operates out of the UK. Harnessing organisations with different strengths to "work together towards a common good" is crucial, Lynch says.
The exchange is rooted in small numbers but huge impact: it accepts only eight scholars a year in its current format. But although the project can’t support thousands of candidates, Lynch is just getting started. The recent development of the Global Girls Online Leadership Academy aims to bring the same leadership syllabus to a digital environment that, if scaled up, could be run simultaneously across multiple countries in the future.
And to see the impact of the Global Girl Project in action, you have only to turn to the charity’s website for testimonies from the girls themselves. In the words of Paula, a 2019 exchange scholar from Cameroon, "I am more powerful than I thought. I never thought I’d be able to do this. I am powerful."