Awon 49 Turns Forty-Nine: Active Women Who Make a Difference

Features Issue 31 Aug, 2010
Text by Baishali Bomjan / Photo: ECS Media

I was lucky to have called Marilu Sharif, President of AWON just a day before their “Ladies Brunch”, which happens once a month, every first Thursday at Chez Caroline. AWON stands for Active Women of Nepal. Expecting to meet only a few executive members, I stepped into Chez Caroline. The buzz of lively chatter emanating from this really big bunch of energetic women was quite overwhelming. I wound my way up to Marilu and after warm greetings from her and other members we finally found ourselves a quiet corner. Meeting these ladies and escorting all of them to the main courtyard for a group photo was fun and celebrating AWON’s April birthday was even more fun. This is the “fun” side of AWON, the camaraderie that they share, once a week. For an organization without an office, this was also their official meeting.

The Birth of AWON
It all began in 1955, when Dr. Bethel Fleming gathered five lady friends in the family kitchen and came up with the idea of starting a club. They named it AWON (then called American Women of Nepal) with a vision to promote interaction, fellowship, and understanding among expatriate women living and working in Nepal. 49 years later the organization is bigger and better than ever, “Making a difference to the lives of Children and Women in Nepal” as their motto reads. The organization was renamed Active Women of Nepal a couple of years ago to include all nationalities. AWON today has some 280 members (28 Nepalese and 37 other nationalities) from various sectors of the community. “Everyone has a job here, which is why each one is an active participant at AWON,” informs Marilu.

I was surprised to find that unlike any other voluntary, non-political, non-profit social organization, AWON still has no permanent office. So how do they work— through e-mails, phone calls and their Thursday morning coffee meeting.

Elected for a second consecutive year, Marilu Sharif comes across as a vibrant, determined and jovial person. She brings with her an abundant experience in the field of administration (having worked for several UN agencies). A friend of mine (a member of AWON) told me, “If you want something done, she makes it happen.” A Filipino, Marilu married Dr. Mohammad Sharif, a Nepali thirty years ago. A retired personnel administrator at The International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria, Marilu joined AWON as Fundraising Committee Chairperson in 1988. As her dreams got bigger, so did the challenges but Marilu sailed through and took AWON to new heights.

Commitment to Committees
Well known for its three main institutions: the Kalimati Clinic; the AWON Library and the AWON Scholarship for Girl Children in the outlying villages in Nepal (they cover 22 districts and have provided an annual award of 300 scholarships for many years and still continue to so) AWON today has altogether seven working committees under their banner; Fundraising, Hospitality, Library, Membership, Publicity, Scholarship and Welfare each with a sense of purpose, direction and focus.

The AWON Library
The AWON library has been in existence for over 40 years and has moved several times. It now occupies a two-storied building opposite the Hotel Himalaya in Kupondole and depends solely on the public for donations of books and magazines. With well over 1,000 members, this library has the largest collection of children’s books in English, as well as an excellent collection for adults. There are valuable books on Nepal along with books on a large variety of subjects both fiction and non-fiction. Ram Shrestha has been working here since the beginning and manages the place. Keshuman, (yes, the one with a 100 volt smile) is there ever ready to assist you. At the helm of the committee is Sandra Coughlin, the Library Chairperson and in her absence Sudeshna Bose, Co Chairperson.

For details: 552-0803 or e-mail at

The AWON Kalimati Clinic
Established in 1959 by Dr. Bethel Fleming and her friends under AWON as a non-profit social service center, the Clinic has now been registered as an NGO and works under a Nepalese Board. With primary focus on medical treatment, preventative health care and education for lower income families the Clinic has served approx 3,000,000 people of the northwest part of Kathmandu. So reputed was the clinic that even Hillary Clinton, while she was the First Lady visited the Clinic on April 25th 1995 and encouraged the staff to expand the reproductive health services. Since then, family planning and STD services have become a strong feature of the Clinic’s service. So much so that Engender Health, an INGO effective in 30 different countries with over 3000 partners awarded the Clinic with the Engender Health Partnership Award in 2002 for its successful contribution in the delivery of quality, reproductive health services to the underserved population of Kathmandu and also received a monitory prize of USD 10, 000. Today the clinic has over 19 employees with five ongoing doctors, fully computerized database systems and the best of medical facilities.

Services provided at the Clinic
Health check-up- every year the clinic physicians examine more than 8000 people out of whom 70 percent are children.

Immunization Services- With support from the Nepal Government more than 4000 infants and children visit the clinic for immunization services every year for BCG, DPT, Polio, Measles and TT.

Pharmaceutical Services- The Clinic has its own well-equipped pharmacy where the cost of the medicines are subsidized by the Clinic and the cost of medication are 20 percent less than retail prices.

Other services at the Clinic include Family Planning Service and the Group Health Care where a membership fee of NRs. 1200 per person entitles you to a year-round health care service including unlimited number of physician visits, counseling and health advice. Any support/contribution is welcome. For details: 4271873 (T/F) or e-mail at

AWON Education and Training
A new agenda of Literacy training and Skill development for both children and women gave birth to the Education and Training Committee. “Everybody has the right to education be it children or adults. And what better way than to educate the mother herself, instilling in her a sense of self worth that may transcend generations to come,” explains Marilu. Although waves of modernization have crept into the Nepali society, shades of discrimination towards girl children still exist. AWON Scholarship Sub Committee administers a scholarship program for girls outside Kathmandu (in grades 1 to 12) in collaboration with Peace Corps Volunteers Women in Development (WID). At present AWON provides annual scholarships to more than 300 such children and further considers proposals for the training of women in skills that would enable them to earn a livelihood.

This year they have three forthcoming projects: 1. The Literacy program for Women of the Drola Community at Bhaktapur with the Red Cross Society. 2. An Income Generation program for women affected by domestic violence with SAATHI, an NGO where these women will be trained in making Lokta paper and other stationary. 3 .The regular Scholarship Program for girls residing in the villages of Nepal in conjunction with WID. “We are very enthusiastic and look forward to our new commitments to educate women, train them to become financially independent as well as to provide scholarships to the underprivileged,” says a confident Marilu. “We’ve had great response for these programs and already have over 35 women joining the literacy program and 20 women joining the training program”.

Some facts about AWON’s programs

  • AWON’s first skill development training grant in July 2003 allowed 28 members of a micro-credit cooperative in Kathmandu to learn food preservation skills. The course was organized by the Kathmandu Business and Professional Women (KBPW) who also provided marketing classes.
  • AWON funded a month-long training course for these members of the women’s empowerment group “Mahila Shakti” in Banepa to learn knitting in November 2003. Another group organized by the NGO ’Share and Care in Medico’ in Pharping, received similar training in September 2003. Graduates are selling their wares to the Association for Craft Producers.

AWON Welfare Committee
This committee is the brains behind the splendid work that AWON is noted for and adviser to the Executive Board on welfare matters. Setting priorities is a humongous task. But AWON makes it all look easy; must say a result of the dedication and efficiency on their part. “The committee conducts a lot of research work and reviews as well as approves as the case may be, all proposals or requests for funding of projects to assist the needy women and children of Nepal,” says Marilu.

AWON Fundraising Committee
Each year this committee entices people with their creative and fun filled events. What for? Simply to raise the much-needed funds to support the community and social work carried out by the AWON Library, Education & Training, and Welfare Committees. Some of their fundraisers were the Venetian Masquerade Ball at Hotel Yak and Yeti last November, the AWON/PALs Rock and Roll Party at Hotel Shankar (see Snap Gallery). The most recent fundraiser (to buy a bus for the handicapped children at the Navajyoti Center in Baluwatar) was a concert at Hotel Yak and Yeti, featuring the Austrian flautist Karin Leitner with Greek classical guitarist Jorgos Panetos. “Even though the funds are low we pride ourselves in making that little difference,” says Marilu. She adds, “Its all been possible only with the good will and support from our well wishers and the dedication on part of our members.” The other AWON fundraising events include an Autumn and a Spring ‘Tika Box Sale’ of used merchandise, the annual Christmas Bazaar, professional lectures at their monthly luncheons, and an Annual Membership Tea. Of a purely social nature, AWON hosts weekly coffee mornings at various venues around town and is open to all members as well as guests. According to Marilu, “These efforts allow AWON to give scholarship awards to village girls, provide training to their mothers and other women, operate the AWON Library, and provide one-time funding of projects under the guidance of the Welfare Committee that deal with the health and educational needs of the community and the women and children of Nepal.”

The other Committees

Each committee has an important agenda to fulfill and each plays a key role in keeping the wheels turning at AWON. The AWON Membership committee organizes the Annual Membership Tea Party normally in September. “The primary purpose of the party is to provide assistance to the newly arrived expatriates to Kathmandu and help ease the difficulties of settling down in a foreign land,” says Marilu who does this by inviting as many entrepreneurs, schools, clubs, beauty saloons, book stores, whom they feel an expatriate would appreciate knowing the existence of in Kathmandu.  During the same tea party, a membership drive takes place where one can become an AWON member with an annual membership fee of NRs. 800. This committee also takes out the annual membership directory (which lists the names and telephone numbers of all the members and their contact numbers as well as the telephone numbers that a member would need to know while in Nepal: including schools, embassies, airlines, hospitals, etc).

The AWON Hospitality Committee organizes the weekly Thursday coffee morning and the monthly Ladies Brunch.

And lastly, the AWON Publicity Committee keeps the entire organization intact and rolling through their weekly digest (every Tuesday) with all AWON news and events, happenings about town, various ads (such as household staff, car sales, etc.), health news, inspirational messages, etc.

Excitement, pleasure, a sense of achievement and above all a family- that’s what AWON stands for. With support from their family members and well-wishers alone, AWON today has reached greater heights and has not only made a difference to the lives of the poor and the needy but has also touched the souls of each of its members, encouraging and inspiring them to reach out to others. A final word; its great fun being there!