On Shadowhunters, Katherine McNamara spends her time fighting demons to make the world a better place. But the 20-year-old actress—who plays Clary Fray on the Freeform (formerly ABC Family) series—wants to make an impact IRL, too.
A lifetime member of the Girl Scouts, McNamara started giving back to the community at a young age—and for her latest charitable role, she’s become a champion for the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign (learn more at girlup.org). The initiative helps adolescent girls in developing nations achieve success and stay healthy by providing educational, economic, and social opportunities; and from the moment that she learned about the mission on social media, McNamara knew that she wanted to get involved.
“Girl Up changes the world by inspiring girls to help girls,” McNamara told InStyle. “The program empowers young girls and gives them the platform to make their voices heard by creating a support system.” The message is universal, and it’s one that McNamara fully believes in. “Girls are the most powerful force for change in the world,” she said. “We have big dreams, passion, and an undying hope. So if we work together, there is no stopping us.”
For her first major project as a Girl Up ambassador, McNamara is raising awareness for the campaign’s SchoolCycle program, which provides bicycles to girls in Guatemala. “In developing countries, so many girls have to drop out of school around age 15 because the terrain is treacherous and it’s dangerous for them to get around safely,” said McNamara. “They’re often forced into terrible working conditions or child marriages, so all of their freedom, independence, and dreams are taken from them in an instant.” Girl Up’s School Cycle program aims to restore that sense of freedom. “By simply providing a girl with a bicycle, it gives them the opportunity to choose their own future,” said McNamara. “They can choose to go to school; they can choose to get a job; they can choose to do whatever they want, because they have a form of transportation that allows them the independence and freedom that they deserve to pursue their dreams.”
McNamara’s #GirlPower message extends to all aspects of life—including the workplace. “Women are pitted against each other so often in today’s world, and I think that it’s so unnecessary and ridiculous,” she said. “There is absolutely no reason for women to compete with one another or have any animosity between each other, which is something that I have seen a lot—especially in the entertainment industry. So I do everything in my power to stop that and to encourage support, friendship, and empowerment among all of the women that I meet.”
And the Shadowhunters set is no exception. McNamara is thrilled that she’s formed a lasting friendship with her co-star, Emeraude Toubia, who plays fellow Shadowhunter Isabelle Lightwood on the show. “We are the two main women in the cast, and our characters are both strong, powerful, independent women—yet they are never pinned against each other,” she said. “They are never once put in competition with one another in any of the plots, and I find that to be so refreshing.”
It’s allowed the co-stars to bond off-camera, too. “Emeraude has become like a big sister to me, and I adore her,” said McNamara. “An over-arching spirit of support and encouragement has carried over from the show into our own personal lives—and we’re both only children, so having somebody to call a sister is really amazing.”
McNamara also has a great deal of respect for her character on the show. “Clary is a strong and independent young woman who has drive and passion for everything that she does,” said McNamara. “She has a huge heart, and her humanity is very much played upon throughout the series. She’s a flawed heroine—she makes mistakes, just like everyone else.”
McNamara hopes that fans relate to Clary’s ups and downs and are inspired by her will to survive. “There are several points throughout the season where Clary is reduced to nothing, but she finds the strength to rise from the ashes and pick herself back up,” said McNamara. “Everybody has moments in life where they feel like all is lost and it will never get better, but there’s always an ember of hope—and it is so important to find it.”