Didi, my heart lies in tourism and I want to go to Australia for further studies. But my brother says I should stay at home to take care of my mother until I get married. Tell me what should I do?
Asked Geeta, my tour guide, while navigating me through the labyrinth of narrow alleys of Panauti, a 15th-century town of Nepal.
Geeta wasn’t an aberration, there are many like her trying to break the mold and change women’s status in Nepal. Staying at Panauti Community Homestay, I observed how one of the oldest towns of Nepal has become a beacon of hope for Nepali women. In 2013, fifteen women from this small town came forward to raise their status in the society through tourism.
The women in Nepal are often oppressed and restricted to the four walls of the house, thanks to the patriarchal society. To overcome this wrong, these women collectively initiated the homestay program where they could host and interact with travelers from all around the world, improve their English skills, and earn through sustainable tourism. This was my first encounter with meeting Nepal’s Women of Steel.
As I spent more days in Nepal, I kept meeting more women like them. But I still did not notice the subtle change these women are bringing in the social fabric of Nepal until I heard the roaring voice of Shailee Basant on the stage of Himalayan Travel Mart in June 2017.
A petite five-foot girl, traditionally clad in a sari, captivated the audience with her soul-stirring presentation. From a girl asking a palm reader “Will I ever climb Mt. Everest”, to climbing the Seven Summits of the world; she has come a long way. Her story did not end at scaling all the Seven Summits, it started from there. She and her team found a new mission – Everest to Empowerment. Using their platform, they empower girls from an underprivileged background to win over life’s loftier mountains like illiteracy, child marriage, and human trafficking.
Her story inspired me to dig deeper. A country where the world’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest, is worshipped as a mother (Sagarmatha), 70 percent of women are subjected to gender discrimination. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Index reveals that Nepal ranks 110th out of 144 countries on gender parity. Here women have rights only on paper. To change this crude reality, some women with titanium spines are fighting to bring light at the end of the tunnel. They are Nepal’s Women of Steel, who are changing lives and entering new fields like Tourism. I was intrigued to know more about them but I didn’t have the means to reach out. Suman Pandey, the Chairman of PATA and Founder of Explore Himalaya, pitched in and organised meetings with these courageous ladies.
Indira Ranamagar: The Ma of the prisoned children
Away from the hullabaloo of touristy Thamel, I walked through the trodden dusty streets of Kathmandu to reach a two-storied building. As I climbed the narrow staircase, two innocent smiles of three-year-old kids greeted me. After a minute, casually dressed Indira Ranamagar walked in with ruffled hair and a radiant smile.
When I was born, my father abandoned my mother because he wanted a son. I grew up in extreme poverty and had to fight for education. I knew how it felt to be marginalized and wanted to help others in misery. In the 1990s I started working towards providing education and a better life to children who were living in prisons with their jailed mothers. It’s been an arduous journey. No financial support from the government or individuals. I was called names. My detractors tried hard to stop me but I did not give up. The smiling faces of my children was my strength.
said Indira with tears of happiness.
For more than 20 years, she has been transforming lives and is lovingly called “Ma” (mother) by over 600 children she had given shelter to. She not only saves them from serving sentence in jails along with their parents but also trains them to contribute to Nepal’s Tourism Industry through education and training.
After meeting the woman who saves children from falling into a world of crime, I wanted to meet the woman who rehabilitates the abused.
Sunita: The rehabilitator of human trafficking victims
When tragedy strikes, there are two ways to react – give up, or fight. Sunita Danuwar, the Executive Director of Sakti Samuha, chose the second.
19 years back when I was rescued from the human trafficking racket, my world changed forever. My family rejected me. Nobody would employ me. It was then that I resolved to help girls with a similar fate. Rescuing girls is a beginning; the real battle starts with their rehabilitation.
The pain of a dreadful past was clearly written over her face but her eyes sparkled with determination. Over the years, her organization has trained hundreds of the human trafficking victims to become emotionally and financially independent. Some girls joined the Tourism Industry to become tour and trek guides.
I next moved to interview the girl who opened the doors of Travel and Tourism to these survivors.
Maya: The advocate of sustainable tourism
Age-old traditions cannot chain a mind who is born free. Maya, the founding member of the Seven Summit Women team, is a living example.
I was 13-year old when my family fixed my marriage. I wanted to study but they wanted to get rid of their responsibility. So, on the eve of my marriage, I ran away from my house. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I knew what I didn’t want in life. I took charge of my life
The self-schooled girl, hated by her entire village, is now a role model. After climbing the Seven Summits, she is using the platform to promote wilderness treks and volunteer tourism around Sindhupalchok district in Nepal. She is currently involved in training a group of young trafficking survivors.
And Maya is not the only one playing an active role in propagating sustainable tourism. Some have sacrificed a stable life for an unstable business.
Sangita: The catalyst for change in Nepal Tourism Industry
She left her teaching career to become an entrepreneur in a male-dominated world of Adventure Tourism. Her journey has been a rollercoaster ride.
When I started off, women were not taken seriously in the Tourism industry. Simple tasks like getting a Trek permit was a Herculean task. I would run pillar to post for help. And when it came to hiring staff, I always struggled with getting female guides, porters, and partners. I had to become emotionally, mentally and physically strong to sustain in this industry
recounted Sangita about her struggle days, which are far from over.
Her company Himalayan Namobuddha Travel & Treks is a start-up venture trying to create a niche by providing unique human experiences. For instance, after every tour or trek, they give a complimentary massage by Seeing Hands, a social enterprise providing training and employment opportunities in massage therapy for visually impaired people. Currently, there are 4 massage clinics across Nepal, each employing teams of professionally-trained blind therapists who provide massage to visiting guests. Part of the fees they earn is used to fund the training and employment of more blind masseurs so the organisation can grow and develop.
Now isn’t that a beautiful example of Responsible Tourism?
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I was invited by Nepal Tourism Board for the Himalayan Travel Mart in Nepal. All the experiences shared above, like always, are based on my (Archana Singh’s) personal experiences. Pictures posted above were clicked by me during my stay.