Women-Led Trekking Company Challenges Social Norms In Nepal

In Nepal, a social enterprise is employing a for-profit and nonprofit hybrid model to finance the country’s first and only women-led trekking agency.

Note, Nepal is ranked as one of the worst countries to be a female, and sits on the bottom of the Human Development Index, which measures for quality of life and the chance to improve one’s socio-economic status. Hence, to have a women-centric business, financed and led by women, is no small feat.

In the 1990s, three sisters, Lucky, Dicky and Nicy, from Darjeeling, India relocated to Pokhara in Nepal to start a guesthouse for visitors. Quickly they learned that only Nepalese men were taking foreigners into the Himalayas on treks. This posed a challenge for female travelers — and even some allegations of abuse surfaced. So the trio started Three Sisters Adventure Trekking where women would lead other women on treks in Nepal.

Instead of just running a business that pairs up foreigners with female Nepali guides, they also set up a non-profit called Empowering Women of Nepal, or EWN. The non-profit provides six months of free training to Nepali women interested in learning about mountaineering and the outdoors. To date more than 2,000 women from around the country have done the training program and many have continued on to become guides for the for-profit trekking business.

“Whether or not these women go on to become a guide, we feel it is a seed planted for them and future generations. We demonstrate that women are mentally, physically and emotionally as strong as men,” Lucky says.

In a male-dominated society, this has not been an easy business to build. Lucky explains that the early days were filled with pushback, resentment, and insults from the community, some even referring to the company as a cover for sex trafficking and questioning their desire to work with lower caste women.

Yet, ironically, Nepali women are ideally suited for the job. Raised in rural homes straddling incredible heights in mountainous communities, they’re strong, independent, and capable of taking on arduous physical labor. What they lacked was the opportunity to get a job beyond the home or farm.

So the three sisters developed an educational program to not just educate them with basic literacy and essentials of trekking, but also help them come out of their shell — physically and emotionally.

The free training program is open to any girl over the age of 16. Once they graduate from the training process, the girls can decide whether or not they want to become guides. Not all do, she clarifies. Some leave the program and return to their communities. Others become porters, on a path to becoming assistant guides. And few graduate to become full-time guides, and employees of Three Sisters Adventure Trekking.

Shanti Kala Rai is one of their senior guides. From the Solukhumbu district, she attended the Female Trekking Guide training and has slowly built a trekking career over the last 15 years. She’s mastered the art of climbing some of Nepal’s biggest peaks, such as Annapurna, and has even received training and recognition from foreign non-profits and mountaineering organizations. WomenWin, for instance, ran a project called 4 Peaks, 4 Weeks; all the peaks were higher than 6,000 meters. Shanti was part of a select group of women who took on the challenge — and conquered.

She admits that it’s been a long journey for her. “I’m talking to you now,” she says to me, “but before I was very nervous and shy. I really struggled with speaking with foreigners. Plus they all have different accents and it would be difficult. But now I feel more confident and comfortable.”

I ask her if she faced any resistance from men in her community when she decided to become a female guide, she admits she did. “One time when I was taking a group on the Annapurna trek, there was this male guide who didn’t know I was a guide. We were staying in a hotel and he asked me to hand him the menu. I told him, I didn’t work there. He asked what I did. I explained and he said, ‘So now you’re taking our jobs as well?’”

She replied to him, “Brother, we are also just as capable and we also have families.”

Rai who is now in her early 30s, still supports her family with her earnings, and is unmarried. So family duties rest on her shoulders solely.

For California residents, Wendy Nyquist and Sandra Shaw this blend of social impact and eco-tourism allured them to Nepal three times. Even though, they’re both reaching 70, Nyquist is keen to go back and do one more trek with the women. “We had never even thought that a female guide would ever be an option and when we discovered that, we very excited,” she says.

Having a female guide did make a difference, she goes on to explain: “[We] actually [felt] safer in that there was never any question that you might be taken advantage of or have a guy come on to you. It was easier to communicate concerns and things having to do with our health or other female concerns.”

For the three sisters who run the trekking agency, they see this model as a win-win. The company feeds its profits into the non-profit, in addition to any donations they receive. However, the company is the primary donor to the non-profit, creating a self-sustaining model that has endured 20 years of business.

To see more stories on impact and mission-driven businesses, follow me at www.rethinksocial.wordpress.com, on Twitter at @esh2440, and Instagram at eshatravels.

(Three Sisters Adventure Trekking Company in Nepal combines a for-profit and non-profit model to educate and employ Nepali women as guides for foreign visitors.) (Source: Forbes)

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