Women trekking guides take the lead in Nepal
Gulf Times: When Saraswati Biswakarma first started working as a trekking guide a decade ago, she was greeted by jeers from male porters and trekking guides.
”You’ve snatched our job’, they would shout when I walked up the mountains with over 10kg on my back,” said the 28-year-old.
Biswakarma was one of the first – and is still one of the few – women in Nepal to take up the profession of trekking guide. She is also one of only four women to have ascended Annapurna IV, considered one of the toughest walks in Nepal. The struggle to get there has been uphill in more ways than one.
“When I first started, my family was under a lot of pressure from my relatives and neighbours to make me quit,” she says. “Women who work and travel with foreigners are often seen as those who have tainted characters,” she said. “It wasn’t easy for me to continue.”
She persevered with support from her father and uncle, who also worked as trekking guides, and now lives and works with the Chettri Sisters Trekking Company. Since it was established in 1998, the company has been helping women like Biswakarma who want to be part of the trekking industry, an activity traditionally for men.
Company founder Lucky Chettri, 47, saw a business opportunity in the lack of women working as porters or guides. “I was operating a tourist lodge in the late 90s in Pokhara, when two young foreigner women who had just returned from a trek told me they had been sexually harassed by their drunk guides,” she says.
“They were helpless and actually wept, and that immediately got me thinking about how we could cooperate.”
The story inspired her to set up a trekking agency operated by women that would offer services to female travellers. Women in the country’s rural areas already carry heavy loads daily, she thought, so it should be feasible for them to make a living out of it. Also, they were well-placed to show the country to travellers, as they were already familiar with the local terrain.
Lucky was soon joined by her younger sisters, Dicky and Nicky. Together, they offered themselves as trekking guides for women travelling in the Himalayas. It wasn’t easy at first to recruit more women “as it was a new concept and there was the social stigma attached to it”, says Nicky. But gradually, more women wanted to become trekking guides.
In 1999, the sisters also started a non-governmental organisation called Empowering Women of Nepal, which offers free trekking guide training to women. The centre has trained over 16,000 so far.
“We train them in the classroom for a month and five months is spent on the field, trekking, where they earn while getting trained,” says Nicky. Most women set off as independent guides, while some work for the Chettri sisters.
They acquire better fitness, learn to use trekking equipment and to survive in the wilderness, and also learn foreign languages.
Laura Ortlieb, a German volunteer who has been teaching the women English and German for six months, says the exchange is beneficial for her as well. “Every day, I learn more from their experiences.”
The three sisters were also moved by the plight of children they saw working as labourers as they trekked through remote villages.
So the next part of their mission was setting up a children’s home in 2006 to rescue and shelter such children. Most of the children have been rescued with the help of the International Labour Organisation and government officials.
Sarada Nepali, 14, is one those rescued. She had been sold by a relative to a hotel in Mustang, in Nepal’s north-western mountains for 1,000 rupees ($13). There are 17 other children like her who now live at the children’s home run by the sisters and attend nearby schools.
“Rescuing the children is not an easy task, so we start by warning people how abusing children could be detrimental to their business and we seek legal help,” says Dicky, the third sister.
The children’s home also serves as a care centre for the children of the guides, as their treks can last from five to 12 days.
Each year, during the tourist season from September to March, 120 women trekking guides from the Chettri Sisters Trekking Agency lead a total of up to 800 female guests through Nepal’s treks.
“The worst time to be trekking is when you’re having your period, as you have a backache and it’s not convenient to change,” says Biswakarma. “But when people appreciate the fact that you’re rubbing shoulders with men, walking the wild, much of that tiredness just disappears.”