In May 2017, I left the dusty streets of Kathmandu to visit Panauti, a small town located 32 km Southeast of Nepal’s capital city. I was on a heritage tour of a quaint 13th century town. Little did I know that my tryst with Nepal’s Women of Steel will begin here.The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Index reveals that Nepal ranks 110th of 144 countries on gender parity. However, some are trying hard to bridge this gap. Staying at Panauti Community Homestay, I observed how one of the oldest towns in Nepal has become a harbinger of change. In 2013, 15 women from the small town came forward to raise their status in the society through tourism. They collectively started the homestay programme where they could host and interact with travellers from all around the world.
As I spent more time in Nepal, I kept meeting similar women. At first, it did not register the subtle change they were having on the social fabric of Nepal, that was, until I heard the roaring voice of Shailee Basant speak on the stage of Himalayan Travel Mart in June 2017. A petite five-foot girl, Shailee 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 travelled quite a distance. She and her team found a new mission—Everest to Empowerment. They empower girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Shailee’s story inspired me to dig deeper. A country where the world’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest, is worshipped as mother (Sagarmatha), 70 per cent of the women are subjected to domestic violence and gender discrimination. But a few with a titanium spine are fighting to shine a light toward the end of the tunnel, changing lives and reviving tourism in the Himalayan nation. I was intrigued to know more about them. Suman Pandey, the Chairman of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), Nepal, and Founder of Explore Himalaya, organised my meetings.
Away from the hullabaloo of touristy Thamel, I walked through the trodden dusty streets of Kathmandu to reach a two-storeyed building. As I climbed the narrow staircase, two innocent three-year-old kids greeted me.“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 my education. I wanted to help others. In the 1990s, I started working towards providing education and a better life to children who were living in prisons with their incarcerated mothers. It has been an arduous journey with no financial support. My detractors tried hard to stop me, but I did not give up,” says Indira Ranamagar, with tears of happiness.
For more than 20 years Indira has been changing lives, and is lovingly called “Ma” (mother) by over 600 children she has provided shelter for. She trains them to contribute to Nepal’s tourism industry through education and vocational disciplines.Now, I wanted to meet Sunita Danuwar who rehabilitates the abused. When a tragedy strikes, there are two ways to react—give up, or fight. The Executive Director of Sakti Samuha chose the latter. “Nineteen years back when I was rescued from the human trafficking racket, my world changed forever. My family rejected me. I had no place to go.
I resolved to help girls with a similar fate. Rescuing girls is just the beginning; the real battle starts with their rehabilitation,” says Sunita.Over the years, her organisation has trained hundreds of the trafficking victims to become emotionally and financially independent. Some girls joined the tourism industry to become tour and trekking guides.
I next moved to interview the girl who opened the doors of travel and tourism to these survivors.
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 years old when my family fixed my marriage. I wanted to study but they wouldn’t let me. So, on the eve of my marriage, I ran away. I didn’t know what was in store for me. I took charge of my destiny,” recollects Maya.
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 trek and volunteer tourism around Sindhupalchok district. She is currently involved in training a group of young trafficking survivors.
Maya is not the only one. Some have sacrificed their stable life for an unstable business. Sangita left her teaching career to become an entrepreneur in adventure tourism. “When I started, women were not taken seriously in the tourism industry. Simple tasks, like getting a Trek permit, became a Herculean task.
When it came to hiring staff, I always struggled to get female guides, porters and partners,” she says.Her company, Himalayan Namobuddha Travel & Treks, is a start-up venture trying to create a niche by providing unique human experiences. For example, after every trekking tour, she gives a complimentary massage by Sensing Hands, a physiotherapy massage centre run by blind staff.