When a Mountain Trek is a Monumental Leap – for Women

Lucky Chhetri came up with a plan to help tourists and improve the lives of Nepalese women at the same time, after hearing numerous stories from female trekkers who'd had uncomfortable -- or worse -- experiences with their male guides.

In 1994, along with her sisters Nicky and Dicky, Chhetri founded 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, Nepal’s first and only female-run trekking agency, a winner of the Changemakers/National Geographic Geotourism Challenge '08. “Women have very limited opportunity, Chhetri said of her native Nepal. “There are so many things that are restricted, forbidden for them.” So Chhetri devised a simple—but, for Nepalese society, groundbreaking—solution. Her Pokhara-based company would train and employ uneducated and underprivileged women as trek guides, offering them the chance to break out of poverty. “They are learning and earning at the same time,” Chhetri said.

After one month of training, the women begin to make money. For many of them, the job not only brings them their first paychecks, but a chance for an education as well, a remarkable opportunity in a country where between 31 and 39 percent of girls are denied even a primary level education, according to a recent UNICEF study. A number of the women working for 3 Sisters use their earnings to pay for college, something entirely out of their reach if they remained in their rural villages. And while the majority of them continue to work in the tourism industry when they leave the company, others go on to become professionals such as teachers and nurses.

Regardless of what they do with the experience, though, it is almost always transformational for the women. Chhetri says over time their new confidence can be seen in the way they walk, dress and talk.

Gwen Beacham saw such change firsthand when she took twenty-two American study abroad students on a trek with a group of 3 Sisters guide-trainees. Beacham remembers one trainee in particular, a retiring woman who was married with children. She started out the trip extremely shy, but over time she became more comfortable and even began joking around.

“To watch this woman ever so tentatively creep out of her shell and be willing to engage a group of foreigners was huge,” Beacham said.

Since they first hung up their shingle, the Chhetri sisters have trained more than 700 women. In 1999 they expanded their operation by launching an NGO called Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN) which now administers the trekking training as well as other programs including ecotourism awareness, lodge management training, and they aid community organizations in developing tourism and micro loans for women.

Currently, 84 women work with 3 Sisters Adventure and EWN. The trekking company has also expanded to include several male guides who work with male travelers. Untypically for Nepal—and many other places in the world—the male and female guides earn equal wages. But the Chhetri sisters weren’t content to stop there. They began to talk to children who were working in hotels and guesthouses along trekking routes and realized they were living in dire conditions. Some of them had been sold by their parents. Others had been sent to work in the belief they would find more opportunity in employment than they could in their poor hometowns.

But the Chhetri sisters saw that many of them were not only being deprived of education and healthcare but were suffering verbal and physical abuse.

Unwilling to turn a blind eye to the problem, the sisters started a home for girls between the ages of seven and 16. They currently have in residence about 20 girls who have been rescued from the tourism industry, and are providing scholarships for several who have been reunited with their families. The home benefits 3 Sisters staff members as well: Guides with young children can leave them well cared-for at the home while they’re out on treks. It’s a childcare model women the world over might envy.

The Chhetri sisters have broken the mold for traditional Nepalese women. They were fortunate enough to have had a father who invested in his daughters’ educations as well as his sons’. Today they are among the few Nepalese women who are unmarried by choice and who own their own business—even employing some of their male relatives.

In the work they do with EWN and 3 Sisters, they provide opportunities that other Nepalese women wouldn’t otherwise have. Their own lives serve as shining examples of what Nepalese women can do with those newfound chances.

By Monique El-Faizy

What do you think?

The equality of pay for male and female trek leaders at 3 Sisters is rare almost anywhere in the world. According to the International Women’s Day website, women do two-thirds of the world's work but receive only 10 percent of the world's income. Does it take women entrepreneurs like the Chhetri sisters to even the paying field?

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