Our director Daniela Moreno Alarcón spent time in Nepal earlier this year, conducting gender evaluations in some of the country’s top tourism destinations. She met with many inspiring entrepreneurs and activists, and recounts some of her impressions below. The original Spanish version of this article can be read here, and also includes sources to the statistics cited in this article.
In January 2019 I experienced Nepal for the first time when I visited the country to conduct gender evaluations in three national parks. One of those national parks was Annapurna, located in a region of extreme and dramatic landscapes, which captivate visitors with exquisite high peaks and promises of adventure. These mountains are the highest in the world and made for a truly stunning backdrop to my work.
Within my role as consultant coordinator for a focal group in Pokhara, I met the Tourism Entrepreneurs Women’s Association of Nepal (TEWAN), a network with the aim to empower and support female workers and women-led businesses. To put TEWAN in context it is worth noting that Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia, a status further exacerbated by the 2015 earthquake. In Nepal, one third of married women have suffered physical and emotional violence at the hands of their husbands. Approximately 23% of Nepalese women have suffered physical violence, and Muslim women as well as those from lower castes such as Madhesi Dalit suffer the most, with 38% and 44% of having experienced gender-based violence, respectively. Trafficking is also a serious issue, with women being exploited for sexual and commercial purposes – including in the tourism industry. In fact, between 11,000 and 13,000 women and girls, a third under the age of 18, are estimated to currently live in exploitative situations in Kathmandu alone.
While TEWAN was formed a year and a half ago, its principles were developed over many years. One of the supporters of this network are the sisters who own the aptly named “3 Sisters Adventure” travel agency, specializing in mountain tourism. The socially conscious travel agency has dismantled a series of oft-repeated stereotypes, such as that women “do not want to run a business” or “are not educated”, as if the fault was theirs and not the system’s. That is why the sisters have decided to promote girls’ education and women’s employability. By focusing on these areas, they have formed a safe space for discourse and education for women who want to work as tourist guides or porters. It includes a free education program that trains women in the necessary skills for these jobs, as well as in women’s history, geography, languages and health. 3 Sisters Adventure also offer free accommodation for students who come from remote areas of the country, all the more important as the program’s aim is to reach young people from the lower castes. If you think that’s impressive, even more awe-inspiring is the fact that the agency has built all this independently over the past 10 years, with little to no support from tourism bodies or national agencies.
In many ways TEWAN builds upon, and is a product of, these individual efforts on gender awareness and social inclusion. The 66 entrepreneurs that make up the association collaborate to mobilize resources to promote their businesses and raise awareness of their entrepreneurial role in the tourism sector. They face an uphill battle as the structural obstacles are substantial. For example, the director of the umbrella organization “Organization of Women Entrepreneurs” notes that while women are often the face of the business few are the legal owners, and if they are it is often at the behest of the husband and on paper only – women-owned businesses in Nepal pay lower taxes. In other words, being a tourism entrepreneur does not automatically endow women with the rights or financial means they need to be able to participate fully – and equally – in the sector.
Homestays are another area in which there are plenty of opportunities for Nepalese women. Despite their potential, UN Women Nepal emphasises that homestay initiatives urgently need resources to establish themselves – and gain recognition – as tourism businesses, rather than as an extension of domestic and care work, which is often considered easy and free. It is this currently very common conflation of services that results in tourists bargaining for free accommodation or meals when they are quite happy to pay thousands of dollars to scale the world-famous eight-thousanders.