By Anna S. Sussman
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Female trekkers are gaining ground in the mountains of Nepal. This in turn is spurring demand for female guides who find a path out of social constraints and the penury of traditional agricultural work on the cold, rock trails.
While some of the sisters' trained guides are single college students, others are poor farmer's wives.
The Three Sisters operate an onsite child-care center for guides working on the mountain.
The training business has also spawned the local Women's Empowerment Network aimed at low-income rural women.
"The majority of Nepalese women are entirely dependent on their husbands for everything," says Chetri. "That means they cannot leave abusive households; most cannot read or write and have no choice, but live at the mercy of their husbands."
To escape abusive households, some women sneak out in the night to attend Three Sisters trainings, says Chetri. "Once they are trained, they can do whatever they like; they can support themselves and their children."
Others come for training over family objections that Chetri says melt away when the lucrative paycheck arrives. Guides earn up to $10 a day, an impressive salary in a country with a per-capita gross domestic product of $260.
It takes humility, says Chetri, but many husbands come to accept that their wives now earn more than them.
Property and inheritance rights for women are closely tied to marital status and almost half of all married Nepali women are wed before the age of 19. The country has one of the widest gender gaps in primary education in the world, with boys in secondary school outnumbering girls 2-to-1.
The empowerment program starts with confidence-building and education, including workshops on women's rights. "Many of the women have never even heard of rights. They don't even know that it's legal to live without a husband," says Chetri.
But it's the opportunity for work paying twice as much as the daily wages as those paid in the rice fields that allows women their real freedom, she says.
Most women hear of the program via word of mouth in their villages and travel long distances to reach it. Last fall, more than 30 women showed up for a training with only 25 slots. "They refused to go home. They had traveled so far. So, we just trained them all," says Chetri.
Some women shift the skills they learn in the trainings to unrelated fields, such as call centers or restaurants. But most work for the Three Sisters trekking agency, which has 15 permanent guides and about 50 more on-call.
Work on the mountain still brings unique challenges for female guides. The guides typically work alone--not in pairs or teams--and often find themselves the only woman in crowded dining rooms, sleeping alongside male guides and porters, who are often drunk and occasionally resentful.
They are sometimes heckled and teased and know that they are expected to prove their physical and mental capabilities each day on the trail, as they are scrutinized by their male colleagues.
The Three Sisters enforce a 12-kilogram (about 26 pounds) weight limit for their porters, while male porters carry as much as 50 kilos.
Januka Rai, a college student in the off-seasons who comes from the eastern region of Nepal, uses the money she makes as a guide to help fund her college tuition.
Climbing the final stretch toward Annapurna Base Camp for the seventh time, she is still awed by the stunning landscape.
But when asked about the best part of her work she does not hesitate in answering: "My paycheck."
Anna Sussman in a print and radio journalist currently living in Bangkok. She climbed Annapurna on a trek arranged by the Three Sisters.
Three Sisters Adventure:
Hike to Annapurna Base Camp with Januka Rai, one of the few female porter guides in Nepal:
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