Philanthropist Melinda Gates is often quoted as saying, “When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else.” During my visit to Nepal I encountered many women with limited opportunities making the best of their circumstances by carving out niche businesses to support themselves and their families. The sense of independence and entrepreneurship is strong.
Opportunities for women in Nepal are on the rise. Tourists flock to experience the Himalayas, see Mount Everest, and to be immersed in a Hindu and Buddhist-oriented culture that feels very different from the western world. The income disparity between Nepal and the Western world means visiting the Himalayan region is great value for western travelers. Travelers can make a huge economic difference for Nepali women who provide goods and services to visitors.
Nepali women are, in many ways, not that different from Western women. Women are gaining presence in all areas of the workforce. Many “mompreneurs” work long days, balancing their duties as wives and mothers with a “side hustle” to bring in some extra income in the hopes of creating a better life for their children.
We visited the Jawalakhel Handicraft Center at the Tibetan refugee community in Ekantakuna, Patan, where Tibetan women spend their days hand weaving rugs while chanting mantras. They sit for long periods on pillows on the floor in front of their looms. Many of these people or their relatives were exiled from Tibet in 1959, when China invaded, and while they settled in Nepal they did not have access to real opportunities or jobs. Out of necessity, the Tibetan refugee community embraces entrepreneurship. This initiative was begun in 1960 by the International Red Cross and the Swiss Development Corporation, and provides jobs for hundreds of refugee families.
I am not typically a vacation shopper as my photos are my souvenirs, and I don’t like hauling things home. But, when one of my traveling companions decided to purchase a small rug from the shop, it started a conversation. When you purchase a hand-woven rug from the people who made them, you are paying the salary of a hard-working Tibetan refugee woman in Nepal for several months. What better way to support the local economy? So, I purchased several. The men at the shop rolled my rugs tightly, and the airline easily accepted the package as my second piece of luggage.
Now, I walk on my rugs every day. I look at the vivid blue mandala woven into the pattern of one of them, creating a sacred space in my home. The lotus flowers, a symbol of fortune in Buddhism, also represent rising above the murk to achieve enlightenment. Every day I think about the Tibetan women who walked for several days as children from China to Nepal and rose above their circumstances to create such beauty, which I now enjoy in my home.
Another way Nepali women contribute to their family income is by participating in the Community Homestay program. Accommodations and meals are offered in homes and villages, many in rural areas where hotel accommodation is not otherwise widely available. The program empowers women to use the domestic skills they’ve acquired as wives and mothers to host visitors, but also teaches them how to run their operations as a business.
Staying in a Community Homestay is more affordable for the traveler than a traditional hotel, and it directly supports individual families. It is a win-win arrangement. The hosts love the opportunity to interact with people outside of their own communities. Guests benefit by interacting with Nepali families in their own homes, gaining a more authentic experience of the people and their culture.
We stayed in the Barauli Community Homestay near the Chitwan National Park. Each cottage is named for the woman in the village who owns it and cares for it. Our meals were prepared in a community house by the local owners. The delicious ingredients are purchased from the local farmers, many of whom are partners in the homestay program. This arrangement provides the farmers with a steady customer close to home, and their transportation costs are minimized.
Milk and yogurt were provided by the local buffaloes. Spinach and rice were grown in the fields in the local community. Bananas were grown on the local trees. And, let’s not forget the chickens who roamed freely around the village, whose cousins probably ended up on our plates.
The young women at the Barauli Community Homestay performed a native Tharu dance for us. They perform every other night for visitors. Having the opportunity to perform gives the young people a reason to continue to learn about their own traditions. The smiles, applause and genuine appreciation the tourists offered demonstrated the importance of sharing culture and tradition with these Tharu women. As much as we were entertained, it was equally entertaining for the dancers, as the visitors joined in for the finale. The dancing tourists weren’t terrific, but the laughter shared was genuine.
Teenage boys served meals in the community house, transported luggage to cottages, and even served as guides on a bicycle tour. Like any family business, everyone pitches in to do what they can when they can to keep things going.
Cooking classes are a popular tourist activity around the world. One thing all of humanity has in common is that we all must eat. In every culture, food is not just sustenance: food is love. Sharing a delicious meal brings humans together. Teaching cooking classes is another way women in Nepal share their culture with tourists.
A momo is a dumpling, usually filled with meat or vegetables. The art to creating a beautiful momo is in the folding of the dough around the filling before it is steamed. Our small group of four gathered in Dhondup Dolma’s kitchen in Pokhara, and learned to wash, chop, fold and steam momos. Then, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at Dhondup’s kitchen table as we shared stories about our lives and culture. Teaching momo cooking classes allows Dhondup, a single woman in her forties, to support herself. She also makes jewelry that she sells at a booth at a market, and rents out a guest room in her home.
The colorful splendor of the women’s clothing in Nepal captured my attention. Perhaps it was magnified in contrast to the drab khaki hiking and sightseeing clothes I wore. In the Newari hill town of Bandipur we explored the village and the local marketplace. It is here that I discovered the Bandipur Tailors. Larmi Kumari Pradhan began sewing at 22 years old. She married and raised three daughters, and when her children were grown, she reinvented herself (as many women do) and opened Bandipur Tailors. She can make a Nepali kurta suruwal for tourists in three hours. I was excited to have an outfit custom made, and even more excited to have it so quickly. She doesn’t speak English, but she is well supported by two of her daughters, Roja and Junko, who learned English in school. Their language and technology skills keep the business running, while their mother does most of the sewing. Larmi Kumari also teaches tailoring skills to her daughters.
Junko measured me for my dress, asked me lots of questions about the style of collar and sleeves I preferred, and assisted me as I chose from the large selection of fabric. The next day we hiked to Ramkot Village, our primary reason for visiting Bandipur. The following morning, I was able to try on the completed outfit and take it with me. The cost? The equivalent of about $35.
Women continue to find opportunities in the tourism industry as licensed tour guides, in hotel management, working in family-owned restaurants, and creating products that tourists want to purchase. Younger women are gaining more opportunities for higher education, which gives them greater possibilities for both financial stability and having a voice in their communities. Meanwhile, tourism is an important contributor to uplifting the lives of Nepali women in the near future. Becoming a mindful tourist can really make a difference. Small acts have a big impact.
Article by Victoria Hart