It was in August 2020 when Himalayan Ecotourism (HET) organised the inauguration of their reforestation programme in my village Pekhri, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Many villagers came for the event, more women than men. Even the children were in good number. Everyone in the village knew about my motivation to be more than a housewife. When the neighbours got to know that HET was looking for a woman to work for their women empowerment programme, they encouraged me to apply for the job. I introduced myself to the staff of HET on this inauguration day.
Stephan Marchal, the director of HET, explained to me that the work was mostly to lead the women’s self-help group in my village and to act as a local coordinator for the women’s programme. That involves the production making of local goods like apricot oil and soap, and the management of the nursery for reforestation. I told him that my dream was different: I wanted to work in tourism, as a guide.
In 2016, I was trained as a trekking guide at the mountaineering institute in Manali. Two years later, I got married. In my region, when a woman gets married, she has to move to her husband’s home and work as a housewife. There is very little space for personal ambition. Somehow, I was forced to follow the rule and never had the opportunity to actually work as a trekking guide.
Stephan must have seen in me an opportunity to involve the women in ecotourism activities – which had not been the case earlier. We finally agreed that I will work for the women empowerment programme and that women-led treks will be added to the HET programme. I was so happy!
A dream came true
My first trek was organized during the next trekking season in October 2020. The clients were mostly Indian women and I was their guide. It was a three-day trek to Rangthar and Kundri in the Great Himalayan National Park. I know these places very well because I used to go there to collect herbs that we sold in the market. During the trek, I felt very proud. This is what I wanted to do, it was so much fun, and I felt so good doing what I like, guiding and serving my guests, listening to their stories, telling them mine, pitching up the camp, making sure everything is okay.
I could also feel that it was a great experience for the women clients. There are many aspects of a trek that could be a concern for women. What if the team is only male? Is it safe? What about toilet and hygiene? Will a woman feel free to talk to the staff if there are only men? It can be a problem for Indian women because it is not common to see women going for such adventure without a father or husband. But it can also be a problem for foreign women trekkers, because they don’t know our culture and they might be scared of making mistakes or of being misunderstood.
Why female teams matter
Having women as trekking staff is so important. It encourages women clients to go for such adventures without any fear, but also it is good for the local culture. It is a demonstration that the local women can do the work usually reserved for men, and in turn, it is questioning the women status in our community.
Our system here is unfair. Most of the work, e.g. cooking, cleaning, educating the kids, preparing the fields, harvesting, and collecting fuelwood is done by the women. Most of the fun is reserved for the men. We don’t really have free time, there is always work to do for us, but the men have plenty of free time. It is the men who don’t want the women to work as trekking staff.
Progress and obstacles
When I was asked by HET to arrange a trek for women clients, I had to get permission from my family-in-law. Knowing me and my ambition, they let me go. I am grateful to them for that. But when I asked other women in my village to join, as I can’t go alone, that was another story. They always replied to me that they don’t have time to go, that their family would never give them permission.
Of course not! When you think about it, it is obvious. Why would the men allow us to go on a trek? Who will do the work at home if we are not there? The men would have to do it? Women going on trek might actually be reversing the situation between men and women, that’s why there is so much opposition. Realistically, of course, other female household members will need to step in and we may also expect an extra amount of work waiting for us when we come back.
Women’s work is more expensive
In 2021, I was asked by HET to work for the reforestation programme with a team of professionals appointed by HET. Working with Aastha, Ritika and Nishant was a great learning as well. I got to learn a lot about ecology, social work, data collection, mapping, reporting, etc. One day, when I was on fieldwork with the team, Stephan called me to ask if I could organize a trek for a group of three women. I had to find at least three other women to join me as trekking staff.
They all asked me: “How much will we be paid?” I told them the daily wage that is paid by HET. They all replied: “Why should we lose three days of our time for so little money? That is not worth it”. They were expecting three times more than that. Stephan said that was simply not possible, as he has to abide by the daily wage decided by the cooperative society.
Following this, we held a meeting at my home to discuss the problem: The daily wage for the trekking staff is decided by the men for the men. But the time of a woman is actually worth more than the time of a man. If the men have time to go on trek, but the women do not have the time because of their workload at home, then the women should be paid more, as simple as that.
An important step for women empowerment
The management of HET has welcomed the idea. The clients (women) who want to go with a female team will have to pay more. The reasons will be explained to them and I hope they could understand. Now, we will see how the men will respond to this.
The next season is about to start. There were very few treks during the pandemic, but I think that in 2022 we should get ready for many trekkers coming after two years of no-travel. I simply hope that my community will accept to see more women going as trekking staff, as we are paid a double wage (as a compromise) the families would be able to earn more. If that works, it will be an important step for women empowerment in the Himalayas.
Jagita Devi is a trekking guide and works with the women’s programme of Himalayan Ecotourism (HET), an association between a cooperative and a tour operator in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. HET is this year’s winner of the TODO Award Socially Responsible Tourism, which was awarded by the Institute for Tourism and Development on the occasion of the International Tourism Exchange (ITB) 2022.