Wider world for women

Photo: Pooja Rijal

Until she was 48, Eka Kumari Karki had never travelled alone. Then she heard of a unique project that is trying to encourage and empower women by giving them travel grants.

Karki got her daughter to fill out the application form for Solo Woman Travel Challenge (Swo-Yatra), and was selected from among 500 aspirants. Last year, the Solukhumbu resident completed a two-week tour of the eastern-most districts of Nepal on her own.

“Women don’t go out so easily in our society. So if older women like me can do this, it will encourage younger ones to travel and become more confident,” says Karki.

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The challenge was set up by Nepali Travellers in 2015 and has so far helped 42 women like Karki tour different parts of the country. Applicants have chosen a variety of destinations, from popular treks like the Annapurna Circuit to more adventurous destinations like Dolpo and Upper Mustang.

“There are many ways to empower women, whether through protests or changes in the education system and laws. But since we are travellers ourselves, we thought travelling would be the best way to go about it,” explains Pemba Sherpa, co-founder of Nepali Travellers. “Travel has no bias, has no other agenda, and through it you learn and grow.”

The idea was born at the spur of the moment four years ago during protests against an acid attack. Sherpa says the challenge is not just about feminism: “Travel can be adapted to anything. If writers travel maybe they will write poetry, if a woman travels it becomes a woman’s movement.”

But in its first year, the challenge was far from a movement. Nepali Travellers put out a call on social media, and selected only one woman as an experiment, giving her Rs30,000 to embark on a trip to western Nepal.

Things are better organised now. A call goes out for applications, those selected upload photos to Facebook for voting. Last year, there were 500 applicants and those who got more than 1,000 online votes had to appear for an interview. An average of 12 women are selected every year, based on their itineraries and level of preparation.

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“We get a lot of applications for popular treks, but now we are trying to prioritise more unique destinations. Maybe those who want to do cultural exploration, or go somewhere where there are no trails at all,” says Shristi Shrestha who administers the challenge.

After being selected, the women are given training and resources. “They helped me refine my itinerary and book hotels and lodges every day so that I was not stranded. We were also given safety, self-defence and wilderness training, which was very helpful,” says Anugya Pradhan, 20, who explored remote Nar Phu village in Manang and on to Tilicho in 2017.

Participants agree the solo travelling has helped them in later trips and inspired confidence. In fact, it is also the other way around: people along the way were initially surprised to see women travelling alone, but eventually supported them.

“In the end, it’s about the freedom you feel and the challenges you conquer, and your confidence in making decisions for yourself. It’s also a way to prove that women can do it. I found out that it’s not as challenging as society makes it out to be, so why should we deny ourselves the opportunity to travel?” says Pooja Rijal, 23, who walked for more than a month to Everest Base Camp from her home in Bhaktapur last year.

Nepali Travellers hopes that the Swo-Yatra (‘self-travel’ in Nepali) initiative will encourage more people to travel. Says Pemba Sherpa: “In Nepal, we are ignored by the hospitality industry, while abroad we have visa and passport issues. We want to take steps towards changing those perceptions and establish Nepalis as travellers worldwide.”

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Pooja Rijal, 23

Destination: Everest Base Camp, on foot from Kathmandu

Best memories of travel: When I was hungry, tired and resting at a roadside, an old man climbed up a guava tree, plucked some guavas and gave them to me. So many people invited me home and hosted me along the way because they were surprised to see a lone Nepali woman trekking.

Worst memories of travel: I realised too late that I did not take crampons with me. I was lucky to borrow some, otherwise I would have fallen on the ice.

Thoughts on solo travel: You learn to make your own decisions, so you should go. But also remember that it’s not going to be easy, so do your research before you leave.

Anugya Pradhan, 20

Destination: Nar Phu Valley and Tilicho

Best memories of travel: City life is always rushed, but outside of Kathmandu it is different, going on at its own pace. You feel light, it is a chance to get away from duties and responsibilities and also to inspire others to take on challenges.

Worst memories of travel: As a solo traveler, it is often difficult to get beds and rooms, which are designed for couples and groups, especially in peak season when it’s crowded.

Thoughts on solo travel: You learn to figure out who to talk to and who not to. Also, you get to meet a lot of people you would never meet in daily life, so that broadens your perspective.

Eka Kumari Karki, 49

Destination: Eastern Nepal

Best memories of travel: I saw the tea gardens of Ilam and the Dhaka-weaving industries of Panchthar. I found out the distinct identity of each district in eastern Nepal. I set out during the 16-day campaign against violence against women in December, and covered almost 16 districts.

Worst memories of travel: Some people assumed I was travelling alone because I did not have good relations with my family. People still are not used to the idea of women traveling alone.

Thoughts on solo travel: Everyone should travel, and women should be more confident about doing it on their own. Women aged 20-30 are at the right age to take off on their own.

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