Ladakhi Women’s Trekking Company: Women’s Empowerment in India

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABuddhist devotional and prayer carvings at an Indian mani wall shrine.

Allow me to digress from all the fascinating conversation about upcycling that's been happening on this blog of late, to talk about another one of our passions at GREEN EILEEN: women's empowerment. Of course, all of the profits raised by the two GREEN EILEEN retail stores support programs that improve the lives of women and girls through education and empowerment initiatives, both in our local communities and around the world. As the Community Outreach Coordinator for the West Coast, one of the best parts of my job is learning about all the different ways people are trying to address the question, “How do we make the world a safer, more enriching, and more equal place for women?”

I recently had the opportunity to experience one of these strategies firsthand with the Ladakhi Women's Travel Company, while on vacation with my family in India. Local guide Thinlas Chorol founded the LWTC in 2009 to give women in Ladakh the opportunity to participate in the traditionally male-dominated areas of trekking and mountain climbing. Ladakh is a remote area of the Northern Indian Himalaya, steeped deeply in Tibetan Buddhist culture and defined by the harsh conditions of the high altitude desert. Chorol is from a small town in Ladakh, where she grew up climbing the local mountains with her father. She began leading treks for her classmates at university, who encouraged her to pursue guiding as a career. Even after receiving certifications from highly respected organizations like National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, she struggled to find employment at local trekking agencies because of her gender. If she wasn’t turned down outright, she would be assigned cultural guiding tours to the region’s monasteries and historic sights, despite her extensive mountaineering experience. Adventure tourism--particularly trekking, mountain climbing, and river rafting--is one of the fastest growing industries in Ladakh, one that is now slightly more open to women thanks to the all-female run and staffed LWTC.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of my folks hiking up a valley in India.

The Ladakhi Women's Travel Company specializes in increasingly popular homestay treks. We stayed in the homes of seven different families (and one high-altitude tent camp) along the way of our nine day trek. Having a bed to sleep in each night meant we didn't have to pack our own camping equipment, and home-cooked meals were a welcome reward at the end of a long day of hiking. While most guiding services use horses or donkeys to carry their equipment and clients' luggage, the LWTC utilizes only human-powered transportation to avoid the erosion and deforestation caused by pack animals in this already fragile landscape.

While traveling, I'm always wary of striking the right balance between seeing “real” parts of the country and cultural rubbernecking. Homestay treks are a win-win in this regard: most of the villages where we stayed were multiple days’ walk from any town larger than several families, and there are few external sources of income, particularly for women. As in other parts of India and around the world, people are leaving their ancestral homes to find work in the cities; and men are often the ones to earn money outside the home, restricting women’s financial independence and stability. By paying to stay in people's homes, we had the opportunity to meet locals and experience elements of traditional Ladakhi culture firsthand. At the same time, we contributed to the agency and financial prospects of women in rural areas.

In addition to providing an important external source of income for women in the villages, the LWTC has also opened up a whole range of possibilities for women passionate about the outdoors. Our guide was a young woman named Padma, a biology student who had just started working as a head guide. Padma is 22, unmarried, and lives in her own apartment in Leh - a very rare situation for a Ladakhi girl from a rural village. While she originally took the job to pay her way through school, she loves guiding so much that she plans on staying with the LWTC for several years while finishing her degree.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPadma and me at the top of Gongmaru La Pass, on Day 8 of the trek, at an altitude  approximately 17,200 ft.

Thanks to the LWTC for a fantastic experience in the Markah Valley. As a nature-lover, adventurer, and feminist, I loved how the LWTC encourages women to think outside the box and realize their dreams, while challenging the limitations of traditional gender roles, not only in Ladakh but in the greater climbing industry. If you're traveling to India, I highly recommend looking them up at www.ladakhiwomenstravel.com.

Alice

October 2nd, 2014