When the three Chhetri sisters - Lucky, Dicky and Nicky - started their all-female trekking agency in the mid-1990s in Pokhara, Nepal, local people criticized the idea, with many calling it a cover up for a brothel. They were encouraged to start the venture after hearing stories from their female guests about being harassed by often drunk male trekking guides. But going that path didn't come easy.
"Sometimes we had to sleep in the dining room with the male guides," says Dicky Chhetri, one of the sisters. "It was a bit of a challenge because sometimes the male guides were drunk and they used to say so many things. It gave us a very insecure feeling."
It is unusual enough in Nepal's conservative, majority-Hindu society for women to set up businesses. Dicky says the idea of them venturing out onto remote Himalayan trails for weeks, in the company of strangers was unimaginable and considered disrespectful.
Walking the male domain
While on trekking they were often scorned. "When we said Namaste (greeting in Nepali) they would ignore us," says Dicky. High up in rural parts of Nepal, the women guides often got laughed at when they used to stop over at roadside tea houses. "They were not able to digest the fact that even a woman can be a guide," adds Dicky. "Men can travel anywhere. But in our society, women should stay at home and work at home and not outside."
But the rest of the world's reaction to the 3 Sisters has been overwhelmingly positive. They have been receiving good reviews on travel websites and winning international awards for sustainable tourism. As word of the agency spread among travellers, the sisters had more business than they could handle and they started hiring local women.
"I found out from my friend that even girls can become guides by joining the 3 Sisters trekking agency," says 24-year-old Chitra who enrolled herself in 2008. She was interested to become a guide ever since she saw her brothers go for trekking. And even they encouraged her.
Social change setting in
This would not have been the case many years earlier. Social prejudices initially made it difficult for the three sisters to hire, with families resisting the idea of daughters joining their agency. "My neighbors and my relatives were not happy," says Mana Kunwar, another guide working with the agency since 2001. She adds that it was difficult not just physically but mentally as well:
"Walking out of our homes, especially in the field, where our families didn't really know where we were and with whom, it was at times difficult." But Kunwar says her family and husband, who also works as a guide, were supportive. She says the job has made her independent and more confident than before.
Over the years, parents have started to encourage their daughters to sign up for the guide training. "It's a big change" says Dicky Chhetri. "Earlier when we requested women to come for the training program, there were hardly any women coming to join. But nowadays, we even find parents and guardian asking us to enroll their daughters and help them. "They see that it is a good thing that women can also do this kind of trekking and guiding job."
The agency now has more than 100 females, training and working with them. The Chhetri sisters say helping women from poor backgrounds have successful careers in tourism is one of the most satisfying aspects of their business.
Author: Sherpem Sherpa
Editor: Grahame Lucas