Started Ten Years Ago
A decade ago in when Saraswati Biswakarma first began plying her trade as a trekking guide she was met with some considerable resistance from her male counterparts. They would quite often remind her that she was taking a job which was considered male only territory. The 28-year-old guide explains, ”’You’ve snatched our job’, they would shout when I walked up the mountains with over 10kg on my back.”
One of the few Females to Climb Annapurna IV
In a profession which has always been the domain of Nepalese men, Biswakarma is one of the first females to undertake this kind of work – and she remains one of the few women in Nepal who have been able to take up work as a trekking guide. As part of this process she has had to face some very stern physical tests and to date she is one of just a handful of women to have climbed Annapurna IV. This ascent is considered by most to be one of the hardest challenges in Nepal.
For Biswakarma the battle to rise to the top of her profession has been an uphill struggle in more ways than one. This was not just the case for her personally, but also a challenge for her family as well. She explains, “When I first started, my family was under a lot of pressure from my relatives and neighbours to make me quit.”
The social stigma for her was not just due to the fact that she was doing what was socially considered as ‘man’s work’ but also due to the fact that her work involved her coming into contact with people from across the globe. Biswakarma elaborates, “Women who work and travel with foreigners are often seen as those who have tainted characters.” With a certain degree of understatement she adds. “It wasn’t easy for me to continue.”
Ironically it was through the support of male members of her own family that she gained the support which gave her the strength to carry on through the tests and pursue the career she has now fashioned for herself. In particular she looks to the help she received from her uncle and her father, who themselves were trekking guides, as the reasons that she managed to gain a strong foothold in the profession.
Trekking With Sisters
Biswakarma has gained a home with women like herself guiding since 1998. Himalayan Glacier has plans to adopt this challenge and end the traditional view, held by many locals in Nepal, that trekking is a solely male profession, and helping women like Biswakarma to access this kind of work.
Need for Female Guides
The need for female guides is something that has widely been perceived from visitors for some time. In particular this has been highlighted on treks or expeditions by female tourists who sometimes (although it is rare) are uncomfortable with the male guides. This point is underlined by the founder of the company, Lucky Chettri, who noted this fact back in the late 1990’s when she came up with the plan for the business. She explains, “I was operating a tourist lodge in the late 90s in Pokhara, when two young foreigner women who had just returned from a trek told me they had been sexually harassed by their drunk guides.” It was at that point, when she realised how vulnerable women were while trekking on their own, that she could do something to help. She added, “They were helpless and actually wept, and that immediately got me thinking about how we could cooperate.”
Establishing the Trekking Agency
Following this incident she established her trekking agency which offered their services to female tourists. There were many logical aspects to the situation which all seemed to come together and support the proposals. For tourists visiting the region they will spend some considerable time in preparation and weigh up a huge range of options involved in the visit. They will measure everything from discussing the risks involved and explaining the importance of comparing life insurance and making sure that dangerous activities are covered by the specific policy selected to the best offers on hiking kit. Why not then also include a consideration of gender in terms of the people that are employed to support their trip.
Benefits Outweigh the Negatives
For Biswakarma there are some obvious problems posed by gender when it comes to practicing the profession, but as far as she is concerned these are far outweighed by the benefits. She says, “The worst time to be trekking is when you’re having your period, as you have a backache and it’s not convenient to change, but when people appreciate the fact that you’re rubbing shoulders with men, walking the wild, much of that tiredness just disappears.”