Mountain Power for Women
Women — because of limited education and little exposure to the practical logistics of the tourist trade — forfeit all the rewards of life in one of the world’s great recreational regions, the Himalayas, says Harshwanti Bisht, member of the Indian expedition to Mount Everest in 1984.
Bisht, who along with Rekha Sharma and Chandra Prabha Aitwal became the first woman to summit the main peak of Nanda Devi (7,816m), is all set to start a project “mountain power” [for women]. In an interview with Roshan Ara, she shares her thoughts about her new project in the Himalayas.
Q. First things first. Please introduce your new project, Mountain Power?
HB: Mountain Power http://www.mountainpower.org/ is in collaboration with Mountain Legacy, a Nepalese NGO. Through this project, we aim to set up a network of women’s mountaineering clubs affiliated with colleges and universities throughout the Himalayan region.
The project’s aim is to build trans-boundary highland-lowland cooperation among women for challenging recreation, responsible tourism, health, entrepreneurial leadership, and sustainable stewardship of the natural and cultural legacy of mountains.
Sport for development and peace is a UN theme which has not drawn enough attention, but is quite relevant to the challenges and opportunities in the Himalayan region.
Q. So, you will be revolving around sports for realizing the dream of mountain power?
HB: Yes, sports are particularly important for the empowerment of women, and empowerment of women – on all levels, from individual to community and policy-making – is vital for social harmony as well as sustainable development.
Women need the confidence and the skills to become entrepreneurs, leaders, and policy makers.
As mountaineers, they will combine sports with practical work in recreation planning and economic development. They will undertake projects of their own choosing; be it waste-management, afforestation, trail improvement, infrastructure design or whatever seems useful.
Q. How did it strike to you?
HB: After working for years in mountains as a climber, researcher and activist, I thought it was time to help women see opportunities in challenges, and to act on them. There are many opportunities for women, but the point is how to find those opportunities and take advantage of them. We need to develop the habit of seeing every challenge and every setback as a chance for improvement, for us as individuals, for the community, and for the planet.
Q. As a researcher who has studied tourism economy in Himalayas, what are your observations?
HB: Well, I think women in remote mountain-communities first of all need to be acquainted that they are stakeholders in the mountain economy. I constantly observed that the efforts of women are exploited in every domain.
They work day and night in their homes, but hardly spend a single penny according to their wishes. For example, a woman, apart from doing domestic chores such as caring for the children, preparing meals and collecting firewood, also feeds her cow and milks it, but the milk is taken to the market by her husband; he sells it and simply pockets the money.
Also, most tourism related jobs, such as running travel agencies, serving as guides, and managing hotels, are carried out by the men. This can be traced to the fact that girls get limited education, and have little exposure to the practical logistics of the tourist trade. They forfeit all the rewards of life in one of the world’s great recreational regions – the Himalayas.
Q. So, what are you aiming to achieve through mountain power clubs?
HB: Mountain Power clubs would not only provide girls and young women experience in sports such as climbing, trekking, skiing, and rafting, but would also foment interest in conserving nature, protecting cultural sites, and developing economic opportunities in remote communities.
These young climbers will go on to take jobs, launch companies, serve in government agencies, and raise families, where they will spread their commitment to mountain recreation, conservation, and empowerment of local communities.
Q. You have also done a lot of work in Gangotri region, where River Ganges originates. What inspired you?
HB: When I was in Khumbu with the 1984 Indian Everest Expedition, I saw the great effect of Sir Edmund Hillary’s work to conserve the natural environment and to bring economic opportunities to the Sherpa communities.
This inspired me to work in Gangotri. I started restoring the birch forests around the sacred Gau Mukh (Cow Snout), the terminal area of Gangotri Glacier, in an attempt to stabilize the receding glacier at headwaters of the Ganges.
Simultaneously, I launched a campaign for eco-awareness campaigns, propagated endangered medicinal herbs, and introduced ecotourism standards to an area that has been ravaged by unregulated tourism.