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The trekking industry in Nepal may still be a male-dominated business, but three sisters are slowly chipping away at its gender gap. Since 1998, the aptly named 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking has been offering women-focused trips with female guides and porters, and was the first such company to employ female trekking guides in the Annapurna region. Last month, this work earned them a 2012 Responsible Tourism Award from Virgin Holidays.

3 Sisters – run by the Nepali Chhetri sisters, Lucky, Dicky and Nicky – was born after the sisters spent time running a guest house in Pokhara, Nepal. Appalled by stories from female travellers who said they were harassed by male guides, the sisters decided to launch their own trekking company.

“In the beginning, it was very difficult for us to operate [in] a business that was male-dominated,” Lucky said. “People mocked us, gave us bad names, blamed and insulted us. … We were excluded from events and nobody wanted to associate with us or our work… [Back then] women guiding was a profession only for the illiterate, outcast and poor.”

But with time, things have changed for the better. “Many people from all fields of life are coming to us for ideas, advice and support,” Lucky said. “They appreciate our work and have started to trust us.” Today 3 Sisters has about 1,000 clients a year -- men can sign up for treks with female guides if they are part of a mixed gender group -- and about 150 staff.

Lucky said the sisters’ goal in starting the company was to give solo female travellers an enjoyable and safe experience, and at the same time help rural Nepali women. A smaller percentage of Nepali women than men continue their education beyond primary school, according to figures from Unicef, and  3 Sisters provides a free six-month training program for women from rural villages to become trekking guides, providing much needed job options. And the travellers seem to enjoy the interaction with fellow women, which includes learning about their lives and culture. “Many clients said that women guides are very attentive, honest, patient, professional and kind,” Lucky said.

As for concerns that female porters can’t carry the same weight as men, Lucky said that’s not an issue in Nepal, where rural women carry hefty loads of firewood or walk long distances for water. 3 Sisters, in line with other Nepal trekking operations, has a weight limit per porter of 10kg, plus a couple of kilos of the porter’s own clothing. (The International Porter Protection Group, an organisation that aims to improve working conditions for porters, recommends a maximum limit of 30kg)

Many companies now employ women guides, and 3 Sisters trainees have gone on to work for companies including One Seed Expeditions in Nepal and Chile, and Revive Treks, which operates in Nepal and the surrounding countries. The company has also expanded its expeditions over the years to include Everest, western Nepal, areas near Kathmandu and also neighbouring Tibet, India and nearby Bhutan.  

For travellers, trekking with 3 Sisters is an opportunity to directly support a local business and empower local women. For the Chhetri sisters, their pioneering endeavour is changing the face of tourism in Nepal.

Lori Robertson writes the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to bbcethicaltravel@gmail.com.

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