The status of women in India has been subjected to intense media glare over the past few years, and the safety of travel in India for women has been questioned. But one region has certainly made the empowerment of women a main focus. Ladakh is considered a particularly safe part of India for female travelers. And as I found on a recent trip, it's also a region where women's cooperatives and initiatives flourish.
When you fly to Ladakh, there's a point when you realize you're leaving the world as you know it behind you. The landscape below begins to change as you start flying over the Himalayas. Cities, towns, fields and rivers get left behind as the mighty, snow-clad peaks pierce the clouds. The starkness of the world below leaves you breathless. The altitude leaves you breathless, too, for when you land at Leh airport, you are at 3,500m (11,500 ft) above sea level.
Once part of Tibet, Ladakh is known for its landscapes of Buddhist monasteries, white chortens (stupas) and prayer flags waving in the northern wind. This is the most northerly part of India – a region of barren, high-altitude deserts, surrounded by the Himalayan mountain range and bordered by China and Pakistan. Here, nothing is the same as the rest of the country, and that includes the culture.
A shining example of the region’s commitment to raise the status of women is the Ladakhi Rural Women’s Enterprise (LRWE). Founded in 2012 by Tsering Dolma, the organization employs rural women and is helping to keep traditional fibre arts skills alive. The women are trained to make products such as pashmina shawls that are then sold at the organization’s Ladakh Nature Products store in the main market of Leh, Ladakh's capital city.
And that is where I found Tsering, one afternoon, after braving the hazards of Leh's main market, the street torn asunder by roadwork. A slim and elegant woman, Tsering was sitting on a stack of cushions and working studiously with an awl (a tool used in felt-work) when I arrived. Around her, the store was packed with shawls, stuffed animals, hats and dozens of other products made of wool, pashmina and silk.
With the help of a translator (my guide Tashi), Tsering explained to me that the purpose of Ladakhi Rural Women’s Enterprise is to help empower women and preserve traditional culture. The store opened in June 2013 to retail the products the women make while the profits are put back into the organization to keep the training cycle going and to support women artisans across the region.
Tsering told me she got the inspiration to start the enterprise after working for 20 years with an organization called the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) where she worked with women on rural development projects. In 2001, she visited Barefoot College in rural Rajasthan, and learned about the women’s handicraft organizations in the state. Back home in Ladakh, she began forming women's groups offering training in traditional fibre arts, such as weaving, sewing, spinning, felting, knitting and the process of natural dyeing.
Eventually she left the group to start the Ladakhi Rural Women’s Enterprise with the specific purpose of empowering women and preserving traditional skills. Now about 70 women of all ages, work at home in their villages using wool and natural dyes such as indigo, wild rose, onion, and carrot leaves – all supplied by LRWE.
It's telling that while Tsering relates her story to me, there is no mention of opposition from either her husband or her community. In fact, her husband, Sonam Jorgyes, has always supported her, and helped her found Ladakhi Rural Women’s Enterprise.
Leh’s main market is filled with stores and street sellers proffering the usual assortment of flowing harem pants, turquoise jewelry and fake "pashmina" shawls so popular with hippies and tourists alike. Most of these items can be found throughout India, and most are not even made in Ladakh. But the handmade products at the Ladakh Nature Products store are genuine, and a true representation of the culture. Buying souvenirs and clothing here not only bolsters the local economy, it empowers the women who make them. Furthermore, it gives travellers the opportunity to bring home an authentic piece of Ladakhi culture. This is responsible tourism in action.
LRWE isn’t the only example of a thriving social enterprise in Ladakh. I had the chance to speak with several women, local and foreign, who were actively pursuing projects and associations that empower women and preserve culture. A French woman, Nelly Rieuf, runs the Matho Museum project at a monastery outside of the capital. She trains and employs local women to restore precious Thangka paintings. A Buddhist nun, Dr. Tsering Palmo, founded the Ladakh Nuns Association (LNA) in 1996 to give nuns more support and opportunities.
While the women of Ladakh may have a ways to go to achieve equality (especially with regards to financial independence) they at least seem to be getting support and encouragement for their endeavours.
Just before leaving Leh, I had one last walk through town. With newly heightened awareness from all that I’d just learned, I looked at the faces of the women I passed. I saw strong, handsome women, dressed in traditional clothes with both hope and determination on their faces. Like the region itself – up in the clouds – they are soaring toward a bright future.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Ladakh encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.