Village Ways and gender equality, an interview with Alex Hearn

Posted in Communities on Thursday, March 8th, 2018

 

 

Alexandra (known as Alex to all!) Hearn is a vital member of the Village Ways Team. She has been with us since the launch of our original partnerships with our communities in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian Himalayas. Since then, she has been responsible for organising the international side of Village Ways, liaising with our travel partners, updating the website and working with our MD Manisha Pande and her Indian sales team. We asked her about her experiences in our partner communities, and what life is like for women in the villages.

 

1 How did you first get involved with Village Ways?

I first got involved with Village Ways in 2006, not long after Village Ways started, when an opportunity came up to do some training in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Himalayan foothills. I spent just over 2 months in the villages, teaching some English and testing out walking trails, working with the trainee guides and hosts to explain what they could expect from Western visitors, and what guests could expect from them. At first the guides - all male - were unsure about talking to me, and if I asked questions they would address their answers to my male colleagues. It took a while to explain that they need to be comfortable interacting with female guests, and I spent quite a while walking just me and the guides, so that they had no choice but to talk to me. It became gradually easier and by the end of the trip we would be chatting happily together!

2. What were your first trips to India like?

My first trip to India was wonderful - the cities were chaotic, lively and fun but with peaceful corners, like the gardens around Humayan's tomb in Delhi. My first overnight train journey from Delhi to Kathgodam was an experience - a bunkbed in a busy carriage, with endless families getting on and off the train - we'd made hundreds of new friends by the time we arrived in the hills. The contrast between the bustle of Delhi and the calm of the mountain villages was remarkable. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming and I felt immediately at home. 

3. What particular challenges do you think women in our communities in India and Nepal face? And do you think things are changing for women and girls in these rural communities?

There is great gender inequality throughout India and Nepal. In the villages, women have typically been expected to get married, raise the family and to contribute to the household through working in the fields and looking after livestock, but there have been very few opportunities for women to gain employment besides labour in the fields. It is encouraging to see that education is becoming more important for girls. From the start, Village Ways has actively encouraged women to participate in the community enterprises in various roles, and we now have women guides, porters, housekeepers, treasurers and local co-ordinators. We are making headway in the Himalayas, which has traditionally been quite conservative in this respect, and this is great to see. Many of the village committees there now have female representation, and gender equality is an important issue for Village Ways. With Manisha as our Managing Director, and Pooja as our coordinator in the Indian Himalayas, we have strong women leaders and role models. The culture in south India is quite different, and there women generally have wider roles within the communities. One of our partner communities, Mothakkara, has an all-female committee, which runs the village homestay and does a fantastic job.

5 How important is training for our partner communities?

Training is so important for our partner communities to update and brush up their skills from time to time. They are in the tourism industry and quality of services are as important for them they are for any hotel in a city. Guest feedback is very helpful tfor us to find out which aspects need improvements and instead of being demoralised by positive criticism, it is much more positive for the communities to be given more training to improve on those aspects. The following season, when they get good feedback for these same aspects, they feel really satisfied.

We also know it is important to bring in new people to join the workforce, people who are interested in joining, rather than just restricting involvement to people who were trained at the beginning. This is also possible when training is organised regularly, so new people see the opportunity to get involved.

6 What impacts do you think Village Ways has brought to the villages of Binsar, for example, in the 10 years since they started receiving guests?

There have been many positive impacts on the communities, but perhaps the most important for us are the reduction in outmigration due to the creation of new jobs, and an increase in opportunities for the communities. Communities have regained and developed confidence in their skills and capabilities and now understand the importance of working collectively as a community. As guests appreciate being a part of their cultural and traditional heritage, the communities have also developed a sense of pride in their history, culture and traditions. They also respect the environment and understand its importance. One of our guides once said: “We use to throw stones at birds, now we open a book to identify which one it is.” Female participation has seen a very encouraging change from how it was when we began. Its really nice to see them working and getting equal opportunities as men in the villages. They speak, they share their opinion and they also take part in contributing to their family income. We are all so proud to see these changes.

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