By Elena Murzello
My 12-day trek to Everest Base Camp was filled with yaks and dzo (a yak-cow hybrid), varied climates, and the challenges of a “Khumbu Cough” along with oxygen saturation levels of 70%. But thanks to our Nepalese guide, my friend and I managed to persevere and reach base camp. It was through this connection that I learned about an inspiring business model empowering the women of Bhaktapur, a city in the eastern corner of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley.
Elena with her guide Suman on their basecamp trek
Meet the Khatris
My Nepalese guide Suman Khatri had the sort of encouraging personality that made me feel at ease throughout our Everest Base Camp trek. Hearing his stories of family life and previous trekking adventures kept me focused, especially during moments of altitude sickness.
Suman and his wife Rina
In university, Suman first worked as a porter hauling up to 66 lbs (30 kg) on the Annapurna circuit, a trek within Nepal’s mountain ranges. Then he saw the advantages of becoming a certified Himalayan trekking guide. By day, he gave his guests a snapshot of real-life Nepal by incorporating food and festivities beyond the typical tourist activities. At night, practiced his English with the guests.
Since I was ever grateful to Suman for returning us from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu safe and sound, we made a plan to reunite. Suman was keen to show my friend and I day-to-day life, as well as to introduce me and my friend to his wife, Rina. When the couple picked us up at our hotel, Rina was behind the wheel of the car—Suman doesn’t drive. That made me smile. After meeting Rina, it became clear that this couple challenges the traditional patriarchy that still exists in Nepal, beyond just who drives the car.
Avighna, Rina & Suman's son (Photo Credit: Suman Khatri)
Married for 10 years, 35-year-old Suman and 32-year-old Rina live in Bhaktapur, 8 miles (13 km) from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. After first meeting in university, the couple had a traditional arranged marriage. Now, they share a seven-year-old son, Avighna.
About to catch the plane from Kathmandu to Lukla (Photo Credit: Elena Murzello)
A Female-Empowered Small Business
Four years ago, a conversation between Suman and Rina about the financial dependance of married women on their husbands inspired Rina to establish the Maitighar Sringar Collection. Working with two women initially, Rina slowly expanded to empower 25 women to work at the shop.
Rina wearing one of her pote mala (Photo Credit: Suman Khatri)
The Maitighar Sringar Collection sells traditional Nepalese beaded necklaces called pote mala, which married women must wear until their husbands die to indicate that they are no longer available. The necklace is an indication that the woman is no longer single to other men. If they become widowed, they no longer wear the necklace. Most commonly, pote mala are red, hand-beaded necklaces. Each artisan can take up to a few hours to create the intricate designs.
Traditionally, Nepalese married women do not work outside of the home due to their family obligations. Yet through Rina’s shop, women can earn money by working from home. First, the women are taught how to design the necklaces at the shop. Then, they are provided with the raw material to create pote mala at home. Finally, Rina sells the completed necklaces at the Kamal-Binayak market—up to 100 per day. Rina then gives 80% of the proceeds back to the women, which they can contribute to their household finances.
The Matighar Sringar Collection shop at the market (Photo Credit: Elena Murzello)
Not only does the Maitighar Sringar Collection give these women a chance to learn a new skill and earn income, it also gives them the opportunity to socialize and build independence. Proud of what she’s accomplished with her small co-operative business, Rina has ambitious plans for the future. “I want to give work to more women in the coming years,” she says. “And want to make a group of 1,000 women working from home [and] make them empowered … strong and happy.”
Success Through Support
Rina’s business model and grassroots efforts could easily be adopted in other settings, and scaled with other products or services, like meal preparation. She says that the secret to the Maitighar Sringar Collection’s success is the mutual respect and support she finds in her marriage. “My husband is very supportive of me,” Rina says. “[Suman] shows me that by doing small things, we can make someone happy. So we must do something for others who are in trouble—our small help can change their life.”
A teahouse overlooking a bazaar in Nepal (Photo Credit: Elena Murzello)
Suman agrees: “Working in the tourism industry makes me realize everyone should have financial freedom. We are all born free, so if there is a possibility, why not? Rina always wanted to do something by herself, so I’m supporting her every move.”
While I pushed my own personal boundaries trekking to Everest Base Camp, I unexpectedly uncovered Rina doing the same. By empowering local women to challenge the limitations of their patriarchal society, Rina has helped create a community full of self-accomplishment, where everyone wins.
Elena Murzello is a Registered Nurse with an MBA, who’s fond of local food, shopping in marketplaces, and catching up on the latest movies while flying the friendly skies. You can learn more about Elena at www.ElenaMurzello.com