How to Support Women Through Travel

There is Zen to be found in helping others, and International Women’s Day 2015 is a great day to reflect on ways we can support women through travel.  
While big leaps have been made in improving women’s equality worldwide, women are still disproportionally more affected by violence and extreme poverty in many places.

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” – Buddhist saying
 
With this in mind, the following are some ways that travellers can support women while exploring the world:

Support Businesses that Support Women

 

One of the easiest and most effective ways to directly support women while abroad is to patronize women-run businesses in the local economy.

For example, anyone who has been to West Africa knows that shea butter is one of the greatest things in the world. It can be used as moisturiser, mild sunscreen, conditioner, a base for soap and is also edible. Sometimes it’s called “women’s gold”, since traditionally the labour-intensive tasks of harvesting the fruit from the karité tree and crushing the nuts to make the butter has been performed by women. In Mali where I worked a few years ago, women often joked that the men left shea butter to the women since the work was too hard for their fragile masculine sensibilities.

Women hand whipping nuts for shea butter in Mali
The women hand-whip the roasted nuts to make the butter. 

All joking aside, shea butter has the potential to be an economic boon for women in some parts of the world.  Consider COPROKAZAN, Mali’s largest women’s shea butter cooperative that ensures women get a fair price for their product on the market, in exchange for women coming to the cooperative to work for a few weeks at a time. The time spent at the cooperative has an important side effect beyond the income it generates for the women: it makes their husbands treat them better. Many women reported that their husbands finally understood how hard they worked at home when they had to pick up the slack while their wives were away. The women also reported feeling more valued by their husbands since they were able to generate income for the family. Mali is frequently ranked as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, so small changes like these can slowly but surely effect positive change for women around the world. All a traveller has to do to support them is share their stories and buy some of their fabulous product. Since shea butter has so many uses, a traveller would be wise to have some in their backpack.

I’m fortunate enough to have a Malian coworker here in Canada who brings me back some COPROKAZAN shea butter every time he goes back to Mali to visit his family. I warm it up on the stove top and cut it with some coconut oil then whip it once it starts to cool for a fabulous moisturiser my skin loves, and one that also supports the hard-working women of rural Mali.

Other options to support women while travelling is to book lodging at women-run hotels such as Boomu Women’s Group camp in Uganda, or Zanzibar Lodge in Stone Town, and by purchasing goods made by women in local markets.

Women selling some hand-made jewellery on a rooftop in Djenné
Women selling some hand-made jewellery on a rooftop in Djenné

Support Women by Giving a Gal a Job

 

Many tourism-related professions are traditionally occupied by men, such as providing transportation, guiding or porter services. So wherever there is an opportunity to provide an employment opportunity to a woman while travelling, I try to do so.

One of my favourite such instances was while using the hammams in Morocco. In the bigger cities, some akin to fancy resort spas where a woman will gently scrub you down and massage you until your skin positively glows.  In the smaller towns however,  hammams are where the local women go to unwind for a couple hours by scrubbing themselves and relaxing in the steam. While in one of those smaller towns, my friend and I took a cue from the local ladies and bought the black soap and scrubbing mitt we saw Moroccan women using and tried to replicate the results of the expensive spa. We thought we were doing a pretty good job until we were offered to have a local lady scrub us down for a paltry $2. The women scrubbed us until our skin peeled off in chunks (it doesn’t hurt) and made us laugh despite the language barrier. The women were so effective at sloughing off our dead skin that they had to hose our spot down afterwards. That being said, the experience really is nicer than I’m making it sound right now and I really miss those scrub downs.

Hammams in Morocco are a great way to support women
Prepare for the scrubbing of your life that feels surprisingly good.
photocredit: www.aufeminin.com

Also, I had bought some rose powder from the spice stalls in Marrakesh which you could mix with water to make a toning face mask. The women asked if it was from Morocco and soon after saying yes, most of the women in the hammam were sitting in front of me asking me to put a face mask on them. Not only were we able to support local women by paying for their scrubbing services, we also got to share a memorable experience with some of the women in the community. In short, paying for the services women offer is an efficient way to support women’s economic development in the countries you visit.

Give to Organizations that Promote Women’s Development

Wherever possible, if there are direct opportunities to support women in tourism I try to do so. In the absence of such opportunities, giving money to organizations that promote women’s development is equally important. The organization I worked for in Mali for example, offered micro-credit loans to women to start their own businesses. Some women were so successful with their small businesses that they were able to hire additional staff and pool their resources to put into projects that benefit their whole community, such as community garden plots and water pumps.

AMPJ team in Mali, working to makes women's lives better in rural areas
The AMPJ team in Mali, working to makes women’s lives better in rural areas. 

In the end, supporting women-lead tourism businesses and organizations can be a wonderful way to contribute women’s economic development abroad and give back to the communities that host us travellers. There is nothing more Zen than helping others, so let’s #MakeItHappen on International Women’s Day and beyond.

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