Solo Woman Travel Challenge or Swo-Yatra, a competition which gives women a chance to win a grant for their solo travel anywhere in Nepal, gets between 400 and 500 applications every year. An initiative of NepaliTravellers, an NGO, 42 women have both won grants and traveled solo through this four-year-old competition. It lets women come up with their own itinerary and gives them short self-defense and first-aid training before they embark on their trip. With so many applicants, it is clear that more and more Nepali women want to travel alone. APEX tried to find out what else these women are looking for. In 2018, 417 women applied for this competition, 28 of whom spoke to us. As many as 16 viewed this competition as a way to convince their guardians to let them travel on their own. “My parents never let me go anywhere alone. Even though Nepali society has progressed on many fronts, it still has not changed much in terms of giving women more freedom. In a way, this competition was a challenge to myself and the society I live in,” says Prasamsa Shrestha, 23, an applicant this year.
Menuka Gurung, 24, is one of the Swo-Yatra 2018 winners. She recently returned home after completing her Bachelor’s in Thailand, but is finding it difficult to adjust in Kathmandu. “My parents would not let me travel alone anywhere. I did not need anyone’s permission to travel around when I was in Thailand. It’s been a year and a half since I am back in Kathmandu. Only through this competition was I allowed to travel solo,” she says. And now that she has finally traveled alone in Nepal, she hopes her parents would give her more freedom in making future travel decisions.
Definitely not crazy
Asmita Rijal, 20, who participated in the competition this year, says applying to this competition helped change her parents’ perspective on women solo travelers. “The sheer number of women applying convinced them that I’m not the only ‘crazy woman’ who wants to go around the country alone.”
Jason Shah, co-founder of NepaliTravellers, says that this was not meant to be a woman-empowerment project. “We do not teach women how to travel solo. We only help those who already want to do so.”
Shah says he wanted to create a big impact with the small resource at his disposal. “There are many women who have later traveled alone with their own funds after they won the competition. Each year, videos of women traveling solo are uploaded and parents watch those inspiring videos and learn about travelers. Such videos let them know that their daughter is not the only one traveling solo and that there is a support system in place.”
Shah adds that if the applicants had everything they needed to travel alone, they would not have applied. “I think most of them are looking for money. But even those who do not win become inspired after going through the application process and meeting like-minded women.”
He says that parents, after seeing the month-long application process involving multiple rounds of interviews, understand that their daughters are not acting on a whim but have a well-thought-out plan.
An initiative of NepaliTravellers, 42 women have both won grants and traveled solo through this competition
Will she be safe?
Menuka Devkota, 23, another applicant this year, agrees. “If I had won, I would have been allowed to travel alone. The competition allowed me to convince my parents to let me travel alone. Seeing my dedication to the application process and my willingness to go through any hardship impressed them a lot.” She says she feels lost at times and by traveling alone, she wanted to learn to be more independent, know about herself, build self-confidence and relieve stress. When asked why she was not allowed to travel solo, she says that parents were worried about her safety.
Preety Kulung, 19, agrees. “Had it not been for this competition, I wouldn’t have traveled solo, because the idea of women traveling alone is indeed new for us. News of so many rape cases has created fear among women and parents.”
There have been instances when NepaliTravellers has faced difficulty in sending women for solo travel. “In our second year, two winners couldn’t travel because they were not allowed to by their guardians,” says Shah.
“It is not a big deal for men to travel alone. It should be the same for women, but our society has not reached there yet. We want more women travelers—traveling solo or in group. It makes travel more inclusive.” Shah believes that if travel is safe for women, it would be safer for everyone else.
Other women we spoke to stated ‘money’, ‘training’, and ‘an opportunity to explore oneself’ and ‘to gain self-confidence’ as top reasons for applying. We also spoke with women who have traveled alone with their own money. Faija Parween, who recently went on a solo trip to Europe, says, “I think solo travel is empowering. It is an opportunity to go and see the world with your own eyes and without anyone else to color your views. It makes people, particularly women, more decisive and stronger.” She says that competitions like Swo-Yatra are just one way for women to travel solo.