Volunteering Abroad for Women’s Rights

According to the Human Rights Watch, “Millions of women throughout the world live in conditions of abject deprivation of, and attacks against, their fundamental human rights for no other reason than that they are women.”

Women all over the world are fighting for the protection of their basic human rights. From the extremes of “honor” killings in Pakistan and female genital mutilation in Africa, to a universal lack of educational opportunities and reproductive choices, to worldwide domestic and sexual abuse, there is still a long way to go to reach gender equality.

Luckily, there are many opportunities to get involved with women’s issues on every continent. The most common and best ways international volunteers can contribute to empowering women are related to creating new opportunities and a sense of self-worth by teaching vocational skills, supporting women’s shelters, and giving them access to education and health opportunities, to name a few.

Take some time to educate yourself on gender equality issues and the programs that address women’s rights. Here are five great examples…

United Planet: Women’s Empowerment Volunteer Quests

Description: “Women’s empowerment and vocational training programs offer sustainable solutions, giving women the tools necessary to gain social and economic independence to lift them and their families out of unhealthy circumstances. United Planet’s unique Volunteer Abroad program combines volunteering abroad, language learning, cultural activities, learning excursions, and special Cultural Awareness Projects to provide an incredibly fulfilling experience for volunteers and valuable support for communities in need.”

  • Time commitment: Short-term (1-12 weeks) or Long-term (6 months or one year)
  • Dates: Short-term Women’s Empowerment Quests are available year-round with two start dates per month. Specific start dates vary by location. Long-term Quests begin in January and August of the year.
  • Fees: Short-term fees start at: $945, Long-term fees start at: $5285
  • Locations: Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru

Cross-Cultural Solutions: Empowering Women

Description: “Our volunteers work with local community organizations that are striving to help women in a variety of ways, from teaching vocational and language skills to offering micro-credit loans to educating about proper hygiene to providing a safe shelter for abused women and their children and more.”

  • Time commitment: 2-12 weeks
  • Locations: Ghana, India, Brazil, Morocco, Guatemala, South Africa, Peru, Tanzania

The Cornerstone Foundation: Women in Belize

Description: “Celebrating Women’s Wisdom, Worth & Ways.” You will be working with local women’s groups and government agencies directly. All the work that you do will immediately help local women that really need this assistance. Issues that affect women’s development: financial dependency, inadequate education and vocational skills, size of families, and domestic violence.”

  • Time commitment: 1 week up to 3 months
  • Fees: Starting at $385, the cost covers all program fees and accommodation (group living) including one midday meal per day.
  • Locations: San Ignacio, Belize

GeoVisions: Improving the Lives of Women

Description: “This project began in 1975 in honor of a famous Argentine woman who, during the foundational process of the Argentinean state in the 19th century, fought unfair conditions of women and proposed a free and public education where women could learn the same disciplines and subjects as men. The project regularly organizes workshops and seminars in local schools to promote and raise awareness on gender equality and women’s rights. There are also debates about violence against women in other associations and public places. There are also lectures and teaching women about law, prevention and health issues.”

  • Time commitment: 1-3 months
  • Fees: $2,435-$3,015
  • Locations: Cordoba, Argentina

Institute for Field Research Expeditions: Women’s Development Projects

Description: “IFRE’s Women Empowerment project helps with both formal and informal education (“street smarts”) as well as skills to earn a living by manufacturing crafts, producing various works of art and arranging for their sale.”

  • Time commitment: 2-12 weeks
  • Dates: First and Third Monday of each month
  • Fees: Starting at $648
  • Locations: Delhi, Alwar, Jaipur (India); Arusha, Tanzania; Kenya; Costa Rica

Learn more about the need to support women’s empowerment:

  • Office of Women’s Global Issues (WGI) in the U.S. Department of State: Promoting women’s social, political, and economic equality around the world.
  • Global Issues, Women’s Rights: Articles on global issues highlighting their inter-connectedness.
  • Human Rights Watch: Dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world.
    Women Watch: Information and resources on gender equality and empowerment of women from the United Nations.
  • World Health Organization’s section on Gender, Women and Health: Highlights how gender and gender inequality affect health.
  • World Volunteer Web, Gender equality & women’s empowerment: Supported by the United Nations Volunteers program, the World Volunteer Web supports the volunteer community by serving as a global clearinghouse for information and resources linked to volunteerism that can be used for campaigning, advocacy, and networking.

About the Author: Katie Boyer

Katie studied public relations at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA and is now working with Go Overseas in the Bay Area. Her experiences with traveling abroad combined with her passion for Latin American culture and community service fuel her writing and creativity. Follow Katie on Twitter @VolunteeReviews, Google+ and her Blog.

Yurt to Yurt Travel with Mongolian Nomads

Yurts are all the rage these days, with posh camping (glamping) sites springing up all over Europe. You are probably familiar by now with the yurt concept – rounded wooden structures, canvas covered, comfortable, spacious, more like a home than a tent. It’s no wonder they have converted many an ardent anti-camper. Easily dismantled and moved (in theory), Mongolian yurts evolved as the home of choice for the nomads of Central Asia. In Mongolia, one of the regions yurts originally hail from, an innovative foundation called Ger to Ger (or ‘Yurt to Yurt’) is working with nomadic families to invite adventurous soles to discover their world.

Since setting up in 2005, Ger to Ger have worked with dozens of Mongolian nomadic herder groups and their communities to develop a travel network of nomadic trekking, horse riding and 4×4 routes through the Mongolian steppe, taking you literally from Ger to Ger, staying with host families and sharing their way of life. It’s possibly as close as the modern adventure traveller will get to understanding life as a nomad. North, South, East and West, new trails are continuously being coordinated with the local communities. Check out their website for a full list: www.gertoger.org

For those less interested in being continuously on the move as the ‘nomadic’ lifestyle dictates, the agency have helped local community groups set up a series of cultural and homestay programs allowing you a rare insight into the local life and customs, including, for example, a trip that offers the chance to spend a week learning to train Kazakh eagles in Bayan Ulgii province. Here, Mongolian Kazakhs maintain a 2000-year old tradition of training female Golden Eagles to hunt foxes, rabbits, owls and even small wolves, and you will learn just how it’s done.

That might not be to everyone’s tastes, but is certainly going to be memorable, as would opportunities in different communities to, among other things, learn the language, work with horses, become a Mongolian archer, or discover embroidery and felt making techniques.

Ger to Ger is a unique travel foundation and social enterprise which takes an innovative approach to mobilize, train and support rural communities to develop sustainable livelihoods through community tourism.

Through tourism incomes, they say that rural nomadic herder groups and their communities are developing an understanding that they are custodians of nomadic culture and heritage, and guardians of local environment (as it becomes an income asset). The results are certainly tangible. One nomadic herder’s testimony mirrors that of many others: “Our household income has increased. So now, I can pay my daughter’s tuition. I have learned many things during the training and project.” (Mr. Chimiddorj)

Travelling to Mongolia to discover the origins of the yurt will certainly leave you with a different perspective on life, and gives you the chance to support others in their fight for a sustainable future in this brave new world.

Community Based Adventures in the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas Part 1

If you want to explore the mountains and valleys of the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas, 3 of the 5 local travel operators who form India’s groundbreaking Green Circuit initiative offer the perfect opportunity to do so. This 3 part blog will explore the northern Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh with Spiti Ecosphere (Part 1), the North Eastern regions and the Neora Valley National Park with Help Tourism (Part 2), and Nepal’s Tamang heritage trail with Social Tours (Part 3).

Part 1 – Exploring the Spiti Valley with Ecosphere

Spiti Ecosphere is an endeavour to promote community-based ecotourism in the Spiti valley, a stunning high altitude desert region tucked away in the Trans-Himalayan belt of Himachal Pradesh. A passion for conservation, mountain travel and adventure brought together a collaboration of local community members and professionals from diverse backgrounds to offer a range of trekking, mountaineering, biking, rafting, cultural and spiritual adventures in this beautiful and remote corner of the Himalayas.

Spiti – “the middle land” – between India and Tibet is one of the least populated regions of India. Breathtaking mountain scenery and a fascinating history and culture make this relatively unknown destination very appealing to the adventure traveller. Described by Rudyard Kipling as ‘a world within a world’, Spiti is home to a Buddhist Society of just over 10,000, who bear stark cultural similarities with their neighbours in Tibet and Ladakh.

Ecosphere offer visitors the opportunity to experience the true essence of trekking by traversing through remote, pristine and forgotten trails. Passes in and out of Spiti provide a strategic access to neighbouring areas of Ladakh, Kinnaur, Kullu and Lahaul. Some well-known treks are the Pin-Parbati, Parang-La and the Pin-Bhaba. You can also head out on multi-day mountain biking excursions deep into the Himalayan backcountry.

Their trademark trip for the less active traveller is the Spiti Kaleidescope, a jeep safari which takes you up and over the majestic Rohtang and Kunzum passes and through the stunning and graphic valleys of the Chandra, Spiti, Pin rivers. The safari then climbs up to the highest villages in the world to experience Spitian culture through traditional homestays and visits to ancient monasteries that are the cultural and spiritual hubs of the Spitian way of life.

The aim of the not-for-profit initiative is to develop unique, authentic and reliable tourism products and activities and link them to community livelihoods. This not only provides the residents of the Spiti Valley with a sustainable source of income but also serves as an incentive to conserve their unique natural & cultural heritage and environment. 90% of permanent staff are local to the Spiti Valley, and the revenues are all ploughed back towards the local Spiti community, either to service providers, or for conservation activities, welfare and development of the region.

All trips are also carbon neutral thanks to their investments in in-house renewable energy projects such as solar passive housing, green houses, setting up of solar cookers and solar lighting. Ecosphere has also been conducting volunteer travel in the region with an attempt to directly link travel development and conservation, and volunteers can contribute to the construction of these renewable energy projects. As well as tourism, Ecosphere are also turning to the indigenous production of organic and health products to stimulate the sustainable development of the entire region.

Along the Golden River: Ecotourism in Zerafshan Valley, Tajikistan

Community Based Tourism Development in Zerafshan

The Zerafshan Tourism Development Association (ZTDA) is a public community-based organisation created in March 2008 under a Community Based Tourism project in the Zerafshan Valley by the local NGO Agency for the Support of Development Processes Nau (ASDP Nau) and the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, with financial support from the European Commission.

ZTDA aims to develop sustainable tourism in the region, adapted to local society, culture and the fragile environment. Today, ZTDA represents the interests of its members who provide tourist services such as accommodation in traditional home stays, transportation and mountain guides.

ZTDA focuses on the following priority areas:

Participation of the local communities in ZTDA activities;
Financial transparency and transparency in the activity of all members of ZTDA;
Supporting local initiatives and maintaining development of the Tourism Initiative Groups;
Conservation of the natural environment and cultural heritage.
It is not by chance that the ZTDA has “development” in its name. Working with the locals to develop tourism, ZTDA aims to improve the well-being of the local communities and to reduce poverty, while at the same time helping conserve the fragile environment of the region as well as preserve the cultural heritage.

A Unique Cultural and Outdoors Experience

“Welcome! Everything you see here is home-made!”

Sarvar says with great pride. He speaks of the grand morning feast he has prepared for us which was entirely made up of his home-grown products: the delicious Tajik naan bread, fresh from the oven; the small cups and plates of various nuts and dried raisins; and Chakka – a tasty Tajik specialty made with sour milk. Accompanying all this is the fresh mulberry juice and the exquisite honey, extracted from pollen of the unique mountain flowers of Tajikistan. Sarvar’s wife, Muhayo, offers the tea, but not just any tea, a tea which was prepared using mountain plants collected in the Shing valley, where Sarvar and Muhayo Homajovs’ wonderful homestay is located.

“Shing” is an old Sogdian word for “green garden.” The name suits its valley perfectly – green foliage covers the entire area. Sarvar, a Dushanbe trained pharmaceutist, grew up here and is the local expert in wild-grown medicinal plants. Every day, he gathers the herbs and plants and will gladly share his knowledge with all visitors who make a stop at his homestay.

The Homajovs’ homestay is one of the ZTDA’s home stay accommodations supported by the German Development Service (DED), ASDP Nau and WeltHungerHilfe. The project helped the Homajovs finance some repairs and upgrades needed to ready the house to receive guests. We luckily have had the pleasure to see this for ourselves. One night at the homestay costs little more than 8 USD which includes a tasty, handmade and organic breakfast, made with ingredients mostly from the family garden and fruit trees.

Shing village, 50 km from Penjikent, is on the doorstep of a series of seven beautiful lakes which are well worth the detour. Each lake has its own name and also differentiates itself by its unique form and colour, ranging from ocean blue to tropical turquoise. Sarvar accompanies tourists in exploration of the surrounding area, where they have the chance to discover the fascinating flora of the mountain valleys. Outdoor lovers will have plenty to be happy about as they take part in a trekking expedition exploring the breathtaking gorges and mountains that surround Shing and its seven beauties.

Discovering the fascinating field of apiculture by attending Sarvar’s demonstration of the honey-making process may also be an excellent addition to the itinerary. The bee-keeping farm is in Sarvar’s yard and he will gladly show it to his guests and share his knowledge and skills. “I am always glad to receive guests in my homestay,” says Sarvar. “I’m happy to talk with them and to find out more about their culture.”

Sadly it’s Sunday morning, and already time for us to say goodbye to the Homajovs. We are seen off by Muhayo, who gives us a sincere and warm send-off.

A few kilometres down the road and up the mountains lies Padrud village. The village is the site of the second home stay in the region, where refreshing air and the soothing sound of the nearby mountain river are the everyday realities and where the river-side hosts, the Boturovs, are always pleased to welcome guests.

“I love my job,” Zohira Boturova tells us. Being a nurse and a midwife, Zohira very often has to walk to neighbouring villages in the area, where people need her medical help. Despite having low revenues, Zohira and her husband have invested in renovations of their home and have already hosted guests from Germany, Spain, Great Britain, Russia and Tajikistan.

Guests staying at the Boturovs will have an excellent guide at their service: Zohira’s husband has many years experience as a driver and guide in the surrounding mountain areas and knows all the wonderful views and lakes which of course he will share with guests coming in.

About Zerafshan Valley

Zerafshan, which means “Golden River” in Tajik, is the main stream which crosses the valley and supplies its inhabitants with the most precious resource: water. The local population depends strongly on agricultural revenues, with which the river continues to help them. The Zerafshan Valley is also famous for its unique mountain landscapes and its beautiful lakes: the Alauddin lakes, the Kulikalon lakes, Iskanderkul Lake, the seven lakes of Shing and others. The Tajik ancestors, called the Sogdians, have lived for more than 1,500 years along the Zerafshan valley – a history which is still visible at the Old Penjikent archaeological site.

The archaeological site of the ruins of old Penjikent- a walled inter-city which stood 2500-years ago – was once a Sogdian trading city on the Silk Road and is the best-preserved example of a Sogdian city. Often referred to as “The Pompeii of Central Asia”, it is well worth a visit. Duplicates of old Sogdian art are exhibited in the nearby museum.

If 2,500 years doesn’t seem to suffice, 20 kilometres further, one may find the oldest settlement in all Central Asia – Sarazm. The name Sarazm (or Sari Zamin) aptly means “the beginning of the world” for this site which is more than 5,500 years old and is considered as the birthplace of civilization of Tajik people. The nearby museum also shows archaeological finds including a picture of the discovered skeleton of the multi-millennia princess of Sarazm adorned with her jewelery.

For more detailed information about services and tour packages to Zerafshan valley, and to book your home stay, contact the Tourist Information Point in Penjikent at: 47 Hofizi Sherozi Street, Penjikent, Tajikistan (Tel: +992 3475 5 63 39, Email: Tic_panjakent@yahoo.com).

Birder’s Paradise – Chilika Lake, Orissa, India

Chilika Lake, Asia’s largest estuarine lagoon hosts over a million birds every winter. Migratory waterfowl wing in from places as far away as Siberia to jostle resident species over freshwater wetland. Water lilies open with the rising sun and a symphony of bird calls flutter to our ears.

We are perched on the northern edge of Chilika Lake overlooking the 1100 square kilometre expanse of waters as it stretches seaward toward the Bay of Bengal. Here, a small but remarkable village has come full circle to protect a vital wetland area of international importance.

Historically residents of Mangalajodi village posed a threat to bird life. Many families turned the lucrative poaching trade and it wasn’t long before bird numbers hit an all-time low. A local conservation organization Wild Orissa meet with the villagers a decade ago and has been instrumental in guiding their transformation ever since.

Poachers developed an intricate knowledge of bird habitats, breeding cycles and migration patterns. The challenge was to utilise this knowledge and their existing skill-set for conservation. Awareness campaigns combined with sting operations convinced many to change their ways.

The transition was not an easy one for Kishan Behera, who notes, “The pressure from within the community was hard to withstand, but how long can we keep killing [the birds] before there is nothing left?” As a reformed poacher himself, Kishan is well versed in the tricks of the trade and provides valuable information and insights against members of his own community. It’s a brave effort that over the years gained momentum and support.

Now a local village committee has been formed by a core group of ex-poachers determined to continue their new role as protectors. Members of the committee conduct daily surveillance patrols to check incidences of poaching. During winter they are also engaged in monitoring the wetlands and are excited by the increase of migratory birds flocking to their homeland.

The new protectors double-up as impressive guides to this newly burgeoning destination. We glide through sun-flecked reeds with binoculars poised. Kishan Behera gently taps the side of the dung-out canoe to indicate he’s spotted something; following his hand. We witness a pair of Asian Openbill Storks stretch their broad wings and take flight with extended necks. Kishan whispers the bird’s common name in English. His ability to navigate effortlessly through the watertable has been invaluable. His knowledge of local and migratory birds greatly enriches the experience.

Ecotourism activities such as boat cruises and nature walks provide a supplementary income for the poachers-turned-protectors. More than just extra pennies in their pockets, ecotourism serves to encourage local conservation efforts. Providing support and adding weight to the shift has made remarkable changes in the villages psyche. From a community bent on destruction emerges a concentrated collective focused on preservation.

The village at Mangalojodi is a unique example of how partnerships can give way to conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Ecotourism plays a vital key; one that draws attention and appreciation to local conservation efforts. Breathing new life into natural habitats and safeguarding local environments for generations to come.

Want to visit Mangalojodi?

Grass Routes Journeys operates special customised tours to Mangalajodi on request. The winter months from November to February are the best time to visit. Grass Routes has generously donated a community eco-tour package, “India Nature & Wildlife Journeys, 6 days/5 nights for 2” which is currently available on TIES ecoAuction. This is a custom-made package provided exclusively for TIES ecoAuction, and, with the opening bid starting at 40% of the retail value, is the best deal available anywhere. Learn more & Bid now!


“I have lived and worked in the Indian Subcontinent since 2000. More significantly I have traveled its length and breadth – working for Australia’s leading adventure travel company, connecting with people of various quirks and guises. I have experienced (and continue to experience) India’s untold charms and challenges. In honor of this irrefutable bond, and in gratitude of the countless people who have shared their genuine hospitality, I co-founded Grass Routes. A pioneering travel company that operates community-based tours in the extraordinary East Indian state of Orissa, Grass Routes is an ethical effort to encourage ancient livelihoods. I now work in partnership with local communities employing sustainable tourism to revive local arts & crafts and breathe fresh life into traditional cultures. Here, I live close to nature and closer still to a way of life so far removed from my birth country, yet I couldn’t feel more at home!”