A group of young travelers gathered on couches and chairs in a cozy living room where a fire roared one stormy, rainy night. The minute Jenny began to speak, silence fell across the room. Jenny, the owner and heart and soul behind Wild Spirit, a sustainable backpackers’ retreat in the heart of Tsitsikama Forest along South Africa’s Garden Route, had a presence that was at once captivating and gentle. Intrigued by her story and her deep reverence for the surrounding land, I spent the next week joining her on excursions to her favorite spots: wide beaches with powerful waves, orange-tinted lagoons, her veranda overlooking the dense green forest. All the while she regaled the many fascinating chapters of her life. The accidental circumstances that led her to the property where Wild Spirit now sits, keeping the doors open without discrimination during apartheid South Africa, staunchly advocating for the protection of the local ecosystem against development, petitioning the government on numerous occasions against the destruction of the species in the area, and creating environmental education programs in local schools. Jenny infused all of these feats with meditation, art, creativity, and an infectious energy, a true woman warrior in all senses. Through Wild Spirit, she acted as a fierce protector of the land and animals she loved, while creating an inviting home for travelers to rest, connect, learn, and create while on the road in South Africa.
On my travels and international work over the past decade and a half, I’ve been continuously humbled by the women I’ve encountered, Jenny being one among many. The women who have opened up their homes and shared food and traditions with me; women who have told me their fears, their frustrations, and their dreams. I have talked about women’s rights with young women on the steps of Chefchaouen, Morocco and helped a new friend get ready for her wedding day in Orchha, India while talking about arranged marriage. In a salon in Siem Reap, I listened to a Cambodian woman talk about being divided by her love for her culture and her fear of the government. And at the end of gender empowerment workshops in rural northwestern Tanzania, during which women shared stories of abuse and their hopes for their future, they drew me into a joyful dance circle celebrating community.
These women are changemakers, trailblazers, and everyday heroes standing up for something they believe in. They are humble, brave, and fiercely resilient, often in the face of discrimination and oppression. In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March and the entire month of March, women’s history month, I am commemorating women far and wide. I’ve rounded up a handful of inspirational women who are shifting the norms in the tourism industry, steering the industry to a more equitable and sustainable future.
Akashinga means “Brave Ones” in Shona, and in Zimbabwe is bridging the gap between gender inequality and wildlife conservation. This powerful force of women is Africa’s first all-women, plant-based, anti-poaching unit. Akashinga’s focuses on educating the community to understand the benefits of preserving wildlife, and shifting the way that animals on the continent are protected. The work is both mentally and physically challenging, as well as dangerous at times, requiring all women to undergo intensive training including first aid, communications, weapon handling, and field combat. While this is traditionally a job held by men, these women have fought against societal standards, embody courage, and have well earned their title as “The Brave Ones.” Purity Mapa, former title junior ranger and current Coach Ranger Life Saver commented, “The most rewarding aspect of my work is that the IAPF is constantly bringing me opportunities I would otherwise not have had. The role of women in the African culture is to take care of children at home and do most of the household chores… The IAPF is changing much of this… they came to my community and empowered economically and socially disadvantaged women.” And her message for girls around the world? “I just want to say that, no matter what, don't look down upon yourself. Keep on seeing possibilities only. As long as you're focused you can achieve everything that you want.”
In the heart of Caru Indigenous Territory, where the rainforest opens up to the coast of northeastern Brazil, a group of Guajajara women warriors stands at the forefront of protecting the Amazon. They have named themselves “guerreiras da Floresta,” or “guardians of the forest.” In a male-dominated field, these women represent a necessary shift within the environmental movement. After bearing witness to the unsuccessful efforts of men in their community to stop illegal logging, a group of 32 women stepped in to take over. The path to being recognized as equals was one riddled with challenges but their efforts have paid off. Deforestation has decreased and the sale of illegal wood in their territory has been eradicated. The guerreiras da Floresta have also gathered larger groups of indigenous women across many regions in the Brazilian Amazon to create unity in this struggle. “This whole movement is extremely important because it shows this strength, and that women have a lot to contribute to the movement because they are part of the territory and are concerned with it, and with future generations,” said Rodrigues da Silva, guardian of the forest.
Inspired by her background in wildlife conservation, Divya Khandal saw an opportunity to support women in northern India and play a unique role in regional conservation around Ranthambore National Park through Dhonk Crafts. She works with women living in the vicinity of the park, specifically the wives of former poachers, who are trained in block printing and stitching. The impact is two-fold: the work fills an employment gap in a rural area, empowering women with skills they can use to earn a living and contribute to the livelihood of their families. This alternative form of employment also provides job opportunities for people previously working in illegal activities such as hunting, woodcutting, and poaching, which has a positive impact on the conservation efforts in the region. Divya also has started a microfinance program that allows women to take out small loans to start a business, buy a sewing machine, pay for school fees or anything that will help them live a more independent lifestyle.
From the English countryside to the rolling green hills of Rwanda, Abi Osho connects black women on soul-stirring retreats specifically designed to help them connect with their ancestral roots and other women with shared experiences. A brainchild that emerged from the pandemic, Soul Melanin fills a gap in the travel and retreat space. When reflecting on her past experience of often being the only black woman in retreat spaces, Abi commented: “It felt to me that there was still a disconnect regarding understanding more about myself, my challenges as a black woman, and how differently I navigated my lived experience.” Cue Soul Melanin, which offers safe, self-growth experiences solely for black women where they are nourished and heard. The concept is very much a reflection of her own journey, in stepping away from a life overwhelmed by stress and burnout and pursuing a path of holistic well-being and energetic alignment. “I wanted to create a space where we could genuinely be ourselves, discuss issues around, self-discovery, and health and embrace the power of nature-based spaces,” Abi said. “It's very much about connecting back to their ancestral roots, re-centering their internal power, and embracing who they are becoming on their self-discovery journey.”
Cat Jones embodies the concept of slow living, and slow travel. Noticing a gap in the travel industry, she founded Byway Travel in 2020 from her UK home during the first lockdown. Her goal? To curate custom trips that eliminate airplanes and minimize their carbon footprint. “Having never owned a car myself, I’ve always taken a multi-stop, multi-modal approach to my trips,” Cat commented. “I founded Byway… to create the technology that would make my kind of travel possible at scale.” Byway takes the work off the plate of travelers and has made airplane-free possible, to the places “in-between.” In essence, Byway changes how one travels and draws tourists away from travel spots. During the 2.5 years that Byway has been in operation, the company has experienced incredible growth. One of the best parts? More than 60% of the travelers booking are traditionally flyers, suggesting a shift in the way in which people travel. “Slow travel is a mindset,” Cat reflected. “It’s about traveling overland, staying in locally owned accommodation, stopping en route and taking time to get to know a place, its food, history, culture and its people.”
A mother-daughter duo running immersive experiences across Alberta, Canada, Warrior Women seeks to educate about the culture and traditions of the Cree First Nations. They host pow-wow experiences and drumming shows, among other cultural offerings that help preserve and bring to life their ancestral traditions. A major focal point of its work is in plant medicine, including leading experiential plant medicine experiences in Jasper National Park. Reflecting on the significance of plant medicine in her indigenous roots, Matricia commented, “Indigenous peoples have been coexisting, healing and taking care of the environment for centuries. Each plant has a creation story and a song and a Cree name… So, I share Indigenous ways of knowing and being and challenge visitors to think outside what they know.” And her reminder for girls and women around the world for this International Women’s Day? “We all have a story and we deserve to take up space sharing it.”
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