The Travel Agency Empowering Women in Southeast Asia

Sin Thi Huong is a rare gem in the bustling mountain town of Sapa, in Northern Vietnam. Ethnic minorities like the Giay and Red Dao live in Sapa, and many women are illiterate and live in poverty. Huong, however, is a 32-year-old Giay woman who has worked as a tour guide for the past six years.

I can take the opportunity of the work to show and to share about our culture to international guests,” Huong said. “All the guest they come from modern and developed countries; people like to find out [about] what they don’t have and see everyday.

Huong is not the kind of woman you see everyday in Sapa. She is unmarried with no children and she studied International Economics at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. Speaking English opened the door for her career in tourism – a decision not supported by her family at first.

People here are less educated, so we think woman [can] only do selling and buying [and] follow tourists to sell handicraft,” Huong said. “Men can be tour guides, because they are more free; they do not have to take care of the children and clean like the women do.

In August, Huong began working for Guided MissDirection, an international travel company designed exclusively for women. Leading small-group tours in Southeast Asia, the company hires local female guides who have broken into the male-dominated tourist industry.

Co-founders Danielle Johnson and Sarah Deicke are recent college graduates from America who grew up together in Illinois. In November 2016, the 23-year-old entrepreneurs wanted to create a business where women could support other women and explore cultures in comfort.

Cofounders Danielle and Sarah backpacked for three months in Southeast Asia to create their tours. Photo by Danielle Johnson/Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Being uncomfortable is a reason why women don’t want to travel,” Danielle said. “That first step, that first trip is very important. We hold your hand if you want us to; we take the fear away.

Guided MissDirection’s 11-day excursion from Southern to Northern Vietnam features a bamboo boat tour in Halong Bay, zipping through Hanoi on motorcycles, and haggling at street markets in Saigon. Meals and transportation within Vietnam are included, as well as cooking, zumba, and yoga classes with scenic views. Besides sightseeing, forming intercultural relationships is another guarantee when touring with Guided MissDirection.

Women attend a mountain hiking tour with Guided MissDirection. Photo by Danielle Johnson/Sapa, Vietnam.

We look for [guides] who are willing to share personal information about themselves and their lives in order to connect to the American women we bring,” Sarah said. “For example, Huong not only tells our women stories about what it was like growing up in the mountains as a minority, but she also brings us to her grandparent’s house for a meal.

Danielle became in awe of Vietnamese culture while studying History at Rollins College. She wrote her thesis on females who served in the Vietnam Conflict. In May 2016, Danielle attended a field study to the country, where she met local woman like Huong – women she later hired for Guided MissDirection.

Sarah and Danielle also spent three months backpacking in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to create their tours and find local female guides. The trip motivated them to make traveling easier for other women.

It is hard traveling as a solo female,” Danielle explained. “The biggest frustration is having to always be on your guard. We wanted to give women the opportunity to go to places they thought that they couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to go.

Currently, Danielle and Sarah are finalizing a new 11-day tour to Sri Lanka that will launch in March 2018. So far, the trip includes surfing lessons in Weligama, seeing elephants on a safari in Udawalawe, and volunteering in Galle.

Guided MissDirection led their first small group tour to Vietnam in August. Photo by Maelynn Johnson/Sapa, Vietnam.

Guided MissDirection has upcoming tours to Vietnam this October, November, and New Year’s Eve. In the future, the travel agency plans to expand their tours to Thailand and Samoa.

DC to London to Colombo, Sri Lanka!

By Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation 

As I continue my work with establishing the Malini Foundation’s projects in Sri Lanka, I want to share the journey of how I got here, as well as some history on the country, to put into context the current situation for women and girls and why doing what I’ve set out to do is necessary.

There are no direct flights to Sri Lanka. I decided to break up my 23 hours journey from the US to Sri Lanka with a stopover in London to visit family and to meet with our partner Advocates for International Development (A4ID) and a small London-based Sri Lankan non-profit.

London is home to tens of thousands of Sri Lankans resulting from colonial connections and asylum-related migration due to the now ended civil war. In fact, there was quite a bit of media attention on Sri Lanka in London due to the Commonwealth Summit, which was held in Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, Colombo. The Sri Lankan government has received serious criticism for allegedly using excessive force in the last hours of fighting in 2009, which took the lives of thousands of civilians.

The civil war was between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, a separationist militant group fighting to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the Tamil minority. They are also known for recruiting child soldiers and for pioneering suicide-bombing belts most often used by female LTTE fighters to attack politicians but also civilians.

Few deny the progress the country has made since the end of the war, not only in terms of infrastructure and commerce but also with personal freedom.

“You can finally drive on the road and go past a crowded bus without fear that it will blow up,”

I’ve heard people share.

However, the end of the war came with significant humanitarian impact. The issues are far too complex to be discussed in a blog post. There is no clear distinction between the good guys and bad guys.

A4ID brokers legal services to support various social causes and their lawyers were well aware of the situation in Sri Lanka. As I began to work with them to prepare for the Malini Foundation’s programs in Sri Lanka, one lawyer brought up several examples of the murders of journalists in the country. While our project steers clear of anything politically related, she urged me to be careful.

Several family members who had recently been on vacation to Sri Lanka added concerns around the safety for a single women traveling in Sri Lanka. There has been a string of rapes of tourists, particularly in the southern region, which is known for its breathtaking white sandy beaches. I was familiar with the usual street harassment that women face with vulgar comments being hollared but I was ignorant to such issues of rape.

I ended my stay in London by meeting two “uncles” (in Sri Lankan culture the older generation is referred to as “uncle” and “aunty” as a sign of respect, similar to Mr. and Mrs.). Uncle Jayantha and Uncle Raja have lived in the U.K. for most of their adult lives and their children were brought up there. Yet, they hold close ties to Sri Lanka through multiple philanthropic ventures spanning close to 20 years.

I met with them over dinner at an Italian Restaurant in Hammersmith and shared my plans for the Malini Foundation. I was nervous because I had a feeling that they would say something I had heard from many well-wishers: “While your intentions are good, you will run into a lot of legal difficulties and people will expect bribes so I suggest you try out something easier…”

To my delight, my expectations were proven wrong. They were not only supportive but stated that our sustainability model, while less common in Sri Lanka, is what would be most effective! They promised to help in any way possible.

They too expressed safety concerns similar to those I had heard before and I explained that I have no intentions of getting involved in the post-war political rhetoric. Regardless, they had some words of advice:

“Stick to your mission to improve the state of girls’ education and maintain a low profile in Sri Lanka.”

While I blog about this experience, I take their advice seriously and aim to remain low-key on the field.

I left London somewhat somber as I contemplated the complicated situation in Sri Lanka. But I have faith and perseverance on my side and hopefully that will help overcome some of the anticipated hurdles.

The Malini Foundation is a Girls’ Globe Featured Organization and in the early stages of development in Sri Lanka, led by founder Valerie Handunge. For more on the Malini Foundation click here


The Iron Lady

Karunawathie Menike (Karuna as she goes by for short) is an unassuming Sri Lankan woman with an inspirational story. Karuna is from Wilpotha, Chilaw, a village that used to be so isolated in thick jungle terrain that it had no electricity, septic system or roads until recently. Being in such a state of neglect, education and healthcare were not even considered necessities.

“Be self-reliant and stand on your own feet without obligation to others” ~ Karuna
“Be self-reliant and stand on your own feet without obligation to others” ~ Karuna

But Karuna is no traditional village woman. She’s an entrepreneur, an advocate and a mentor to women’s groups around Sri Lanka. She helps them set up livelihood and savings programs to empower women to live independent and fulfilling lives.

To understand the magnitude of her accomplishments we have to go back to the late 1970s during a time of extreme drought and crop failures. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) provided food rations but the local distribution middlemen were corrupt and many families went hungry. Karuna, along with a group of women, went on strike and pleaded with government officials to allow them to manage the food distribution process.

 “The food itself was bug-ridden by the end but we were allowed to manage the distribution and even started a loan scheme to satisfy emergency monetary needs,” says Karuna.

This rudimentary scheme is now a sustainable, self-managed microloan program that Karuna takes to village women’s cooperatives around Sri Lanka. A small amount of money is pooled from members, which is then used for low interest loans for reasonable emergencies and business initiatives. They called the program Women’s Savings Effort, Wilpotha (WSEW).

 “We don’t tell people what to do but show them what we did working from the bottom up. We talk more about our failures than our successes because this is how we become credible and inspire action,” says Karuna.

Her impact is so impressive that she was awarded the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship Award recognizing social entrepreneurs who design innovative solutions to social problems.

While Karuna’s life is an inspirational commemoration of International Women’s Day, it would be unfair to ignore the deep-rooted obstacles she faced. Many may not have even crossed our minds:

 1)   Language barrier leaves women leaders vulnerable to exploitation: one non-profit from Colombo city brought in foreign funders to see WSEW’s work. After several months, Karuna caught onto a few English words and grew suspicious. She realized that under the guise of giving help, the other non-profit was actually claiming WSEW’s work. After threats of sabotage and ill will, WSEW was able to shake off the other non-profits’ grip.

2)   Cultural stigma of a “disobedient wife”: Many women in villages are dependent on their husbands, fathers or brothers income and this status quo comes with control. Leadership requires women to leave the home and break these delicate dynamics that often results in jealousy, sabotage and abuse.

3)   Few local connections: Sri Lanka is a country where your network is representative of the likelihood of success with any initiative. A critic once told Karuna, “You’re not even good enough to go through the back door of a politician’s house.” Meaning, that her efforts will never be successful because she is a “nobody.”

4)   Lack of access to international resources: There is a lack of information flow leaving many women like “a frog inside a well,” as Karuna puts it. Village women leaders are often unaware of grants, industry developments and conferences, which are often attended by those in positions of privilege. Karuna has had the occasional opportunity to attend conferences only when organizations have gone the extra mile to provide her with a translator.

Handicrafts made by the members of the Women's Savings Effort, Wilpotha
Handicrafts made by the members of the Women’s Savings Effort, Wilpotha

These are just a few of the imperceptible social, cultural, political and economic obstacles Karuna has overcome in her path to help thousands of women build livelihoods, independence and dignity. It is no wonder that she is known as the “Iron Lady.”

Karuna’s story also illuminates the reasons why many women leaders may not be able to unleash their potential. This is reason enough for the Malini Foundation to seek latent “Karunas” and share their experiences. By doing so we hope to serve as platforms for advocacy by bringing their stories to the world.

Join the Malini Foundation for grassroots profiles of powerful leaders who will elucidate the complexities of the most forefront issues affecting girls and women.

Introducing the Malini Foundation

By: Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation

I don’t think that my story is a unique one for a career professional but I may have somewhat of a different ending. My name is Valerie Handunge and I’m a management consultant – or at least I used to be until three months ago. I was at a top firm, traveled weekly to exciting cities and worked on intellectually challenging strategic projects with incredibly bright colleagues. I loved most aspects about my work but deep down I felt like something was missing. I craved meaning beyond career growth.

I thought about the path I was on and saw myself in 10 years and then again in 20 years and while I’m sure I would have moved slowly but surely up the corporate ladder, it didn’t appear that I was happy or fulfilled.

So after much thought, I made a drastic decision to quit my job to pursue an initiative that I have been passionate about for more than half my life – to foster girls’ education and women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka.

Being originally from Sri Lanka and growing up in the Middle East, it was not uncommon to hear “girls don’t, can’t or shouldn’t do this, that or the other” from teachers, friends and other role models. However, my grandmother, who was married at the tender age of 17 or 18 through an arranged marriage, was generations beyond her time. She was a strong and jovial woman, who had learned many lessons throughout her life. She encouraged my curiosity and somewhat unorthodox independence, saying,

“Girls can do anything that boys can do.”
Valerie & her Grandmother
Valerie as a child & her Grandmother

In mid-2013 I decided to start the Malini Foundation, a non-profit social enterprise, named after my grandmother as she embodied the spirit of the type of organization I wanted to create.

Our mission is to advance the interests of girls and women in Sri Lanka to help them unleash their potential and transform their lives through quality education, empowerment and by bringing their voices to the international community.

Our goal is to implement three programs in the next two years:

1) A unique model to serve talented and gifted orphaned girls

2) Community outreach programs that engage and empower local women leaders to address issues surrounding girls’ education, child marriage, child domestic labor, sexual abuse/ incest etc. and

3) A women’s livelihood program that also serves as a self-sustainability effort for the organization, where profits made will be used to run and grow our programs.

All this sounds great in theory! Yet, implementation has presented its own set of anticipated and unforeseen challenges. From the complexities of attaining the appropriate provincial legal approvals to the occasional self-doubt that arises, there are many bumps on the road.

In fact, just a few days ago I woke up and realized that it has been three months to the date that I had stopped working. I couldn’t help but calculate the salary that I would have made and the many comforts that I took for granted that I no longer have.

Yet, I thought, I go to bed at night excited, with a sense of purpose, peace and satisfaction that I’ve taken this leap of faith to work towards a childhood dream that could yield incomparable rewards to what I’ve left behind.

Please join me on this incredibly humbling and gratifying journey as I document it on Girls’ Globe.

Twitter: @Malini_Fdn