There is an ancient city that exists in Nepal, rivaling the beauty of the mountains that surround it, yet you don’t have to travel long distances along death-defying, white- knuckle-inducing roads to find it. Bhaktapur, the third of the medieval city-states in Nepal best known for its Newari architecture, lies less than an hour outside of the chaotic capital city of Kathmandu. Along narrow alleys adorned with traditional wood carved windows and doors, artisans throw pots, teenagers sit in smoky cafes as oxen pull carts down the cobblestone roads, and tourists stumble over their dropped jaws. In one of these alleys lies a three-story building tucked behind a weathered wooden door, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear women laughing.
Inside this building women are knitting Sherpa Adventure Gear beanies, and there’s a good reason why they are so happy. “If you are happy, it comes out happy. If you are angry, it comes out angry. That’s why we have to make them happy. It’s very important to us,” Sabi NarayanKayastha, the manager of the factory, explained. Rossna Shilpakar, one of the women who works at the factory, was quick to back up his claims. She said she sees how valuable her time in the factory has been to make new friends, chit chat, and laugh. “Life is good all of the time,” she said.
Rossna and the other women sitting next to her have been encouraged to work. Women participating in the workforce is not necessarily perceived negatively by Nepali society; by all accounts, women working in Nepal is an accepted practice. But as with everything, just because it is favored it doesn’t mean that in practice it is easy. Only 22% of working-age women are employed, yet Nepal’s unemployment rate hovers below four percent. As recently as 2015, 48% of women older than the age of 15 didn’t have any formal education, and only 25% of women receive a higher education, including technical and vocational education programs. Child marriage and the practice of chhaupadi—the banishing of girls who are menstruating—contribute to their lack of education and ability to join the workforce. Many women continue to act as the primary caregivers in their home; a traditional 9 to 5 office job that requires them to commute long distances also is unrealistic.
That’s where companies like Sherpa Adventure Gear—who prioritize employing local women—come in. The factory, which works with a handful of brands including Sherpa, employ women who either work in the factory or work from home. During the busy season, women can earn about rs14,000 per month ($123 uSD), which is the average wage women earn in the country. (It should be noted that men on average earn rs5,000 more, or $44 uSD. The pay gap is rampant and everywhere.) It wasn’t until the international market opened up that these women were able to make a living off of a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation. “Knitting has been passed onto us from our ancestors; it is part of the culture that connects us to our family and friends,” Rajani Shresdha, a 29-year- old mother of one son who works at the factory, said. She, like all of the other knitters, are paid per piece and can work from home if they want. “But if they have a headache in their house, then they come here,“ NarayanKayastha said.
It takes about three hours for one beanie to be knit, and the entire piece is handmade except for the embroidered Sherpa Adventure Gear patch that is hand sewn on the outside. “Women have more passion, more tolerance than a man. It’s very difficult and a man cannot do it. If I had to, I would need one month to make one,” NarayanKayastha said laughing.
For many of the knitters, this is the only employment available to them, and they share a common trait with other women around the world: They want their children to have a better life than them. They value education. They want to contribute to their own personal success, as well as their family’s. Rita Ssilpakr, who is 36 years old, married with two boys, and shares a home with her in-laws, has been working at this factory for 10 years. She started working because she felt awkward having to ask to borrow money from her family members and husband. She has a clear message for other nepali women: “Since we womens [sic] are not much educated and used to be in housing [sic], I would advice [sic] all the womens [sic] to work and utilize their time and earn a living.”
Rita’s co-worker Subarna Suaal, who is 37 years old and lives with her two children and a husband, has only been working at the factory for one year. “When I knit I feel empowered; I feel creative,” she said. “My mother died when I was a child, so I couldn’t continue my study. If I didn’t knit, I would have to stay at home.”
While all of the women interviewed for this story had a slightly different take on their work as a knitter, there were two common themes: 1) They value independence, and this work grants that both to them and their children, and 2) They want to work more and they all asked, definitely and boldly, for you to please send more orders.
What is apparent after spending a morning at the knitting factory is that Sherpa Adventure Gear isn’t uplifting women from a life of despair. They’re making sure that they don’t fall into one. Access to employment, in a safe place that encourages friendship, laughter, and family is what women need more of. And companies like Sherpa Adventure Gear are committed to creating those types of jobs. While the immediate impact of buying that beanie may be difficult to quantify, what it represents is priceless: A future generation of young girls who will be educated and independent, something their mothers are working very hard to make a reality.