Five Programs Paving the Way for Gender Equality Worldwide

Around the globe, teams of women are taking on traditionally male-dominated roles

As one of the first female-only programs of its kind in Tanzania, Exodus Travels Foundation provides intensive three-week training sessions for local women who want to obtain their guide license through its Mountain Lioness Scholarship. Exodus Travels Foundation

When Oren Blindell, a sales team leader for Exodus Adventure Travels, set out to climb Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro on a group excursion in 2022, she knew that this particular expedition would be extremely special. That’s because senior guide Lucia Kivoi would be leading the trip. Born in Arusha, the capital of Tanzania’s northern safari circuit, Kivoi had earned the nickname “Lioness” for becoming one of the first female porters—and, later, guides—escorting small groups to the summit of 19,341-foot-tall Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Only a decade earlier, it was virtually unheard of to have a woman working on Kilimanjaro’s slopes. But Kivoi was changing the narrative—and challenging gender norms, promoting gender equality and empowering women in the process.

“I’d been wanting to climb Kilimanjaro for a long time,” says Blindell. “But when my friend Jess and I found out we could book a female-led departure, we jumped at the chance. To see women, who make up only 18 percent of the whole staff of Kilimanjaro, bringing teams up the mountain? That just really inspired and appealed to us.”

With an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people climbing Mount Kilimanjaro annually, there’s a real need for guides and porters. “Mount Kilimanjaro has always been a traditionally male-dominated place,” says Rochelle Turner, head of sustainability and community at Exodus Adventure Travels. “While local men were working on the mountains, the women were at home, having babies and looking after their families.” Yet, today, many of these women are unmarried single mothers and widows who are running their households on their own and struggling to stay afloat, since female economic opportunities in Tanzania are still extremely limited. Becoming a porter or guide on Kilimanjaro can provide them a stable source of income in an environment that’s right in their own backyard.

In 2020, the Exodus Travels Foundation—a separate entity from Exodus Adventure Travels that offers financial support for community building and grassroots initiatives worldwide—launched its Mountain Lioness Scholarship. As one of the first female-only programs of its kind in Tanzania, the initiative provides intensive three-week training sessions for local women who want to obtain their guide license. It’s even named after Kivoi, who’d been pivotal in garnering acceptance for Kilimanjaro’s female porters.

“Over the years, women have come to realize that they can do things as well as, and sometimes better, than men,” says Turner. “Being a guide on Mount Kilimanjaro is not only a job, but it’s one that’s quite prestigious.”

Five Programs Paving the Way for Gender Equality Worldwide
Twenty-eight Tanzanian women have completed the program to become fully certified. Exodus Travels Foundation

To date, 28 Tanzanian women have completed the program to become fully certified, Turner says. Taught by expert instructors from the College of African Wildlife Management in Mweka, a village on the southern slopes of Kilimanjaro, the women take five crucial modules over the course of their training: first aid, outdoor emergency care and wilderness rescue; mountain ecology; mammal identification; and tour guiding techniques. “Obtaining their guide license gives women power within their communities,” says Turner, “and allows them to earn some money, which means that their children can then go to school, and they can also support their families—all of which is really, really important.”

When women first started out on the mountain, they faced plenty of negative comments from male guides and porters who thought that the women weren’t strong enough, or that guiding is only for men. “But they’re now starting to see that a lot of trips are of women climbers who are specifically asking for women guides to be a part of the trip,” Turner says.

It’s just one of the reasons that programs like the Mountain Lioness Scholarship are so important. “We need to make sure that finances and resources are going toward these women organizations that are at the forefront of advancing gender equality,” says Jemimah Njuki, chief of women’s economic empowerment for U.N. Women, a United Nations entity focused on empowering women, “in order to change these stereotypes and norms.” According to Njuki, this also requires engaging men and boys at the community level, and having them become champions for gender equality.

To help ensure that the women have a better chance of becoming fully employed when they finish their guide training, the Mountain Lioness Program tends to select local women who’ve previously served as porters or were already somehow engaged in the Kilimanjaro mountaineering community and aligned with a specific company. Tour companies Tanzania Horizon Safaris and Alpinistas Adventures both offer female-guided trips. Exodus Travels Foundation has also introduced a supplemental program called “Becoming Even Better,” which offers additional language and cultural integration training (for example, learning the ways in which a British traveler might behave differently from a Japanese traveler on the mountain) to women who’ve already completed their three-week guide course.

Of the 28 women who completed the Mountain Lioness Scholarship program, Turner estimates that around 19 or so are now guiding on Kilimanjaro. Some graduates have moved on to other places—for instance, one of the women is now working with a resort in Zanzibar—but they’re still using the skills that they learned on the mountain and in the course. Some women have been unable to work because they’ve gotten pregnant, fallen ill or had to look after relatives. But their training still isn’t for naught.

“When we invest in women, we are investing in half of humanity,” says Njuki.

Here are four more programs and organizations challenging traditional stereotypes and the roles of women worldwide.

The Power of Mama, Borneo

Borneo’s first all-female firefighter team has been helping to restore local peatlands, protecting wildlife (including endangered orangutans) and empowering local women since 2022. Most of the women hail from the Indonesian part of the island’s Ketapang District, and they range in age from 19 to 60. During the dry season, this volunteer group patrols the region’s fire-prone areas regularly, while in the rainy season they focus more on community outreach, educating local farmers about alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture, which can lead to widespread fires.

The Power of Mama is a community-led initiative that’s a project of the Yayasan International Animal Rescue Indonesia (YIARI), the Indonesian affiliate of the environmental nonprofit International Animal Rescue.

Chobe Angels, Botswana

Chobe National Park may have Africa’s highest concentration of elephants, but these days it’s also known for being home to the continent’s first all-women team of safari guides, the renowned Chobe Angels. The group of approximately 20 women runs the show at Botswana’s Chobe Game Lodge, leading game drives, identifying flora and fauna, and getting guests out into the heart of the African bush.

Ikiama Nukuri, Ecuador

“The main role of Indigenous women in the Amazon has historically been to take care of the family,” says Isabela Morelli, digital communications manager at Pachamama Alliance, the nonprofit responsible for the development of the health program Ikiama Nukuri. “What we do is reinforce the midwifery practices that these women have been practicing for centuries, carrying over ancestral medicine and midwifery practices, but always creating a bridge toward modern medicine.” In turn, the women take on a strong leadership role within their communities.

Ecuador’s Achuar and Shuar populations reside in some of the country’s most remote and hard-to-access rainforest. Ikiama Nukuri provides the women of these communities with the knowledge to ensure not only safe birthing but also the general health and well-being of their people. “We train them in basic nutrition,” says Morelli, “because malnourishment is a big program in the Amazon. There’s a lack of access to clean water and basic, balanced diets.”

More recently, Ikiama Nukuri has even begun offering men’s leadership workshops, to talk about domestic and gender-based violence. “We want to bring men more into the narrative,” says Morelli, “since this is a feminist project program, and males are part of the larger picture.”

Queensland Indigenous Womens Ranger Network, Australia

As one of the first Indigenous women rangers in Queensland, Australia, Larissa Hale established the Queensland Indigenous Womens Ranger Network in 2018 as a place for women rangers to connect, provide support and advice, and exchange ideas.

The program—co-designed by Indigenous women, government and nongovernment agencies, land councils, and other stakeholders—has trained over 60 women interested in becoming rangers, teaching them new approaches to conservation through shared knowledge and storytelling.

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