The Dark Side of Three Sisters Trekking and their NGO, Empowering Women of Nepal

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Paying to Volunteer - Scam or Legitimate Social Program?

Sarita was only 13 years old when her parents sold her to the owner of a hotel in Kagbeni, high in the Himalayan Mountains in the Lower Mustang area of Nepal. For the next year, she slaved in the kitchen, preparing meals for the 10-20 men who stayed at the guest house. She was paid 8,000 Nepali rupees for the year, about $91 USD. Sarita hated the work, but without any means to pay for food and lodging, she was trapped. Then one day she met Nicky Chhetri, who along with her two siblings, Dicky and Lucky, had opened Three Sisters Trekking Pokhara Nepal. Nicky was scouring the mountains for underprivileged girls who would agree to be trained as trekking guides. If Sarita could find her own way to Pokhara, Nicky promised, she would be given food, lodging, education, and specialized training that would allow her to become one of the first female trekking guides in what had, up till then, been an exclusively male profession.

Three Sisters Trekking Company and Hotel
Three Sisters Trekking Company and Hotel

The Chhetri Sisters had seized upon the idea of female guides because many trekkers, especially women, reported feeling unsafe on the trails when accompanied only by male guides and porters. They battled Nepal’s male-dominated society, never giving up on their idea regardless how many times they were told that only men could be licensed as trekking guides. Finally, they gained permission and set up their own school in the top floor of an older building on the north end of Pokhara, using the remainder of the building to house the girls.

Sarita scraped together the few Rupees needed for bus fare but when she arrived in Pokhara she could not find Nicky, so for the next seven months she worked as a laborer in the construction industry until, one day, she found a business card with Lucky’s name and contact information. Full of hope that she was finally on the path to a better life, Sarita presented herself at Three Sisters Trekking, only to be attacked by Lucky when she discovered Sarita was of a lower caste than the sisters. “You can’t come here, we are all Karki,” she sneered. Eventually, the sisters accepted her as a resident, but Sarita’s lower caste was often used as an excuse to treat her like a dog.

“What are you, a buffalo? You eat paper?” screamed Nicky when Sarita ran out of paper to do her schoolwork. “This is paper I buy from my pocket money, you should not waste.”

Home for trekking guide trainees and orphans, now under the guise of "Empowering Women of Nepal" NGO
Home for trekking guide trainees and orphans, now under the guise of “Empowering Women of Nepal” NGO

Gradually, 21 girls, ranging in age from five to 16 years old, became residents of the home, which soon prominently displayed the sign Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that the sisters set up for the purpose of soliciting donations to support the children. At first, the girls were paraded out before contributors who visited the center to see first hand the result of their donations. Sarita recalled one such instance: “One day I was sitting in the library with a foreigner, who told me, ‘you must do good work, study hard.’ The visitor explained how he made donations to help us. After this, we were never again called to talk to foreigners. The sisters always told us they paid for everything; they did not want us to know that other people were sending money.”

Jean-Luc Perrotin and his wife, Sabine, were among the earliest supporters of the agency. They met Lucky Chhetri during a trek in the Annapurna Himalayas in May 2006 and were very impressed with the sister’s work to rescue marginalized girls, especially after meeting 13-year old Sarita in the restaurant where she was slaving away. In his delightful French accent, Jean-Luc recalls how their association began. “We want to contribute to the welfare of these children and we start to make some donations, quite heavily.” They returned to Nepal twice each year, sometimes staying with the children in their home and other times in the Chetri sister’s guest house behind the trekking office. “After some times, we realize that all the children…are not well treated, and it seems that all the money was not used for the children – only a small part was used for the children.”

According to three former residents I interviewed (whose names have been changed here to protect their identity), the children lived in deplorable conditions, despite generous monetary gifts from donors around the world. They had use of only one toilet and a shower with cold water. Because the well often ran dry, the girls were allowed to wash their bodies only twice each week and their hair three times per week. On days when there was no water, they bathed in the nearby lake, which is considerably cleaner than the brown well water that was also their only source of drinking water. The girls slept in dorm rooms, four or five bunk beds to a room and usually two girls to a bed. They were expected to rise at 5 a.m., clean their dorm rooms and the bathroom before eating breakfast, after which they walked 45 minutes to school. Anyone who didn’t get up on time risked the wrath of the sisters. “Lucky poured cold water on our faces,” said Sarita.

Though the Chhetri sisters tell donors that the girls are being fed a healthy diet, Sarita claimed that they ate mostly dal bhat, a combination of stewed lentils and white rice, with only one meal per week that included vegetables, chicken or egg. “The sisters tell us all the time that we come from poor families, so we are used to simple food.” Food was also used as a punishment. Another former resident of the house, Ritu, recalled the time she was falsely accused of breaking the sink. “They took away food for two days.”

One December, the Perrotins arrived to find the children shivering in thin, short sleeve shirts, and no socks in near freezing temperatures. When he asked why they did not put jackets on or wrap themselves in blankets, the girls explained they had none. Jean-Luc and Sabine promptly purchased jackets and shawls and distributed them directly to the girls, which angered the sisters. Jean-Luc later heard that the sisters had confiscated the warm clothing. On another occasion, after watching the girls do their laundry by hand, the Perrotins offered to buy a washing machine for the home. “We speak about that with the three sisters and immediately they say ‘Oh, what a wonderful idea.’ Right away we went to market and we buy a brand new washing machine and (it) was supposed to be installed within the children’s house.” After the Perrotins departed, the children were told that their clothes were “too dirty” for the washing machine; the Perrotins later learned that it had been installed in the sister’s private home.

Confiscation was not limited to large ticket items. When Ritu came to live with Chhetri sisters, they took her ring, necklace and watch and refused to give it back when she eventually left. When Jean-Luc brought the girls T-shirts with a picture of the Eiffel Tower, those too were taken away. The girls tell stories of a large room within the facility, stacked to the ceiling with donated merchandise, none of which is ever distributed to them. Disillusioned by what they saw, the Perrotins stopped supporting EWN.

Dark, windowless bedroom for orphans
Dark, windowless bedroom for orphans
Kitchen for orphans
Kitchen for orphans

I wanted to witness for myself the conditions of the orphanage and home for the trekking guide trainees, so I showed up unannounced one day. It was mid-afternoon and all the children were in school, but I convinced one of the employees to give me a brief tour of the facilities. It was not as bad as I had expected, given the description of the former residents. Still, considering the trekking office, hotel, and most recently, the palatial private home that the Chhetri sisters have built, I was frankly appalled by the conditions in which the orphans live. They sleep in dark, windowless rooms in the ground floor, into which three or four bunk beds have been crammed, and prepare meals for 20 in a cramped, dirty kitchen.

Bedroom for trekking guide trainees
Bedroom for trekking guide trainees
Kitchen for trekking guide trainees
Kitchen for trekking guide trainees

Trekking guide trainees seem to be treated considerably better than the orphans; they have better accommodations on the second level, including decent bedrooms that sleep two to a room and a large, bright kitchen. Twice each year, Three Sisters provides a free 6-month trekking guide apprenticeship program, free accommodation and food at the EWN hostel, as well as free trekking equipment to women from remote rural areas. When they successfully complete their course of study, the girls can begin work as porters, earning 700 Rupees (about $8 USD) per day. If they prove themselves, they can then become trekking guides, who earn 850 Rupees (about $9.50 USD) per day. According to the NGO employee with whom I spoke, had they stayed in their villages, tending fields, at most they would have earned 350 Rupees ($4 USD) per day. While this is certainly an improvement in their circumstances, it must be noted that the going rate per day for a porter and trekking guide is $40-50 USD.

Three Sisters Trekking has undoubtedly provided a better life for the girls who become trekking guides and porters, however I question what percentage of the revenues brought in by the NGO are actually benefiting the girls. Though there is no disclosure of revenues or financial statement provided on their website, in 2009 the sisters partnered with to raise $26,484. As part of this process, they were obliged to provide an audited financial statement to the organization. One line item shows expenses of 672,269 Rupees (about $7,500 USD) NRS for “ice climbing training.” Yet in a supporting document entitled “Rock Climbing and Ice Climbing Report” the sisters disclosed that only one girl was actually trained in ice climbing and four in rock climbing. Given that the site of their rock climbing training is a cliff behind their office, the $7,500 expenditure seems improbable.

Expenses for ‘female trekking guide training” were shown as 1,472,233 Rupees (about $16,500 USD). On the day I visited, the current trekking class consisted of ten girls and I was told the maximum was 15 girls, twice each year. Assuming that they trained 30 girls in 2009, the cost per girl would be 49,074 Rupees (about $550 USD) per girl. While that may seem reasonable, according to Three Sisters website, “At the end of this 4-week training course, the women start work in the apprenticeship program where they will be paid while acquiring field experience working as trekking guide trainees.” Five hundred fifty dollars is a significant amount of money in a country where the per capita income is less than $2,700, according to the World Bank, especially since other line items in the financial statement make it clear that the training costs do not include rental of the building, food, clothes or health care. Another line item shows 43,600 Rupees ($3,633 USD) for Internet. Having lived here off and on for the last three years, I am well aware that Internet costs nowhere near that much.

In 2009, two years after the Perrotins had discontinued their aid to Three Sisters, Jean-Luc reestablished contact with two of the girls, who had by then fled the agency. Hoping to help, the couple returned to Pokhara, where they also reconnected with Devu and Bina, the other two girls they had been supporting through the NGO. Bina related what had happened. “I stayed two years at Three Sisters, but I knew what was going on was wrong, so I confronted them. They said ‘You are not respecting us.’” She was made to sign a document, admitting that she had misbehaved, and was kicked out. The Perrotins decided to directly support all four of the former residents of Three Sisters Trekking and have been doing so ever since.

Ritu married and now has a small child. She recently divorced her husband and is looking for a job. Devu, the youngest, is in secondary school and has moved back in with her mother and step-father. Bina is in grade 12, studying management. Sarita, soon to be 21, has just completed her final year of secondary school and has passed her SLC exam; she will start nursing school in September. When Sarita looks back upon her time at Three Sisters Trekking, she says, “Life is not good there. The Chhetri Sisters treat children like a farm. They grow children, pick them, and use them to get money from other countries. If foreigners want to help, they should give money directly to people who need it instead of to a local NGO.”

Personal residence of Three Sisters is reputed to be largest home in Pokhara
Personal residence of Three Sisters is reputed to be largest home in Pokhara

Though there are some deserving and well-run charities in Nepal, many local NGO’s are thinly disguised means to solicit donations, the majority of which line the operator’s pockets. After the country was opened to the world in 1951, money began pouring in via International NGO’s and Nepali quickly learned that the quick and easy road to riches was to set up an NGO and bilk good-hearted tourists. If the private, gated residence of the Chhetri sisters, which is reputed to be the largest house in all of Pokhara Nepal is any indication, it is a lesson that Nicky, Dicky, and Lucky learned well.

Update June 28, 2012, Author’s note: A reader contacted me to correct the price for trekking guides that was quoted in the above article. There was a typographical error in the account; originally it said “the going rate per day for a porter or trekking guide is $50 USD.” It should have said: “the going rate per day for a porter AND trekking guide is $50 USD.” The reader commented: “Barbara do you use pot or so. What kind of nonsense are you writing about. A rate for a porter is around 15 dollar a day, you pay to every company all over Nepal.” Based on this comment, I re-checked with several other trekking companies and was told that the average price per day for guides is $25-30 and for porters the average is $20-25 per day. However, in the pursuit of complete accuracy, I have modified the price in the story to a range of $40-50.

Considering a future visit to Nepal? You’ll want to check out my Essential Travel Guide for Pokhara, Nepal, which is updated regularly.

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104 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Three Sisters Trekking and their NGO, Empowering Women of Nepal”

  1. Barbara, I am shocked to read that the discussion is still going on and you are still keeping hold to all these made up lies. Face it and face the 3 Sisters. You will be the winner for all your public if you tell that all has been a mistake caused by the lies of the sponsors of the two hostel girls. All the rest of the stories…….like the mouse who became an elephant! Show yourself in Pokhara and meet up with the 3 sisters! You already damaged the good reputation of the hard working sisters too long.

  2. Dear Barbara,
    Others have done a great job at rationally disseminating your treatise and I’d like to add a few more comments:
    – I’m surprised that you haven’t at least annotated, nevermind corrected some of your assertions that have since been convincingly disputed by other commenters;
    – my impression from 3sisters guides is that they take home more than what you mention, are fully insured, and I trust 3 sisters run a legitimate business, which adds costs; you can get porter guides for a lot less, theyll probably not be insured and not paying a licence fee, ie if you have an accident, they go to jail and if they have an accident you look after them out of your own pocket; also, guides get a small salary during the long non-tourism season;
    – 3sisters porters indeed ‘only’ carry 12/15kg of client luggage (m/f); I have seen NO other porter with so ‘little’ and felt somewhat proud of affording this luxury, both to myself and the porter;
    – my guide, a ‘veteran’ at the firm with previous freelancing experience, was excellent and indeed popular with everyone at the huts;
    – their business addresses a niche that helps bring more tourists to Nepal, while their NGO addresses a fundamental issue in s pragmatic manner, given the current political situation in Nepal, grassroots efforts such as these are probably the most reliable agents of change and no doubt that is causing them enough headwinds on its own;
    – I have found them to be very professional businesswomen and benevolent people who are taking care of not only a successful business but an extended family as well as their huge NGO commitment; as such, they were always very busy and I doubt they have the time to spam your blog with counter reports as you mention; it’s a pity your time could not have been used to film their efforts, instead of your obscure scene undergoing torture, I dare say you are better versed than they are in Internet marketing, and thus have a responsibility here too in the interest of fair coverage;
    – which makes me wonder also, what are the economics of running a blog such as yours, eg ad revenue and with cross links to lonely planet forums, and leaving it unedited and thus more controversial, attracting more debate and traffic? How ironic that you appear to be profiting from the subject of your criticism.. Though I wouldn’t want to be judgmental, perhaps those funds go to bona fide causes, and not for domestic appliances, or Nepal trips.
    As a final note, when in Nepal again, I suggest engaging in some positive, energising activities, for example a ten day meditation course, where one is constantly reminded not to do things that harm others.

  3. While I appreciate your article and effort to bring out the truth behind companies such as this, I think it is a little one sided. I trekked with 3 Sisters in November of 2012. We paid $15/day per porter and $25/day for the guide, all women. You don’t mention that 3 Sisters actually limits the weight that the porters carry to 12K for women and 15K for men. This is far better than the two heavy packs that most of the male porters from other companies carry. Our guide was excellent. She had been with 3 sisters for a couple of years starting out as a porter. She seemed happy, proud of the fact that she spoke several languages, and had great ambitions. She did, however, mention that if we wanted to give something to the girls we should give it directly to them. I have no doubt that some of what you write is true, but I think it important to tell both sides. Little in life is all bad or all good.

    • Hi Deborah. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I said in my article, and continue to believe, that 3 Sisters is doing good work with the trekking agency and training women as trekking guides. What I take issue with is their NGO.

  4. I came upon this article while I was browsing the net today. I read your article closely, recognized the names, the place and even the photos for I spent three months in 2011 with the NGO, living next door in a small hotel and volunteering to teach English to the trainee guides and porters. I came and went as I pleased and spent time in the office with the administrative staff, with the children in the orphanage as well as with the trainees. The environment was a healthy and happy one. I have travelled far and wide throughout India and Nepal working with the underprivileged. This article about the conditions of the children and the women does not ring the least bit true. Moreover, it does even mention the relentless hours the three sisters put into the project and the work they have done to open new guest houses in the West, to educate the women in the fields of hygiene and to offer them a way out of poverty. I have never responded to a forum on Internet but I could not let this article pass without commenting

  5. Thanks for the story. I wish I had read a story similar to this one before I started backpacking. Looking back, I’m sure I have given money to less than reputable “NGOs”. Now, I ask questions and only give money to places that I have done my research on and have personal visited.

  6. I have never heard of Three Sisters prior to this article, but I lived in Nepal for several months. Barbara, you lost all credibility to me when you started discussing the lifestyle of the kids. If you’d actually lived in Nepal, you would know that eating dal bhat every day is not at all atypical considering it is the staple food in Nepal, and that the water shortage makes it necessary to limit showering to twice a week. In case you didn’t notice, with load-shedding there is no power for hours a day, which means no hot water. So either you know nothing about day to day life in Nepal, or you are trying to blow things out of proportion for journalistic shock value. Do your research next time.

  7. I have lived 15 years in Nepal. 3 Sisters, if I recall correctly, started to gain some sort of publicity inside Nepal in the second half of the 90s. The hotel then came up beginning 2000. It is quite a remarkable feat to be able to start a travel business and afford the construction of such a large mansion. Building a house is expensive in Nepal, the wood for the windows very expensive. So you wonder.

    The positive posts here by all those Nepali girls are clearly ghost-written. Hardly anybody in the trek business is able to speak, let alone write, such English. I was a travel guide all over the the Himalaya as a year-round professional and know quite some guides, cooks etc. Decent people but their English is just rudimentary.

    Still not convinced? Head over to India with her much better education system and go to the websites of the top newspapers, scroll straight down to the comments section and start reading. Yep, that’s Hindlish. You don’t need the funnies anymore.

    I personally find that bedroom (photo above) in the orphanage quite decent since I personally know the bedrooms of an orphanage in lower Bhainsepati (south of Lalitpur). They were half the size, much darker, damp, smelly and dirty. The Tibetan owners live in an adjacent house of much higher standard and drove at that time a big Suzuki SUV (no cheap Gypsy).

    Google ‘hotel mulpani nepal’ and you will find a hotel that was built by a (oh, those lovely) Tibetan named Tashi. He used to run a vocational training school in Bodnath funded by Taiwanese. Food provided for the students consisted of the cheapest rice (my wife is Nepali and she knows). One year in around 2003/4 the Taiwanese came to visit, probably checked the books, found them to be cooked and that was the end of their relationship. But at that time he apparently had enough syphoned off to have sufficient funds for the hotel construction. I might add that I was present during the construction on various occasions and it is an architectural gem of mindless proportions. Just saying.

    I could go on and on. For example a Danish/Nepali couple running a book store in Thamel and a, you guessed it, orphanage.

    • Thank you, Jeff for your comments. I love the Nepali people (live part time there with a family who has adopted me) but I have to say I am SO totally discouraged by the depths of corruption in the country. There are organizations doing good work – I am acquainted with a few – but for the most part the system is being manipulated and abused and it’s so hard for the casual tourist to know what to do. I blame the government, which does not provide any oversight, making it easy for anyone to hang up a sign and become an “NGO.”

  8. it is really so sad thing. i feel bad for the pressured people who writes a answers to Barbara through their institutes,,,, lips, they must be happy and grateful to barbara from within, yes, i saw their big infact mansion , woa, it is hugeeeee for the Nepali standard, anyway, it will take time to change the peoples mindset,

    • Hi Christina: Thank you for your comment. I agree about the personal home they have built. I’m not bothered by people being successful in business; that’s what we all strive for. But when an organization like this builds such a mansion, while the girls are still living in the same dilapidated old building as they have been from the beginning, I have to question the motives of the owners. The idea that it is OK that the girls live this way because it is what they are used to is no excuse.

  9. I totally agree with Barbara. I am nepali and we have been seeing this from a long time ago. The women are obliged to says good things about 3 sisters and they have no choice.

    • I came across this report last year and read it with great interest as I have been travelling to Nepal myself for almost 20 years, and just returned from my 10th trip there two weeks ago.
      I had been hearing rumours about certain NGO’s creaming off vast sums of money for many years, also the huge growth in volunteering, especially in the Pay-to volunteer (Voluntourism) sector and how this was adversely effecting both the lives of the vulnerable people who are supposed to be being helped as well as the adverse effect on the genuine charities that were struggling to make ends meet whilst still actively doing at least some good.
      Anyway – To my main reason for now posting on this – As there had been so much negativity about what Barbara has written, I thought I would check out what some local Pokhara residents that I have known for many years thought about her article and they said “It is All True”
      So, well done Barbara for putting the spotlight on this, you have certainly provoked a reaction – In fact many reactions, for instance, did you see the attempt to justify the Chhetri Sisters accounts posted on Lonely Planet Thorntree’s ?? – It made interesting reading, especially the sentence that said that “The Chhetri Sisters deserved their “Modest” standard of living !!
      Oh Hum
      Keep, up the good work
      Best Regards

      • Hi Rob: Thanks for the kind words, and for taking the time to ask your friends in Pokhara about the truth of the situation. I also read your post on Virtual Tourist and you hit the nail on the head. Giving money to a legitimate, well-deserving charity RATHER than volunteering, may be the very best thing you can do. There are also organizations who actually have guest rooms for rent. So, you can pay to stay at the facility, which directly provides income to help it meet costs.

  10. Dear all,

    I strongly agree with all the positive comments about the 3Sisters Trekking Organisations.
    In April/May 2012 I went trekking for 27 (!!!) days in the Annapurna region with a porter/guide from 3Sisters.
    During that time my porter/guide Indra and I were not only able to share good conversations and laughs, we were also able to form a close relationship/friendship!
    Indra told me many times how happy she is to work for 3Sisters. They have trained her to become an independent guide, after she was a porter for some time. I was actually her first client she went solo with. She was sooooo proud about that.
    Indra’s two sisters also work for 3Sisters, who I met after my trek in their house in Pokhara, along with 2 other guides. All were cheerful, happy and didn’t say a “bad” word about 3Sisters.
    Additionally I met and spoke with many other female guides during my trek. Same story: All happy and proud to be working as guides for 3Sisters!!

    To finish off my comment: YES, I would totally recommend the organisation. I felt cared for, listened to and entirely safe at all times. Not only during my trek, but also before AND after from all the staff at the Office AND 2 of the 3 sisters, who I also met!!

    Thank you and happy travels


  11. Dear Barbara,
    I thought long and hard before writing this comment because I thought it might be best just put to bed. But, after several months of continuing to think about it, I decided I should address what I feel are some important problems with your article. First, I would like to say that I am finishing my PhD in sociology and that my research is on the experiences of women guides. I should also add that I am fluent in Nepali. If you know many sociologists, we are a cynical, skeptical bunch and consider it our job, much like journalists, to root out sources of social inequity. That being said, it would be all to easy for me to write my dissertation as a hatchet job against the too-good-to-be-true 3 sisters/EWN organization. Alas, after talking with both female guides and the orphanage children alike (in Nepali) I can only say that EWN and the orphanage are well and earnestly run organizations. They are not perfect, but compared to every other NGO I have seen in Nepal, they actually produce tangible results in the lives of many under-privileged Nepali people. Now, as to what was so problematic about your article in my opinion:
    1) You mention that you yourself have eaten Dhaal Bhaat twice a day when staying in Nepal and that you know this is a historically and culturally appropriate food to feed the children. Why then do you present it in your article as if it isn’t? That is, why do you take your informants words about being fed Dhal Bhat out of context and make it seem to the uninformed reader as if this is akin to nutritional deprivation. It would have been much more honest to couch this description in it’s cultural context, letting the reader know that although this particular ex-guide was disgruntled, her complaints are, atleast in the case of Dhaal Bhaat, wholly unfounded. My issue here is with the sensationalism.
    2) In a similar vein you mention that the children bathe twice a week and insinuate that this is a deprivation. If you do stay with a Nepali family annually, then you surely know that bathing 1-2 times a week is culturally standard. Especially because the children, like most Nepalis, wash there hands and face throughly every morning. Again, although I do believe you when you say you have stayed in Nepal often, you seem to have ignored or just purposefully left out what would have been important contextualizing information to the reader. Further, bathing in Fewa lake is a very acceptable activity. Any visitor to Pokhara has seen laughing friends and families bathing and washing clothes lakeside – this is not a deprivation, this is the daily cycle of life.
    3) You also mention the children’s rooms as dark, windowless etc…Again, from a privileged western standard these rooms may be spartan and less than ideal. But, from a Nepali standard these rooms are modern, clean, and in fact, well lit. It made me wonder if you have ever spent time in a Nepali village home? A typical rural Nepali home (I am generalizing because Nepal is an incredibly diverse country) has packed dirt floors, low ceilings and maybe 1 small window. In sum they are dark. Very very dark by western standards. If we analyze a culture from a Eurocentric viewpoint we simply cannot see that our own enculturation is blinding us to how circumstances are interpreted by the actual people living them. The problem with your article is that it shows little to no ability to understand Nepali culture from any viewpoint but a very privileged western one.
    4) Methodologically, this piece is flawed. I agree when you say you are not pulling these ideas from nowhere. But is the somewhere you are pulling them from representative of the decades of work done by EWN? I have to argue that it is not. While I would never want to say that your informants did not experience what they claim to experience, I would argue that their particular truth is one truth among many. Yes, it seems these women had bad experiences. The problem is that your article seems lazy in its attempts to genuinely look for balanced coverage. It is so so so much easier to write a biting piece that piles on negativity rather than writing something nuanced and less sensational. I fear that your article is an example of the former. I understand that writing is hard, believe me I do. And I understand the desire to write a quick and easy smear piece. But it’s not ethical, it’s not right, and the hard working women and men who make up EWN and the Didis and Bahinis and children who have benefited from EWN deserve better.
    5) I have no idea at all what the finances of EWN are, I will be upfront about that and say that maybe they are benefitting ‘too much,’ by an arbitrary standard. However, having seen the internal workings of the organization, the most important thing at the end of the day is that they are creating positive change in the lives of Nepali women and children. Your article turns into a simple snarky lament about ‘those rich people and aren’t they awful’ without thoughtfully addressing the fact that they have a successful business and don’t even NEED to run the NGO’s they do. If they wanted to train and hire women guides to run 3 sisters trekking they could easily just make money like any successful business person and that would be the end of the story. Instead, they choose to use their substantial business acumen toward running an orphanage. Again, I don’t know where the washing machine is and frankly I don’t care because I see that with whatever money they are getting they are using it wisely. Everyday I watch a throng of young women in neat pleated skirts and sweaters with their hair in braids marching back to their home from grade school. And they look happy. Your article just doesn’t seem to care about this.
    6) As I have mentioned, I have made my research about the experiences of female trekking guides during and after their training. I have conducted both informal and formal interviews with the program participants in their own language and at their own homes. I’m not going out on a limb by saying that I am more informed on this subject than you are. While you have found four women who spoke negatively about the program, I can find forty who would strongly disagree. Again, I think that perhaps in your excitement to get a steamy scoop about graft and corruption you just didn’t do your journalistic duty to fully investigate things that might contradict your story. As scholars it is important to look for the ‘alternative case,’ the case that actually disproves your hypothesis, even if you really want your hypothesis to be true. You just didn’t bother.
    7) As to the palatial estate. Yes, it is a big beautiful house….where 17 people live. And it’s also rented out as part of the guest house during busy season. And, see point 5, they run a successful business, why shouldn’t they invest in a large house to accommodate their multi-generational extended family?
    8) There are some very serious accusations of theft and neglect in this article that given what I’ve seen I find incredibly hard to believe, but things happen. I do not want to discount anybody’s voice, but I will say that EWN has such a loyal group of volunteers who come back over the span of decades because it is clearly making a difference in the lives of many people.
    8) The accusation of caste discrimination struck me as absurd given that the women I have interviewed have ALL come from lower caste and ethnic minority groups. In fact, it would be extremely unlikely that a very high caste woman would take the training to become a guide because of stricter standards about women’s propriety and ability to be out in public in these communities. Again, this is something that necessitates cultural context. I highly doubt that an organization that is built on giving free education and housing to women from all backgrounds would discriminate in their children’s home.

    In sum, it is extremely difficult to write across culture. It is our own hubris that often tells us ‘we know what we saw.’
    Thank you,
    Babs Grossman-Thompson

    • Hello Babs:
      Thanks so much for taking the time to reply in such a detailed manner. I especially value your opinions because you are fluent in Nepali and are obviously familiar with the culture. You make some good points, so I would like to share my thoughts on your comments.

      I want to reiterate that I have never disputed that 3 Sisters are helping women; my article states: “Three Sisters Trekking has undoubtedly provided a better life for the girls who become trekking guides and porters, however I question what percentage of the revenues brought in by the NGO are actually benefiting the girls.” I might also point out that only a small percentage of the girls who come to EWN are given the opportunity to be trekking guides. You point out that the girls are eating traditional dal bhat, which I wholeheartedly agree is nutritious (lentils are one of the highest sources of protein). But the Perrotins (the previous donors) were told that their donations would help provide meals that contained meat and fresh vegetables; this only happened twice a week, according to the women I interviewed. As to bathing, I agree that bathing twice a week (or even less in rural areas) is part of the culture in Nepal, as are dirt packed floors and dark, windowless rooms. However, EWN promotes raising the standard of living for these marginalized children, not keeping it the same.

      I also find it very telling that the Chhetri sisters have created a new website, with a similar but different address than the one they had at the time I published my article. This new site contains only one page about EWN with a few brief paragraphs. If you would like to compare the two sites, their old website is still accessible through the Internet’s Wayback Machine: Their previous website contained a link soliciting donations for the organization (view it here: It says: “You can donate via PayPal by visiting our Uniting People project website. We also accept other donation mediums – money transfer, travellers checks and credit/debit cards. EWN’s NGO registration number in Nepal is 641/056 for possible tax deduction purposes. Please contact us if you have any questions about donating.” (The Uniting People Project is now closed and no longer accepting donations). Three Sisters’ current website does not contain any specific financial information, including suggested donation amounts, financial statements, etc. When I contemplate working with an NGO I always insist on complete transparency. The fact that there is even less information and transparency about financial matters on their new site is most concerning.

      You say: “I will be upfront about that and say that maybe they are benefitting ‘too much,’ by an arbitrary standard.” In my opinion, this is the crux of the matter. Morally, if I had held myself and my family as a shining example of doing good and helping those who are less fortunate, I certainly would have upgraded the facility the girls are living in before building a “big, beautiful house,” as you correctly call it. Given the home the Chhetri sisters have built for themselves and their extended family, it is clear they know what it means to live by the standards of a Western world, yet the girls still live in the same conditions as always.
      With respect,

  12. Hi Barbara,
    Utter disappointment on your negative journalist ability. You could find something better to write, something positive to support the needy women in Nepal. It is same how you try to eliminate prospects and livelihood of so many inspiring women, example to other developing nation.

    You make your living doing negative journalism. There are other challenging fields in other parts of the world you would be able to find negative activities you may fit in. Chhetri Sisters hard work not fit for for you. See all the review you should feel guilty.

    Gold never loose it glitter. I don’t give a damn to your comment.

    I.P. Crisman

  13. All I have to say is that this is a very sad and hurtful article about women who have given their lives to changing the oppressive paradigms of patriarchy in their country. I too have spent time with EWN and conducted my MA research on their life-changing process of empowerment for women. It is a shame that this “controversy” is tarnishing the powerful work that has been done (and will continue to be done) in a country that is extremely challenging to bring about change. I know the women, the employees who have commented here, and they are standing up for truth. And contrary to what the comments above say, they do indeed speak English well enough to type (part of time there I spent teaching English) comments. Shame on you.

  14. Why does a person like Barbara Welbeil lie? I believe that INGOS in Nepal never want the complete solution for any problem. Or else, there source to get the easy money vanishes. No body wants that. We Nepalese even know that, INGO and NGOS make lots of money for the people with power there. C’mon guys be fair you make money it aint bad but if you guys treat the children as per Barbara it is very bad. I even hear the criticism regarding Maiti Nepal. Might be true but Three sisters you guys are being criticized means you are successful. hats off.

  15. dear sister,
    i am sidhanth singh [seceratry] in gram seva samiti ,our organization is working for all jharkhand[india] poor people free education,free health,free foods and free homes in our organaization most work,please you are very very wale come to india jharkhand in our organaization,please send your .& full profiles,i am only one person in my faimily,i am waiting your answer,
    thanks. sidhanth singh [seceratry]
    gram seva samiti & women education and development society

  16. Thank you so much Barbara for your courage in bringing this story to the public.
    I have used their trekking services a few years back and also stayed at their guest house.
    I thought something was not right as my guide was very hesitant and even fearful of talking about how the sister’s treated her.
    And also the fact that some gift items that I posted to my guide using the 3 sisters address never reached her.
    I was also sad to overhear a conversation between one of the sisters (sorry can’t remember which one it was) about her going to Harvard business school in the U.S shortly!!!!
    It makes me sad that good intentions have to mostly turn to greed like this, it should be a half, half situation, yes costs all involved but treat the people your suppose to help well and use the rest to run the organization decently provide accounts and an open door policy to the public and the donations will continue, but this too does not even exist in my country, the salary of the administrators of my country are grossly inflated to about twice or 3 times the middle class earnings.
    It also seems that after reading the comment that the sisters are pushing employes to contact you to probably keep their jobs, I can tell you that none of the ones I met can speak english like this so who knows who is really typing those messages????
    Keep up your very difficult work,

    • Thank you Annie. I really appreciate your comment. I share your suspicion about who is actually typing out the comments that are purported to be from the employees or residents. They all come from two IP addresses, so there is a god chance they are being manipulated. But even in those comments the information conflicts, which I find telling.

  17. Dear Barbara,

    Im sure you believe you have uncovered some major conspiracy here and have the best of intentions. With respect, I cannot agree that you have presented a reasonable account of the Three Sisters Adventure trekking company or Empowering Women in Nepal.

    Have you visited the centre personally? I have, at the invitation of Nicky Chhretri and I felt a lot of love and respect from the children towards her. If anything there was delight on their faces, they were not shriking away in fear, or shivering in cold, or covered in ice water. As for the photos as evidence of poor conditions, well, I imagine you would have visited the dirt floor, single room huts in villages where many of these kids come from in which entire families live? The hostel has a warm family atmosphere and there is a lot of love from my experience (and the children were there at the time).

    I also went on a trek with the Three Sisters co. (which I almost cancelled on reading your blog – grateful I didnt) and learned first hand of the life-changing opportunities that what the sisters offer has achieved. The proof of the pudding so to speak is the way the employees speak of the company and the sisters and to a person they speak glowingly. As an example, porters are actively encouraged to speak with guests and improve their English and chances of becoming guides (many companies guides forbid porters from interacting with guests, it being seen as the guides realm alone).

    I am not saying some of the things that have happened in your article didnt occur – I have no knowledge of this, it is of course possible and perhaps deserves to be brought to light. But to insinuate that the Sisters program is a scam and portray the sisters as evil, violent oppressors of innocent children is a great travesty in my opinion and my experience.

    As for the large house in Pokhara, I dined there, with Nicky. The menu? Vegetarian dahl baht. Yes, the evil sisters dont dine on roast suckling pork unless it was some conspiratorial deception. They, like nearly everybody Ive met in Nepal eat dahl baht. If is so nutritionally lacking, then Nepalese people would have become extinct some time ago. Moreover there were several people (porters/guides) from the program also staying at the home and other family members also share the place. So it is hardly some ivory tower where they sit and count their piles of extorted cash.

    Please do not forget that the sisters, perhaps first and foremost, are successful business people. Business women. They have worked their way through numerous businesses: fruit shops, pharmacies, restaurants and so on to achieve what they have today. Are you suggesting they have achieved what they have by fraud, and suggesting that they should live in a modest way and return all their profit to the charity? Would you do that? Iwouldnt. I wouldnt have bothered with a charity. My feeling is that they could have achieved the personal wealth that they have simply through their business acumen in identifying a niche (female trekkers) and their determination to succeed in a heavily male dominated society. As a woman, you know better than I of glass ceilings.

    For what it is worth, I think they have achieved amazing things here, both personally and also for many, many young people. But Ive met them, spoken with people who have benefited and perhaps I am biased in their favour.

    I think your article – irrespective of any facts that may be correct – is sensationalist, one sided and ideally should be revised following a personal visit to the centre and interviews with the Chhetri Sisters and a larger subset of the 1700 odd children who have been through their program. It is particularly dissappointing that it has such prevalence on the internet and I intend lodging a comment with Lonely Planet for their re-posting of your blog without scrutiny and a request it is removed.

    With best regards,

    • Hello David: Thank you for taking the time to write such a long and detailed comment. In answer your first question, yes, I visited the center personally two and a half years ago and interviewed Nicky. When I asked her what percentage of the donations go to benefit the residents of the orphanage she pretended not to hear the question and instead told me about how much great publicity they’d gotten over the years. When I pressed the issue, it was the same – she again ignored my question and talked about what a wonderful program they have. I had heard great things about them and walked in expecting to find a wonderful program I could write about. Instead, I left concerned and suspicious. I spent the next two years researching the program and interviewing people, many of whom asked not to be named.

      I would like to reiterate that I have no doubt that the Chhetri sisters have indeed helped children, most especially those who have been trained as guides, which was their original concept. The orphanage came later, and that is where my concern comes in. While it is true that they are providing housing for these children, I question why they find it necessary to bring “orphans” down to Pokhara from the mountains when there are hundreds of needy children right in their own backyard. If you read the comments, one of the readers is a female guide who was trained by the company. She says herself that she often leaves her daughter in the orphanage when she goes on treks. This is very common; many “orphanages” are filled with children who are not really orphans – their parents leave them for the day when they go to work, or they come stay when there is some problem in the family, etc. This swells the ranks in the home, which looks good to donors. I don’t know how many of the girls at EWN fall into this category, but we have it from the mouth of one of their own that at least one does.

      You may not be aware of this, but I live in Nepal for three or more months each year with a local Nepali family that is by no means rich. So, I am not a stranger to the difficult conditions in Nepal and have lived them myself for long periods of time. I too, eat vegetarian dahl bhat twice a day, every day, and I believe it to be a healthy diet. My issues are with what the sisters are promoting and promising to donors, and the difference between that and reality. My article was based on testimony from four women who had previously been residents of the orphanage (two of whom actually had parents), and husband and wife donors who worked with the Chhetri sisters for two years and saw first hand what was going on. These are people I trust implicitly, or I never would have published the story. Unfortunately, people who come for a short time, or even those who stay a few months, don’t often see the truth of what is going on. They don’t speak Nepali and can’t communicate directly with the children, so they make judgments based on what they see as “loving behavior” toward their benefactors. They depend on the orphanage owners/managers; if they misbehave they risk being put out on the street. But time and again, using a trusted interpreter and speaking confidentially with residents of such programs outside the facilities, they tell a very different story.

      You have said: “But to insinuate that the Sisters program is a scam and portray the sisters as evil, violent oppressors of innocent children is a great travesty in my opinion and my experience.” Please remember that the comments in my article, with the exception of my last sentence, which is my personal opinion, are based on interviews. I quote the girls and donors directly and provide video footage of a portion of the interview. If the sisters are portrayed as evil, violent oppressors, it is because of the experiences of my sources. I did not just make this stuff up.

      I was born and raised in the U.S. and thus have no quarrel with capitalism. Making money or even getting rich is no crime, as long as it is not done on the backs of innocent orphans. I reiterate that the Chhetri sisters have built a trekking office, a hotel, and now a very large personal home, while the children are still living in the same dilapidated building that they have always lived in. The fact that these kids came from even worse living conditions is no excuse for the lack of attention to their current facilities. Events such as the washing machine being moved to the Chhetri sisters’ personal house, when it was expressly purchased for the use of the children, is unconscionable. Even the commenters could not get their stories straight. One said the washer was in the orphanage, while another said it was in the sisters home.

      I am not alone in trying to shine light on this issue. I suggest you read a few other articles, such as this one that ran earlier this year in the highly respected Aljazeera:, or take a look at the People and Places site, which promotes responsible volunteering: (they were featured speakers at World Travel Market this year). Or take a look at the site, Orphanages: Not the Solution (, which explains the issue succinctly in their opening paragraph:

      Nobody doubts the good intention of the donors, travelers, and volunteers who give time or money to orphanages. It is natural and right to care about poor and vulnerable children, wherever they are in the world. But what if this support was actually part of the problem, not the solution? What if orphanage tourism, voluntourism and donations were fueling the demand for “orphans”, and so driving the unnecessary separation of children from their families? In Cambodia, as in much of the developing world, orphanages are a problem, not a solution.

      In closing, I ask you this: Did you talk with any of the residents of the orphanage outside the facility, where they could speak freely? Did you employ an interpreter to speak to those who could not speak English? Were all your conversations and the information you gathered done in the presence of the Chhetri sisters or with other management representatives, or did you seek outside sources for corroboration?

  18. Most of the people who come to Nepal have a soft corner for the poor condition in which the workers live. However I would like to suggest that if they want to help someone either they directly give the money to the workers or if they want to help in a big way then they should approach the local Rotary clubs who will make sure that the money reaches the desired people.

  19. I know it burst a lot of balloons but I am glad you published this article. I exerienced similar exploitative financial dealings in South Asia. So many tourists are in a dreamy state about Nepal and find the corruption of most of these NGOs an inconvenient truth. I, too, am in search of an honest NGO in Nepal, and so far my pointed questions have eliminated most contenders. Is no one suspicious of the living standards of these orphans and the sisters? Dollar for dollar I would expect more results for all those donations and awards. Don’t worry sisters, I am equally critical of socalled saints like Mother Theresa in India. And the not so veiled threat in one of those responses above.

    By the way, always be suspicious of orphanages in such abundance. When you visit these orphanages question the children about relatives privately, take photos and compare to the photos of other visitors and tourists. Watch the clithing, food, is the standard of living improving? What is the success rate for school, careers, or female guides.

    Good for you. I had similar experiences and suspicions with another gentleman’s NGO.

    • Hi Molly: Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Many, many of the original comments were from people who work at 3 Sisters; almost all of them came from two IP addresses, so I’m quite sure the sisters mounted a strong effort to counter my story by telling their employees they had to reply. After everything I’ve seen, in Africa and Asia, I’m very leery about NGO’s that are opened by local people. That’s not to say that they are all bad (I do know a few good ones), but I do think extra caution must be taken in these instances and many of your suggestions are absolutely spot on.


  21. This is not journalism, it is gossip. You have only four sources, all of whom know each other, for the allegations of mistreatment and mismanagement at the EWN Children’s Home (not an orphanage, more like a boarding house). It is quite possible that the three young women you interviewed lied to the Perrotins so as to redirect their donations from EWN to themselves. This would be consistent with how you describe many Nepalis’ relations with foreigners.

    A proper journalist would have sought out and interviewed other previous residents of the Children’s Home, who are no longer financially dependent on EWN or the 3 Sisters company. It would also not be difficult to determine which school the children attend (or have attended in past years), and how far it is from the Children’s Home. Also you could have interviewed neighbors, trainees in the trekking guide program, staff at the children’s school, staff and owners of rival trekking companies, etc. and compared their stories with those of the Chhetri sisters and their employees.

    You might then have a basis for evaluating the budget figures other than your limited personal knowledge. If the ice-climbing training included airfare to Europe (as described by another commenter), paying European trainers, and purchasing ice-climbing gear, then I can well imagine it costing thousands of dollars for one person. Similarly, internet expenses for a business may be much greater than for an individual.

    Finally you could have sought out the parents and other relatives of current and former residents of the Children’s Home. Some send their children there so they can attend school, others because they need their children taken care of while they travel for work.

  22. My name is Renuka – I’ve been a volunteer at the Three Sisters, teaching English, on the guides training course, three times over a period of years. I am not in a position to know anything about the funding arrangements, but have been to the Children’s Home daily, as it’s where we teach from so I’ve observed the children over a period of months, and they are happy, loved and cared for kids. I’ve eaten with them, simple but wholesome food, and enjoyed parties where the children would entertain with great joy and confidence. The small ones visit the Chettri’ sisters mother daily, giving them a feeling of being part of a large family. Their accommodation is clean and well maintained – and as anyone who has stayed in Nepal over the winter will know that heating in almost unknown. I hope your article hasn’t done too much damage and would encourage anyone concerned to check it out for themselves. .

  23. Nepal is one of the best place to do some Trekking activities. I have been there since 2010 and it is nice to know that this country is not just nice to know about adventure journeys. This country also is full of religious and cultural beliefs. From the people to their delicacies, it is so fantastic.


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