Cool marble floors underfoot, the purr of sewing machines, incense wafting through the air, a sense of quiet industry – these are my first impressions of the Seven Women centre in suburban Kathmandu, a short taxi ride from touristy Thamel.
I'm here for the Handmade Kathmandu experience, a craft class that offers a glimpse of the inner workings of an innovative Australian social enterprise and a chance to hang out with some local women.
What brings me the most joy is supporting the most marginalised women to become leaders who can create lasting, positive change.Stephanie Woollard
Two other Australians arrive with me; they're doing a cooking class, but we all get the same welcome: a woman carrying a small bowl of red powder presses a Hindu bindi onto each of our foreheads. Then director Anita Kerr appears, to explain what Seven Women is all about.
Life as a girl or woman in patriarchal Nepal is hard, she says. Most women have experienced domestic violence, only 45 per cent can read or write (compared to 72 per cent of Nepalese men) and more than 7000 girls and women are trafficked abroad every year.
"From the moment we are born as a woman, we are treated differently," says Kerr, who ran away from home at 14 to escape a forced marriage.
Women with disabilities are doubly disadvantaged in a country where a disability can be seen as punishment for evil deeds in past lives.
That's where Seven Women comes in. Melbourne social entrepreneur Stephanie Woollard set it up in 2006 when she was just 22, after a chance meeting with seven women with disabilities in the backstreets of Kathmandu. Moved by their struggle to sell handmade candles and soaps at local markets, she used her last $200 to pay two trainers to teach the women how to make felt and knitted products she could sell back in Australia – and Seven Women was born.
Since then Seven Women has educated, trained and employed more than 5500 disadvantaged women in Nepal – single mothers and those affected by domestic violence as well as women with disabilities – and currently employs more than 1000 women to make Fair Trade products, empowering them through "trade not aid". Another 35 women work at the centre full-time in admin and teaching roles.
"What brings me the most joy is supporting the most marginalised women to become leaders who can create lasting, positive change," says Woollard, who has a master's degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University in Sweden. She also runs a responsible travel company in Nepal called Hands On Development and plans to open a 13-room hotel in Kathmandu later this year to provide more hospitality training and opportunities for employment.
Cooking and craft classes were added to Seven Women's repertoire in 2014, to spread the word about its activities and raise funds to train and employ more women; 100 per cent of the tour price goes towards Seven Women's literacy programs in remote villages.
After a guided tour of the centre – from the vegetable garden to the rooftop terrace, the Fair Trade gift shop to the bedrooms (for women who need a safe place to stay during their training) – I spend a happy hour with my craft teacher, Bishnu Maya Tamang.
Born with a disability, Bishnu came to Seven Women three years ago after her husband abandoned her and she had trouble supporting her son. She's now a product designer and trainer. In the absence of a common language, we use smiles and gestures to decide what I'm going to make: a simple coaster. (Other options are key-rings, a bracelet, Christmas decorations and strings of prayer flags.)
It's slow work, but meditative, like three-dimensional colouring-in. While I sew coloured felt balls together, other women working at the centre come to say "namaste" and chat, every one of them radiating a profound happiness to be there. There's something about this place, something that makes it feel far from the dust and hustle of Nepal's largest city.
"It's like a holy temple," says Kerr. "I think all the women who have been part of Seven Women, when they are here they forget about the pain, the suffering they're going through, and they help each other. They create that [calm] environment, it's not just us, so any new women who come here feel welcome, and that this is their home."
China Southern Airlines flies to Kathmandu from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne via Guangzhou; see csair.com/au/en
Four-hour Handmade Kathmandu tours are run by Urban Adventures, part of the Intrepid Group, and cost $88 a person, with all net proceeds going to Seven Women. You can also donate to Seven Women through The Intrepid Foundation, which matches every donation and covers all administration costs. See urbanadventures.com, theintrepidfoundation.org
Kathmandu Guest House has rooms from $US40 a night including airport pick-up, breakfast and Wi-Fi. See ktmgh.com/kathmandu-guest-house/
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Urban Adventures.