The Village that Empowered its Women: 5 Years On
Waipula’s Women Leaders
July 6, 2023
“Before, we were just women standing behind our stoves, but now we have come out into the open and are living our own lives,” says Xia Xuefang, 42, a hotel manager in Waipula, a remote village nestled amidst mountain peaks and river bends in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
Waipula, is home to the Yi people, one of the region’s several ethnic minorities. Today the village is known for its skilled female artisans, thriving folk culture, sustainable farming practices and growing women-led eco-tourism industry. However, things were not always this way – as Xia’s words show, Waipula has been on a remarkable journey.
Previously the village had grappled with a scarcity of opportunities, prompting many villagers to seek better prospects outside of Waipula. Few women had jobs besides subsistence farming, which in turn translated to a low standing in the community. Interest in keeping traditional arts and customs alive was also waning.
The advent of the SDG Pilot Village Project in 2017 marked a turning point for Waipula. Migrant workers started returning, drawn by new employment prospects and a revitalized community spirit. The per capita income grew to 16,221 RMB in 2022 from 11,080 RMB in 2017. Furthermore, the village's administrative committee now includes three women among its seven members - a stark contrast to the previous absence of female representation.
These socio-economic transformations have had a profound impact on women’s lives. “In the past, people around here would say it’s not good for women to appear in public, but now they think differently,” says Xia. The recognition of women's talents and contributions through working in the local tourism industry has instilled pride in the men of the village. Xia further notes, "before, women would have to listen only to their husbands, but now it's more mutual between husband and wife."
Establishing an Eco-Tourism Industry
Once solely a farmer planting corn and tobacco, Xia Xuefang now serves as the Vice President of the Women's Association within the local ecotourism cooperative set up by the Project. She is passionate about her new work which includes supporting the cooperative, running a hotel and introducing tourists to the wonders of local, pesticide-free, and sustainable agriculture. “My chickens and geese are all bred naturally, so that tourists can enjoy our healthy and tasty food,” says Xia. “We’ve also introduced crops like mangoes to create a fruit-picking garden for the tourists staying at the guesthouse.”
Establishing independent and locally owned eco-tourism businesses in the village has played a key role in generating employment opportunities and raising villagers’ income. As a result, Xia’s family income has nearly doubled, rising to 150,000 RMB annually. Equipped with training in hotel management, as well as green animal husbandry, planting techniques and e-commerce marketing strategies many village women have become enterprising farmers and new hoteliers.
“The training sessions have been really helpful. For example, we know how to greet guests confidently and communicate with them properly so that their needs are met,” says Xia. She says shyness and a lack of confidence previously held her back. “We wouldn’t talk to strangers before. We wanted to say hello but were too shy. Now, whether we are on a shift or not, we will happily greet tourists when we see them.”
While the growth of the tourism sector has proven vital in boosting incomes and diversifying employment opportunities, the Project also placed paramount importance on ensuring minimal environmental impact and fostering sustainable development. Last year, financial and policy support from the local government, in combination with technical expertise mobilized via the project, enabled the construction of a village-wide sustainable sewage treatment system employing nature-based solutions. This not only enhances the village’s infrastructure, but also creates a pristine environment that can attract more tourists to enjoy the beauty of Waipula.
Reviving heritage arts and artisanal craft
Before electricity lit up the village, residents would gather to dance under the moonlight – a tradition that inspired the name of the village’s new art troupe called Huobonuoma or Daughters of the Moon.
The troupe has played a transformative role, empowering women by allowing them to be seen and heard while showcasing their talents on stage. “I used to be reserved and rarely spoke, but after fifteen days of singing practice, my confidence soared," says Han Shiqiong, Head of Huobonuoma Art Troupe.
The Project also focused on reviving traditional Yi embroidery, not only to ensure the craft survives, but to provide another income stream to the local women. “If it weren't for the Project, Yi culture would have faded into obscurity and none of us would be proudly wearing Yi clothes,” says Zhu Yongyan, 31, one of the three female members of the village’s administrative committee, adding that many women are now selling their embroidery via e-commerce platforms.
"Previously, we were disconnected from our rich cultural heritage,” says Zhu. “As a child, I held misperceptions about the Yi people, but now I proudly wear Yi costumes wherever I go, even during my recent trip to Shanghai."
By creating opportunities for sustainable entrepreneurship through ecotourism and championing women's leadership in community decision-making forums, the lives of Waipula’s women have improved in many critical ways.
Today, women hold an impressive seven out of eleven leadership positions in the ecotourism cooperative established under the Project in 2019.
Tai Xuerong, 31, director of the village supervisory committee attributes her newfound enthusiasm for her work to her participation in the Project’s multiple training activities. "I used to be incredibly shy, but after fifteen days of singing practice, my confidence grew by leaps and bounds," shares Tai. "Now, engaging with fellow villagers is the highlight of my job."
By empowering women to express themselves, fostering confidence through art and providing access to diverse income streams, Waipula has created a community where women's lives are marked by progress, self-determination, and a newfound sense of independence. “Things in Waipula have changed a lot,” says Tai. “In the past, women’s lives revolved around the home, but now they are focusing on their own activities. It’s quite different here”.
A Brighter Future
Waipula's journey from sleepy village to an emerging bright spot of female empowerment serves as an inspiring tale of resilience and transformation. As the Project enters its second phase, it remains focused on advancing Waipula’s green and sustainable development, safeguarding the local Yi culture and empowering women through entrepreneurship to continue raising their incomes.
By joining forces, we can ensure that women play a critical role in sustainable development, forging a better, greener, and more inclusive future for both people and the planet.
Funding for this project was generously provided by Mary Kay via the China Women’s Development Foundation. Financial contribution was also provided by local government partners.