Sarah Webb - Championing women empowerment

Merging her love for travel with her work as an advocate for women’s empowerment, Sarah Webb travels extensively around the world, doing her bit to make it better.

Sarah Webb is a passionate advocate for women’s rights, with an emphasis on reproductive health & environmental rights. For the past six years, Sarah has been working with NGOs around the globe to empower local female leadership & entrepreneurship in the field of women’s rights. She is particularly interested in the intersection of environmental conservation, women’s economic empowerment, and women’s health. Sarah is most passionate about international work and gender activism within India & Asia. She currently works as the Global Enterprise Programs Director for Days for Girls International and serves as a Board Member for Bhuvana Foundation.

1) What was the first place you travelled to that made you fall in love with travel?

Sarah: My eyes really opened to travel the first time that I left the United States. As a child, I travelled with my parents around the US quite a bit, generally to different national parks, or on camping or canoe trips. But, my first trip outside of the US exposed me to the excitement of new cultures, trying to speak a different language, and the feeling of trying something totally new. I was 14 years old when I went to Europe for the first time, and I was hooked!

The next trip that was particularly influential in my love for travel was one that I took to southern Africa (Namibia and Botswana in particular) during my undergrad. I went with a professor and three other students to study the intersection of conservation with community empowerment, and I was blown away. I immediately fell in love with southern Africa, the landscapes, the wildlife, and the culture. And it was on this trip that I knew I wanted to pursue a career that combined global travel with community development, conservation, and women empowerment.

2) What’s the best part about being a woman traveller? What’s the worst?

S: Being a solo female traveller is both freeing and empowering. For me, the best part of being a female traveller is the connections with other people. I love connecting with women from communities around the world and hearing their stories, and the sense of unity that can be forged across cultural lines.

The worst part about being a female traveller is definitely unwanted attention (though, that can happen anywhere). There is definitely a strong power imbalance being a solo female traveller when a group of men insists on an interaction. I have definitely had some interactions that left me feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, but for the most part, my travel experiences have been positive!

3) How would you rate travelling solo vs travelling in a group and why?

S: I love travelling by myself. I love the sense of solitude and individualism. Solo travel gives me the time to process everything that I am experiencing in a way that is intimately personal, and I love the sense of being able to do whatever feels best at the moment. There are no schedules, no expectations from anyone else, and I love the ability to be able to pursue whatever opportunity pops up.

That said, I also love travelling in small groups. I enjoy having company, sharing stories, and having a companion to chat with during a long bus or train ride. I prefer to avoid large travel groups, though. I find that they often feel impersonal and create barriers to organic experiences that you might stumble upon on a solo or two-person trip. The logistics of large group travel often mean pretty rigid schedules, and I prefer the flexibility of playing it by ear.

4) Tell us about a couple of memorable incidents – your best and/ or worst.

S: This is a tough one! There are so many! My favourite incidents are always the ones that involve other people. Travel has definitely introduced me to some of the most personal and unique connections that I have had. The people are what I most fondly remember, whether from a one-time meeting or an ongoing stay somewhere. From the students I taught at Vidya Vanam, to the women I interviewed around Anaikatti, to the friends that I have met in the remote hill communities of Western Nepal, my favourite travel experiences involve people.

I love the connections that we can make across cultures, even when there are language barriers. I love the health sessions that end with a group dance, and that a brief moment of eye contact can often communicate more than a series of spoken conversations.

Beyond people, though, are a few memories that stand out particularly strong. On my trip to Namibia and Botswana, I had the opportunity to do research on elephants for several days, tracking their migration routes and herd structures. The peacefulness of watching elephant herds, the excitement as a rambunctious bull ran towards our Range Rover, and the beauty of the landscapes that surrounded us all stand out for me. On that same trip, we had hippos that entered the camp one night, snorting outside of the tents as they ate grass, and then bumping up against the sides of the tent. At the time, it was a little nerve-wracking, but it’s one of my favourite stories to look back on!

Another favourite was my trip to Simikot, Nepal. To get to Simikot, you take a small prop plane, that expertly weaves in and out of the jagged Himalaya to arrive on the small jetway in Simikot. Between the turbulence, the chickens aboard the flight, and the beautiful views out the window, it made for quite the memorable experience!

Finally, another favourite incident was in Northern Ecuador, on the edge of the Amazon. We arrived at our destination late at night, boarding wooding canoes to journey out to the small indigenous community that we would be staying in. The canoe ride was peaceful and silent, with the sound of water bugs skirting across the surface as the guide directed us towards the location. Suddenly, the water lit up – there were luminescent algae in the lily pads, and luminescent bugs skipping across the water. It was one of the most beautiful and magical scenes.

I have also definitely had my fair share of negative travel encounters. From snakes falling through the roof of the house in India to bedbugs, to countless hospital visits, to several bouts of food poisoning, travel is not always easy. One incident that really stands out, was actually quite recently. In Thailand, I swallowed a fish bone, which got stuck in my throat. After 15 hours, we were able to reach a hospital to get it removed, which was quite the process! Needless to say, I’m happy that it worked out!

Another one that stands out was getting mugged in Ecuador. When my boyfriend and I were living in southern Ecuador, we had visited an old, abandoned castle, which overlooked the city that we lived in. Soon after arriving, two other men arrived. They pulled a knife and took most of our belongings. Luckily, we weren’t physically harmed at all. It just left us with a sense of distrust and insecurity for quite a while.

5) What’s your favourite place amongst all your travels? One that you’d go to again and again? Why?

S: This is a tough one! There are so many places that I hold dearly in my heart. But, for me, the one that stands out the most is India. I lived in Anaikatti for about a year from  2012-2013, working as an elementary school teacher at Vidya Vanam. I have been back to Anaikatti twice since I left in 2013, and it still holds the same magic for me as it did when I first arrived.

From the personal connections with students and their families, other teachers, and a deep love for the sense of place that I have in Anaikatti, I will never tire of returning there! This same love also applies to India in general. Each time I return to India, I feel a powerful sense of hope, love, and peace.

6) What’s a quirky tradition/ ritual you follow on your journeys? Tell us the story behind that.

S: I always travel with a small Buddhist charm in my backpack. After I noticed that the Buddhist charm had been present for several questionable encounters, all of which turned out relatively positively, I decided that the Buddhist charm was good luck, and it’s been in my travel bag ever since!

I also journal a lot – I always have a journal with me and document the most boring moments to the most exciting. I really enjoy journaling while travelling and using writing as a process for better connecting to the experiences that I’m having.

7) And now for the tritest question of them all – what does travel mean to you?

S: So many different things! I think that, for me, the most powerful aspect of travel is the sense of empathy and connection that it creates. When people from different backgrounds, countries, or cultures have the opportunity to interact, it cultivates stronger personal connections, empathy, and love.

I think that travel opens our eyes to issues that we never considered before and to lifestyles that we would not have experienced otherwise. For me, travel has helped me not only discover who I really am but also what matters most to me. Each culture, community, and person has something that they can offer or teach, and travel helps to create those connections and learning opportunities.

8) Any tips/ tricks/ words of advice to aspiring travellers?

S: Definitely! I think that the biggest piece of advice is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Travel is fun, but you have to go into it with an open heart. Try things that push your limits, that make you uncomfortable, and that are totally new. This is the best way to meet new people, learn more about a place that you are travelling, and push yourself to try something new!

The second piece of advice is to travel with an open heart and open eyes. Too often, travel stories centre on what can go wrong – you get tricked by someone, or mugged, or lose something valuable, the list goes on. Sure, things can go wrong while travelling, but be sure to keep an open heart. If you feel tense or paranoid the whole time, you aren’t going to enjoy it! That said, definitely, take precautions to avoid bad situations. Listen to your gut, don’t carry too much money on you, and don’t bring anything that you couldn’t part with.  

Most importantly, just go for it! Buy the ticket and go!

9) How you plan a trip? Things you make a note of, dos, don’ts, itineraries, the process of selecting a place, where to stay, et al? What are your pet travel peeves?

S: This depends a lot on why I’m travelling. Often, I am travelling for my work with Days for Girls, in which case the process of planning and selecting locations depends quite a bit on the site visits that I’m doing and the other team members that I will be travelling with. For the itinerary on these trips, I start with the trip objectives. What do I want to accomplish? From there, I design an itinerary that is shared with the various team members I’ll be connecting with.

When I solo travel or travel outside of a work context, I have a pretty laid-back planning style. Generally, I do some research to get a sense of the “must see” sites and activities, but try to keep the itinerary and plans flexible, so that they can be made as we go. If I’m travelling during high season or a time that is likely to book out, I make a few reservations in advance, but I usually just jump in when I get there. I ask the hotel staff or locals what they would recommend, or which places stand out to them in their communities. In terms of where to stay… I tend to be a budget traveller. I usually choose a relatively cheap option!

My biggest travel pet peeves are lack of empathy and lack of respect. Too often, I meet other travellers that talk poorly about the culture or community that we are visiting, making generalizing comments or observations that feel unfounded or judgmental. Every person deserves empathy, respect, and just treatment. And, it’s important to remember that while travelling. Another big pet peeve for me is lack of patience. Many travellers tend to get really impatient over small things – a late bus, the electricity shutting off, a mix-up on a food order in the restaurant. These are small things! Relax and recognize that things don’t always go perfectly during travel (or at home, for that matter). Enjoy the small moments!

10) Let’s talk about the safety factor that comes in when you are a “woman traveller”.

S: This is a big one! I often get asked, “Don’t you feel scared travelling alone as a woman?” I have definitely had moments that felt uncomfortable, and several scenarios that could have ended really different than they did. I do have a few stories that still make me feel uneasy, but for the most part, I have found that people will help me or step in when something potentially uncomfortable is happening.

I also don’t hesitate to advocate for myself or vocalize when I am feeling uncomfortable. Sure, there are precautions that you should take when solo travelling, like avoiding certain areas at night, but my experiences have, for the most part, been really positive. Bad things can happen anywhere – at home or while travelling – and there’s a healthy balance between being open to new opportunities and keeping an eye out for potentially harmful situations.

I definitely recommend observing how other women are acting in a given area and respecting any local traditions or customs that other women are following. And, I recommend making friends and finding other travellers or local contacts to spend time with if you want to go to a particular event or location, but don’t feel comfortable alone.

11) I see most of your travel involves you working for the betterment of different communities. What got you started?

Yes! I love that I get to combine my profession with travel. It has been an amazing opportunity. This all started with my trip to southern Africa during my undergrad. We were working on conservation initiatives that also created community impact, particularly regarding women empowerment. Since then, I’ve been hooked!

For the past six years, I have worked for different NGOs and nonprofits that do women’s empowerment and community development work in countries around the world.

12) Tell us about the causes close to you, that you have worked for? What countries have you travelled to for these?

S: The cause that I am most passionate about is women empowerment. I am a fierce advocate for gender equality, opportunities for women, and supporting female leaders to cultivate change in their own communities. Alongside women empowerment, the other two issues that I often work with are conservation and public health. I am most inspired by projects that are able to combine these three issues, developing environmental solutions that both promote public health and empower female populations.

Right now, I work as the Global Enterprise Programs Director at Days for Girls International, which focuses on menstrual health around the world. I have the opportunity to work with local female leaders to develop long-term solutions to menstrual health challenges, including both economic and health education opportunities within their communities.  I have also worked for organizations that focus on education/literacy for disadvantaged populations, economic development for women, and other public health programs.

For work, I have had the opportunity to travel to India, the United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Uganda, Nepal, and Guatemala.

13) Tell us about your journey from Anaikatti (if that was the first time you travelled to a foreign country for a cause) to Nepal. Was travelling for a cause a conscious choice? Or did that happen organically?

S: For me, it was a really conscious choice. After the travel that I did in my undergrad, it was important to me that I worked on causes that promoted community development around the globe, particularly focusing on the challenges that are often faced by women. In the past several years, I have reflected a lot on the privilege that I have had – a family that was economically stable, two loving and supporting parents, access to quality education, financial means to support myself, etc. It is important to me that we collectively work together to ensure that disparities within economics, public health, and community development are addressed. Since then, I have been intentionally travelling for a cause.

14) Where do you plan to travel next? What would that involve?

S: Next up is Nepal! I leave in about a week to return to Nepal with Days for Girls Programming. I will be working closely with our incredible team in Kathmandu as well as at a few project sites around the country.

This visit will include visiting a few of the project sites that Days for Girls Nepal has launched in the past year, in addition to working with staff on new curriculum, program expansion, and tools to better reach women and girls throughout the country. I can’t wait to return to Nepal. I love it there!

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One thought on “Sarah Webb - Championing women empowerment

  • April 2, 2018 at 11:47 pm
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    Sarah is an extraordinary leader. Days for Girls is very fortunate to have her on our team.

    Reply

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