Chatting to the founder of Ragazze in gamba, the largest network of female slow walkers and hikers in Italy

I recently met the founder of Ragazze in gamba, the largest network of female slow walkers and hikers in Italy – by Francesca Lombardo.

More than ever, slow walking and hiking have become popular activities for women to discover places, reconnect with the environment and nature, and detoxify, escape, and reconnect with ourselves.

When this happens in a country steeped in history, cultural sites, striking diversified nature and scenery, and walking paths, it is easy to understand how fast this trend has grown, gathering communities of slow walkers and hikers together, particularly women.

To this end, we have met with the founder of the largest network of female slow walkers and hikers in Italy, Ilaria Canali, a long time passionate and an expert in promoting sustainable developments of Italian regional walking and hiking trails, who only a year ago went to set up a RETE NAZIONALE DONNE IN CAMMINO and its subgroup Ragazze in Gamba,

Ilaria, can you tell us how, when and why you decided to set up ‘RETE NAZIONALE DONNE IN CAMMINO’ and Ragazze in gamba?

Rete Nazionale Donne in Camino is an idea born from a moment of reflection on the current situation of gender equality in Italy. And specifically, in the sector, I have been involved with for many years: the promotion of Italian slow walking and hiking trails, which is a fast-growing reality that sees the participation of more and more women every year. Despite the Covid situation, female participation is robust and is overtaking even the male one. However, we don’t have the same strong female presence at the leadership and decision-making level in this sector, be it in the organisational aspect or in contexts where there is the opportunity to discuss how to promote or develop this sector at conferences or events. In March 2019, I decided to bring our shared experience and thoughts to a conference that was part of an event called “Do the Right thing” held in Milan.

Why is it so successful?

We had a great interest and response. As a result of that, Rete Nazionale Donne in Cammino was born. We then set up a different social group, which is called Ragazze in gamba. The two groups have now accrued a massive number of 70,000 affiliated, mostly women. Today, the two groups are an essential referent for the community of women involved in hiking and slow walking, professionally and as hobbies.

 

What is exactly RETE NAZIONALE DONNE IN CAMMINO ?

La Rete is many things. I would summa-rise it with these three words; friendship, knowledge, help. It is a virtual ecosystem and a platform women use to express their voice, share their hiking or walking experiences and projects. It is not just a virtual reality; we promote thousands of excursions organized daily across all Italian regions, not only in nature but also in cities. Through Ragazze In Gamba in particular, which is also a sub-social group of La Rete, many women form friendships and walk together, which is a beautiful thing.

The network is a community that provides a sense of purpose. Still, at the same time, it also provides useful and practical advice, tips and even offers services for those who want to discover the world of pilgrimage and hiking across all the Italian region.

We provide up-to-date information about new itineraries, information about the regions, and particular territories. Thanks to this operation of promoting our country’s cultural heritage, many hikers, including foreigners, are exploring less known areas and discovering the hidden wonders of our country.

The group also offers a real mentorship and emotional coaching service for hikers, offering assistance, aids, and advice of all kinds.

What is the key message, and what is the driving force of this network?

We want to send across and promote that “walking, hiking,” both urban or outdoors is a revolutionary act, from an environmental perspective and for female empowerment. A woman who embarks on a walking experience is inspirational, and it is an example of extraordinary strength and determination. I wanted to contribute to building a world where my son can learn about women’s value in society as I believe women have a lot to bring to it. And especially to the educational aspect.

So as you said, there aren’t many women at the helm, and would you say that this sector is still very male-dominated?

It is not only in this sector, but it is a problem across the board. I have never experienced any disadvantages as a woman, and I have never felt undermined or discriminated against. Still, as I started reflecting on other women’s experiences in general, I have acknowledged the problem’s extent. As such, I felt driven to contribute to increasing women’s presence in this particular sector. It was also crucial for me as a mother of a teenage son.

Why?

I am concerned that my son gets a distorted idea about the role of women in society. He gets taught about gender equality in school, but he will experience a very different reality when entering the professional world.

Do you feel women have an edge?

Women are very innovative when it comes to proposing hiking events or experiences. We are very much with our emotions and tend to share our feelings, fears, and frailties and our strengths and uniqueness. Women can also be experimental in integrating hiking with other experiences such as arts, mediation, yoga, reading, and cultural activities. There are many examples of Italian Hiking Guides who propose original and pioneering initiatives by creating, for example, holistic paths to be to promote inner well-being. These experiments arise from the need, now more relevant than ever, to find one’s center and greater balance and harmony. The moment we are experiencing is heavy for women who find themselves having to bear the family’s weight more than ever. Being able to go for a walk for a woman means, first of all, being able to carve out a room for themselves and a time free from chores. These are critical needs, and I would like to emphasize that walking allows us to live in the safety of social relationships. Walking is revolutionary and, at the same time, a safe space, especially now that we are in lockdown.

Can you tell us why it is relevant to young people and children too?

Walking, hiking, and slow walking is mentally beneficial for children and young people as it allows them to discover the environment that surrounds them differently. It is essential as it also helps them develop a great sense of responsibility for the environment and a stronger connection with nature. The slow pace of walking can also help young people live in a more authentic dimension and mostly detoxify themselves from the excessive use of technology, video games, and mobiles, which nowadays seems to define their lives. Even more so now, with COVID, outdoor walking and activities are the only dimensions that can still allow our children and teenagers to meet, socialize, and train in a safe way. Schools need to start actively promoting this, and I believe we women can contribute to this.

How much is slow walking and walking outdoors or hiking also about spirituality and a spiritual experience?

Engaging with nature through walking is indeed a spiritual journey and an opportunity for women who walk through the wilderness, through villages, to reflect on their personal experience, their life’s journey, and reconnect with themselves. To this end, in Italy in particular, we have walking itineraries that have a strong spiritual and religious connotation like for instance, la Via Francigena, la Via di San Benedetto, and la Via di Francesco. We have hundreds of itineraries instead that are not historically religious but allow you to discover our cultural and naturalistic heritage, such as the Cammino del Salento, in Apulia, a harmonious combination of sea, coastlines, and small fishing villages. In particular, this one was recently set up by two very young “Girls in Gamba,” of which we are incredibly proud.

Women have often been raised with the idea that walking by themselves in isolated places could be risky. How important is also to promote the concept of safety?

I never have that this mindset, but I was raised in the countryside, and I was a very free child. One of the more recurring questions women posted was about how safe it is to go solo? Or to walk by yourself on a hiking trail. Women ask each other, have you done it? Is it safe enough? What emerges is a choir of voices of concerns, and this made me think how important it was for women is to feel safe and empowered. But I have also noticed that more and more women are going solo and feel very empowered by the experience.

So is slow walking and solo hiking solo safe?

Most of these hiking trails or Camino are very safe. If you think of the places where women get abused or assaulted, it often happened in their homes or the city streets. I realised that it was also necessary to demystify this fear that it is not safe for a woman to embark on a hiking trip by herself.

 

What are the future projects for the RETE NAZIONALE DONNE IN CAMMINO?

We have many projects. The most immediate is the anniversary of Women’s Day, March 8, 2021. On this date, we will give life to the “FESTIVAL OF WOMEN ON THE WAY.” We’re calling it this way as we do not only intend to celebrate women in general but also women on their way to a new dimension of freedom, personal affirmation, and power in society. We want it to be an essential opportunity for thousands of women in Italy to make a political statement about really making a step forward in our community.

We are working on a large artistic and photographic exhibition of all the Italian paths/hiking trails and Camino that we aim to export abroad on an international tour to promote slow tourism and slow walking on the roads, which is still an emerging sector.

We are also building a portal outside social media to bring this community together and promote professional figure training. We also encourage women to send or post pictures and videos to us and use filming as an essential storytelling outlet.

We also want to create female professional figures who can lead groups of women and make an inspiring journey by offering arts culture, yoga, or meditation on a hiking day, turning the hiking. experience into a healing experience

I also want to increase the focus on women’s connection to urban hiking. Walking through urban spaces is equally spiritually rewarding and educational, and of course, cultural.

Right now, the network has pretty much had an Italian connotation. Do you wish to expand it with some affiliation abroad too?

Yes, we have lots of women from abroad that come to join our network. Still, we also would like to find out an opportunity to set up a series of groups in other countries affiliated with our network to integrate their slow walking experience with our Italian reality under the same roof, the same spiritual goals, and objectives. To this end, I’d like to send a shout out to women or girls in the UK, London specifically, to work closely with our Rete Nazionale di Donne in Cammino and Ragazze in Gamba.

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