Throughout history, individuals and groups have demonstrated a remarkable amount of strength, determination, and resiliency when fighting for something they believe in. While all of these stories are inspiring, some of them are so incredible they are worth telling two or three times over. One of these stories is of an extraordinary group known as the Kung Fu Nuns, who in 2016 biked thousands of kilometers to raise awareness about human trafficking in Nepal.
The 2016 Ride
In 2016, five hundred nuns from the Buddhist sect called the Drukpa Order completed a four thousand kilometer bicycle trek from Kathmandu in Nepal to the city of Leh in India.
They were inspired to do the ride while doing relief work in Nepal after earthquakes in 2015, when they heard that girls from poor families were being sold because their families could no longer afford to keep them.
Jigme explained that the bike trek demonstrated that women have power and strength like men.
Women in South Asia face a number of threats, despite having female leaders and a culture that reveres motherhood and worships female deities, including honor killings in Pakistan, feticide in India, and child marriage in Nepal.
Change is happening, but it is slow, and it requires groups like the Kung Fu Nuns to raise awareness and call upon authorities to improve the lives of women.
Who Are the Kung Fu Nuns?
This special group of women got their name because of their training in martial arts. They are led by the Gyalwang Drukpa, who is the leader of the Drukpa order, who was inspired by his own mother to become an advocate for gender equality.
“Traditionally Buddhist nuns are treated very differently from monks,” explained Carrie Lee, president of Live to Love International, a charity which works with the Drukpa nuns to support marginalized Himalayan communities. “They cook and clean and are not allowed to exercise. But his Holiness thought this was nonsense and decided to buck the trend” .
Gyalwang Drukpa gave the nuns leadership roles as well as Kung Fu classes after the women faced harassment and violence from monks who did not support the changing power dynamics. His progressive attitude has caused the number of Drukpa nuns to grow exponentially over the last several years, from just thirty twelve years ago, to over five hundred Kung Fu Nuns today.
The 2016 ride was not the first time these nuns had made this challenging bike journey. They had already done a similar ride three times, each time meeting local people, government officials, and religious leaders, with the goal of spreading messages of gender equality, peaceful co-existence, and respect for the environment.
During these bike trips, in which they continue in all types of weather sleeping in the open air, they also deliver food to the poor and help villagers get medical care.
Creating Change Through Action
The nuns believe their efforts are paying off and that attitudes are beginning to change. 18-year-old nun Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo said that most people assume they are boys when they see them on their bikes, and are then shocked to find out that not only are they girls, but they are Buddhist nuns.
“I think this helps change their attitudes about women and maybe value them as equals.,” she said .
South Asia is one of the fastest-growing areas in the world for human trafficking, where gangs trick impovershed villagers into bonded labor, or rent them out to work as slaves in homes, restaurants, shops, and hotels. Many women and girls are sold into brothels.
Post-disaster trafficking has become increasingly common in South Asia as the effects of global warming has caused an increase in extreme events like earthquakes. These disasters leave local people in a much more vulnerable position, when the breakdown of social institutions create difficulties securing food and supplies. This often leaves women and children in danger of kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and trafficking.
This is what happened in 2015, after twin earthquakes left almost nine thousand people dead hundreds of thousands of families homeless, and many without any means of income. This perfect storm of events led to an increase in children and women being trafficked.
According to the nuns, the earthquakes were a turning point for them, and they felt that simply travelling to disaster-stricken areas with food was no longer enough. Jigme Konchok Lhamo explained that actions speak louder than words, and that they have to go out and act on the words that they pray.
“People think that because we are nuns, we are supposed to stay in the temples and pray all the time. But praying is not enough,” she said .
To learn more about the Drukpa Nuns aka “Kung Fu Nuns”, visit their website.