Kung Fu nuns on bikes cross the Himalayas to oppose human trafficking

500 Buddhists nuns spread the message - by bike - that girls are as valuable as boys, with the Dalai Lama's blessing.
Buddhist nuns from the Drukpa lOrder pictured on August 20, 2016, in Ladakh during their cycle across the Himalayas to raise awareness about human trafficking of girls and women in the impoverished villages in Nepal and India Live to Love handout / Reuters
Buddhist nuns from the Drukpa lOrder pictured on August 20, 2016, in Ladakh during their cycle across the Himalayas to raise awareness about human trafficking of girls and women in the impoverished villages in Nepal and India Live to Love handout / Reuters

NEW DELHI // Clad in black sweatpants, red jackets and white helmets, the hundreds of cyclists pedalling the treacherously steep, narrow mountain passes to India from Nepal could be mistaken for a Himalayan version of the Tour de France.

The similarity, however, ends there. This journey is longer and tougher, the prize has no financial value or global recognition and the participants are not professional cyclists but Buddhist nuns from India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Such is their reputation for physical and mental toughness – not to mention their martial arts skills – that they are known as the Kung Fu nuns.

Five hundred nuns from the Buddhist sect known as the Drukpa Order, on Saturday completed a 4,000km bicycle trek from Kathmandu in Nepal to the northern city of Leh in India to raise awareness about human trafficking in the remote region.

“When we were doing relief work in Nepal after the earthquakes last year, we heard how girls from poor families were being sold because their parents could not afford to keep them anymore,” said 22-year-old nun Jigme Konchok Lhamo.

“We wanted to do something to change this attitude that girls are less than boys and that it’s OK to sell them,” she said. The bicycle trek is intended to show that “women have power and strength like men”.

South Asia may boast women leaders and embrace cultures that revere motherhood and worship female deities, but many girls and women live with the threat of violence and without many basic rights.

From honour killings in Pakistan to selective abortion of female foetuses in India and child marriage in Nepal, women face a barrage of threats, although growing awareness, better laws and economic empowerment are slowly changing attitudes.

“KUNG FU” NUNS

The bicycle trek, from Nepal into India, is nothing new for the Drukpa nuns.

This is their fourth such journey in which they meet local people, government officials and religious leaders to spread messages of gender equality, peaceful coexistence and respect for the environment.

They also deliver food to the poor and help villagers get medical care – and raise a few eyebrows, especially among more orthodox Buddhists.

“Traditionally Buddhist nuns are treated very differently from monks. They cook and clean and are not allowed to exercise. But his Holiness thought this was nonsense and decided to buck the trend,” said Carrie Lee, president of Live to Love International, a charity which works with the Drukpa nuns to support marginalised Himalayan communities.

“Among other things, he gave them leadership roles and even introduced Kung Fu classes for the nuns after they faced harassment and violence from monks who were disturbed by the growing shift of power dynamics.”

Over the last 12 years, the number of Drukpa nuns has grown from 30 to 500, largely due to the progressive attitudes of the 53-year-old Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa Order, who was inspired by his mother to become an advocate for gender equality.

The Gyalwang Drukpa also participates in the bicycle journeys, riding with the nuns as they pedal through treacherous terrain and hostile weather and camp out in the open.

“PRAYING IS NOT ENOUGH”

“Most of the people, when they see us on our bikes, think we are boys,” said 18-year-old nun Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo. “Then they get shocked when we stop and tell them that not only are we girls, but we are also Buddhist nuns. I think this helps change their attitudes about women and maybe value them as equals.”

South Asia is also among the regions of the world where human trafficking is growing.

Gangs dupe impoverished villagers into bonded labour or rent them to work as slaves in urban homes, restaurants, shops and hotels. Many girls and women are sold into brothels.

Extreme natural events leave the poor even more vulnerable. The two earthquakes that struck Nepal in April and May 2015, killing almost 9,000 people, left hundreds of thousands of families homeless with no income. More than 40,000 children lost their parents, suffered injuries and ere forced to live precariously. The result was increased trafficking of children and women being trafficked. The earthquakes, say the Drukpa nuns, were a turning point.

“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,” said Jigme Konchok Lhamo. “His Holiness teaches us that we have go out and act on the words that we pray. After all, actions speak louder than words,” she said.

* Thomson Reuters Foundation

Published: September 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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