Does it get any more badass than this title?!? A group of 500 Buddhist nuns from India, Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal embarked on a journey through the Himalayas but not to increase their fitness or to win any medals, instead to raise awareness about human trafficking.
Widely-recognized sources such as the International Labor Organization, the US State Department and the Global Slavery Index each have varying methods of calculating the numbers of people caught in the trafficking trade worldwide (some focus exclusively on prostitution, others don’t include forced labor) and because it is often a very hidden crime, especially when it comes people in their own country, the numbers differ.
Regardless, the statistics show anywhere between 20 million and 35 million people have become enslaved in trafficking, and there are more human slaves today than at any other point in history. It is ranked as one of the top 3 biggest criminal enterprises worldwide.
That is a sobering thought, and it should be noted that even ONE person is one too many. Here is the definition of this horrific crime, according to the Government Accountability Office: “human trafficking involves the exploitation of a person typically through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of forced labor, involuntary servitude or commercial sex.”
The remote regions around Nepal and India are rife with human trafficking, as a UNICEF report from 2014 shows roughly 7000 women and girls from Nepal are trafficked to India every year. While men and boys are not exempt from becoming victims, an overwhelming majority are female.
So the significance of these Buddhist nuns, trained in Kung-Fu, making this trek is not slight by any means. The women from the Buddhist sect known as the Drupka order rode 4,000-km (2,485 miles) from Kathmandu in Nepal to the city of Leh in India. It should be noted that none of these women were professional cyclists, but passionate women on a mission to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.
Some of the women told the press they were moved to take action after what they learned from the fallout of the devastating earthquakes which rocked Nepal in 2015.
“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,” 22-year-old nun Jigme Konchok Lhamo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The country has seen some major steps toward progress, electing Bidhya Devi Bandhari as their first female president in October 2015, but violence toward women and girls still exists, as does the deeply patriarchal culture.
Jigme Konchok Lhamo told Reuters the decision to embark on their bike ride was a symbolic way of proving women are capable of anything.
“We wanted to do something to change this attitude that girls are less than boys and that it’s okay to sell them. Women have power and strength like men,” she said.
Nita Bhalla from Reuters lists honor killings in Pakistan, female feticide in India, and child marriage in Nepal as some of the most prominent and heinous gender-based violent crimes perpetrated toward women and girls. She also writes how this epic two-wheeled trek was not the first for these nuns.
“This is the fourth such journey they have made, meeting local people, government officials and religious leaders to spread messages of gender equality, peaceful co-existence and respect for the environment. They also deliver food to the poor, help villagers get medical care and are dubbed the ‘Kung Fu nuns’ due to their training in martial arts,” she said.
Their activities may seem impressive to us, but to those closer to where they live their activities are seen are fairly unorthodox in such a conservative society.
“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 marginalized Himalayan communities.
Due to the leadership of Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa Order, the number of nuns has grown from 30 to 500 in the past 12 years. He is a progressive leader who is said to be passionate about gender equality after being inspired by his own mother. He encourages outdoor activities and participates in the bike rides with the women.
One of the nuns says their mere presence on bikes serves as a visual juxtaposition to many of the traditional values Nepalese and Indian people are so used to.
“Most of the people, when they see us on our bikes, think we are boys. 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,” said 18-year-old nun Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo.
Nita Bhalla reports that South Asia one of the growing centers of human trafficking in the world, with devastating natural disasters like the Nepal earthquakes contributing to the displacement of many vulnerable people, the breakdown of social institutions that keep people safe and healthy, and the increase in poverty.
“Gangs dupe impoverished villagers into bonded labor or rent them to work as slaves in urban homes, restaurants, shops and hotels. Many girls and women are sold into brothels. Experts say post-disaster trafficking has become common in South Asia,” she writes.
The nuns were moved to take action after the earthquakes and also drew on their own faith as a motivation to help those tragically forced into the trafficking trade.
“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. His Holiness teaches us that we have go out and act on the words that we pray. After all, actions speak louder than words,” said Jigme Konchok Lhamo.
To find out more about the Drupka Order and learn about their other social justice activities, visit their website.