Hundreds of nuns are cycling through the Himalayas for an incredible cause
When you think of a nun, what do you picture? Whether it’s long black robes, the glowing face of Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Mary Clarence or Mother Teresa herself, it’s doubtful that right now you’re thinking of a young woman, clad in spandex and a red jacket, pedalling up a rocky road carved into the side of a mountain. Nor, I'm guessing, do you picture that same woman sitting down with the leader of a local community, giving him the what's what about why women are just as capable and important as men.
But hundreds of Buddhist nuns from the Drukpa lineage in Nepal are doing just that: swapping the habit for a helmet and taking on a 3000-mile, month-long cycle through the Himalayas on a journey designed to bring attention to the problem of human trafficking and issues of gender equality. Anyone threatening their mission along the way had better watch out, because if the journey itself wasn’t badass enough, they’re all trained in martial arts too.
Calling themselves the “Kung Fu Nuns”, it is the fifth such journey for these women, which they refer to as a Cycle Yatra (pilgrimage). The event was first inspired by the attitudes towards women that they witnessed as they helped to clear up in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015, devastating towns and villages, and killing almost 9000 people: "That's how we had this idea of going on this Cycle Yatra to all the remote places and telling people we are all girls, girls are capable of doing everything. They are not useless, they are not things to sell", stated 25-year-old Kung fu Nun Jigme Konchok Lhamo on the group’s Facebook page, which is being used to update the public about their progress.
Nepal currently ranks 110 out of 145 on the Global Gender Gap Report, which measures female access to education, health and political participation. Women are particularly at risk of domestic violence and human trafficking, and in 2013 it was estimated that approximated 7000 women and girls were being transported across the border to India each year to work in brothels. Since the earthquake, the problem has increased significantly, with families selling their daughters to traffickers on the promise of a better life abroad. According to the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, 15 per cent more “interceptions” were made at the border with India in just the first three months following the disaster, although some charities estimate the true number of trafficked women and girls to be up to 15,000 per year.
The journey takes various regions of Nepal and India, including Kathmandu, Delhi and Darjeeling, with the Kung Fu Nuns also performing martial arts demonstrations, leading prayers and meditations, and meeting local leaders to discuss gender equality initiatives at each location along their route. Yeshe Lhamo, a 27-year-old nun, who participated in a previous yatra told the New York Times how their religion helps to make these subjects more accessible: “In these regions, they listen to and respect religious teachings, so for a religious person to say that diversity and equality is important, maybe people can make this their spiritual practice too”. When not cycling, the nuns also provide self-defence classes to young girls, teaching them how to respond to and protect themselves from violence using martial arts.
However, female empowerment is not the only issue that these super-nuns are hoping to bring awareness to with their cycle, because this mission also has an environmental element, with their religion being closely linked to respecting and maintaining a spiritual connection with the earth. Having chosen the most eco-friendly means of transport, after a long day of cycling the nuns will source local vegetarian food and clean up any litter or plastic waste their find in their chosen location, before retiring to their tents. According to their Facebook page, the group also regularly take part in various animal rescue projects.
Of course, one journey like this won't be able to save all women and children from their own journeys across the border into modern slavery. But if they can convince even one family that their daughters are worth keeping, worth educating, or convince one leader that women's rights deserve greater protection, then that's already pretty awesome.