Since the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal in April of last year, killing thousands and tipping the country into chaos, the porous border between Nepal and India has become a hotbed for human trafficking. In the span of just three months following the disaster, 725 people were smuggled into India, where they were sold into forced labor and prostitution. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and the strained Nepalese government has, for the most part, been unable to protect them.
Enter 500 bicycle-riding, kung-fu-fighting nuns.
Throughout the months of July and August, the Drukpa Lineage nuns, who belong to an order of Himalayan Buddhism, have been cycling across the Himalayas to promote gender equality and address the region’s growing human trafficking crisis. Dressed in vibrant orange biking gear, they weave through traffic and pedal up mountain slopes, persevering through blistering heat and heavy rains. The nuns’ bicycle “yatra,” or pilgrimage, began in Kathmandu, where their nunnery is located. By the time they reach their final destination of Ladakh, India, they will have biked more than 2,500 kilometers.
During stopovers in remote villages, the nuns lead prayers and impart teachings of peace and respect. Part of their mission is to promote environmental awareness; because diesel fumes are melting Himalayan glaciers and causing respiratory diseases among residents, the nuns have been encouraging villagers to rely more heavily on bicycles. When the nuns visit areas plagued by violence — like Kashmir, for instance — they also deliver lectures on the importance of diversity and tolerance.
Foremost on the nuns’ agenda, however, is the promotion of female empowerment.
Though women and girls in the region became particularly susceptible to violence after the Nepal earthquake — with economically devastated families often handing their daughters over to traffickers who promise a better life abroad — gender inequality has long been a pervasive problem among the countries that envelop the Himalayas. India, Nepal, and Pakistan — all of which are destinations for the bicycling nuns — consistently rank on the bottom tier of indices measuring women’s access to education, political empowerment, and health.
“We are spreading these messages: girls also have power, they are not weak,” said Yeshe Lhamo, a 27-year-old nun who is participating in the yatra. “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.”
Leading the yatra is one of only a few men who have accompanied the nuns on their journey: His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, a.k.a. Buddhism’s answer to the Rock Star Pope. During his tenure as the spiritual leader of the Drukpa Lineage, the Gyalwang Drukpa has emerged as a fierce promoter of women’s rights, reforming the status of women within the Lineage. Although the order has historically relegated nuns to cooking and cleaning tasks, the Gyalwang Drukpa encouraged female devotees to study esoteric teachings that were once reserved for monks. To further bolster the nuns’ self-esteem, he enlisted a Vietnamese martial arts expert to teach them kung fu.
“There was a ban against exercise for nuns,” explained Carrie Lee, President of Live Love International, a network of non-profit organizations founded by the Gyalwang Drukpa. “They broke that ban. They learned kung fu. It’s instilled a lot of confidence in them.”
With their radical, defiant athletic prowess, the “Kung Fu Nuns”are perfect purveyors of the Gyalwang Drukpa’s teachings on gender equality. These quiet and contemplative women can bike thousands of miles in the oppressive heat and rains. They can subdue physical threats with their knowledge of marital arts. They are living proof that women can be as strong as their male counterparts.
“Many men, they meet us and say, ‘Oh, if I joined you [in the yatra], maybe I can’t do it,” Lhamo said with a laugh. “[Other] people, they don’t understand. They tell us, ‘Girls shouldn’t cycle like that.’ But we tell them, ‘Why? If a man can do it, why can’t a girl cycle? … We are human beings, and they are also human beings.”
Lhamo was 17-years-old when she first encountered the Gyalwang Drukpa, who visited her village to deliver a lecture on compassion — which, he insisted, required action, not only prayer and good intentions. Lhamo was struck by his teachings and his poise. She immediately decided that she wanted to join the Drukpa nuns and devote her life to helping others.
Because she was only in 11th grade at the time, Lhamo’s parents were reluctant to allow her to abandon her studies and relocate to the Druk Amitabha Mountain nunnery in western Kathmandu. But Lhamo would not be deterred. “I …told them that I will become a nun,”she said. “They were not happy, but after one year, when I go back to home, they were very happy to see me and they said if I wanted to become a nun and I’m happy, they don’t have any problem with that.”
And so Lhamo settled into life at the nunnery. For much of the year, her days consist of meditating, praying, performing upkeep on the nunnery grounds, and working in its office. The nuns perform all of the tasks required to maintain the nunnery: some work as plumbers, some as electricians, still others field emails and manage accounts. They can attend business classes and, of course, study kung fu.
The yatra, however, has thrust the nuns out of monastic life and onto the frontlines of the human trafficking crisis. A few weeks ago, as they prepared to cross into India, Lhamo and her fellow cyclists saw police detain a man who had been leading a group of young girls across the border. He claimed he was taking them to India to get medications that were not available in Nepal. Police told the nuns that this person was more likely seeking to sell the girls into prostitution.
“We were very happy that police [were] asking many questions and the girls are getting saved,” Lhamo said. “We want to tell people more and more about [traffickers’ tactics].”
In their mission to save the girls of the Himalayas, the nuns face steep obstacles: poverty, suffering, cultural norms that have long devalued females. Change, if it comes, will likely come slowly. Lhamo knows this, but she also believes in the nuns’ ability to plant the seed of gender parity in communities where women and girls are at risk — and, perhaps more importantly, to inspire women and girls to believe in their own worth.
“Of course, one bicycle yatra cannot change the world overnight,” she said. “But our message of diversity may inspire one person, one little girl, one mother. Sometimes one person can make a big difference. A mother can change her whole family. One little girl can do amazing things.”