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Faith in Development

Cambodia’s “Quiet Movement”: Buddhist Women in Development

by Nathaniel Adams (2010-11 WFDD Fellow)

On a recent trip to Wat Kampong Kraisang in Cambodia’s rural Pursat province, we were greeted at the gate by a gregarious group of middle-aged women, all of them proudly displaying their matching black satchels emblazoned with an image of a woman breastfeeding an infant. These bags signified to us, as they do to members of their community, that they have been trained through the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance’s (RACHA) nun and wat granny program, which aims to improve local knowledge of child health and nutrition. We had come to the wat in order to speak to these women about about their work with RACHA. These discussions in part inspired the following brief exploration of the role that Cambodian nuns have played and might play in the development of their country.

RACHA is a Cambodian NGO that grew out of a partnership between USAID Cambodia and three Global Health Bureau initiatives, which ran in the country between 1996 and 2003. RACHA’s core program areas include maternal, newborn and child heath as well as family planning. Recently, their focus has expanded to include the related issues of HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases (primarily TB and malaria). The organization’s official vision is to be a “leading and dynamic NGO, which advances the health of the Cambodian people through sustainable, relevant, and responsive community-based health programs.”

In order to be “sustainable, relevant and responsive” in the Cambodian context, RACHA has recognized the benefit of working through the pagoda system because of its great influence over much of the country’s population. The pagoda structure constitutes one of the most important streams through which RACHA disseminates health information within communities. Because of their ability to assemble community members and effectively spread information with little associated cost, monks and other Buddhist figures represent key actors in RACHA’s programs. The ubiquity of the Buddhist wat throughout the country also makes it an invaluable network, reaching into even the most rural and impoverished regions. There are of course challenges to engaging monks, not least on issues related to child and reproductive health. Topics such as breastfeeding and neonatal care are both potentially embarrassing for the mothers and slightly beyond the personal expertise of most monks.

As a result of these challenges RACHA began looking for ways to engage women within the pagoda structure, and around the year 2000 it recruited the first nuns and wat grannies to promote improved breast-feeding practices in their communities. Over the years these women have educated new mothers on a range of issues related to child and maternal health. At present RACHA has trained over 2,500 nuns and wat grannies in 9 provinces. Training sessions for nuns and wat grannies are organized as a joint effort between RACHA and the commune health center and typically held on the pagoda grounds. The nuns and wat grannies then hold their own training sessions for new mothers, either at the pagoda or in private homes using picture cards to illustrate various health concepts. The program has seen success over its ten-year history: a longitudinal study conducted by researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU) between 2004 and 2007 revealed that program communities have improved and sustained positive breastfeeding practices. However, the study also revealed that control villages (those without trained nuns and wat grannies) also showed increases in positive breastfeeding practices, leading to some ambiguity over the program’s impact and demonstrating the need to further explore the effectiveness of nuns and religious women in spreading health messages.

Certainly RACHA’s program and others like it have demonstrated that there is a need for NGOs to utilize female voices within the pagoda structure. However, in assessing the effectiveness of messages delivered by nuns and wat grannies, it is essential to consider the position of religious women within the pagoda as well as their influence in Cambodian society. The terms employed by RACHA, “nuns” and “wat grannies,” are actually both somewhat generic titles. Wat grannies in this context are generally older women in the community who actively participate in religious worship, but generally have no particular religious designation. They regularly attend sermons and often stay at the pagoda and cook for the monks on days when they cannot leave the wat (both on Buddhist days and during the rainy season retreat). Nuns, known in Khmer as donchee or yaychee, also hold a similarly ambiguous position in Cambodian Buddhism. Donchee generally observe eight or ten precepts, wear white robes and shave their head and eyebrows, although none of this is explicitly required. Some simply wear a white blouse and black skirt and choose not to shave their heads. Most pagodas do have special quarters to house nuns, though many choose to reside at home, supported by their children. Those who do reside at the pagoda work mainly in the service of monks, cooking meals and cleaning the pagoda grounds. For these women, there is little time left for other endeavors. Indeed, in the entire province of Pursat only nine nuns working with RACHA live on the pagoda grounds. Aside from their demanding schedule, age can be another reason why pagoda-based nuns can be more difficult to engage. Unlike the monkhood, which attracts many young men, becoming a nun is seen as something done towards the end of one’s life for women in Cambodia. The nunhood is a means to make merit and prepare for the next life. Most of the wat grannies spoken to during our visit stated that when and if they decided to become a nun they would likely cease working with the RACHA program because of their age.

At the start of the nun and wat granny program eleven years ago, the organization worked primarily with these older wat-based nuns; however, as the program progressed, the need to engage younger women quickly became apparent. The BYU report highlights four main challenges RACHA encountered using older nuns:

1) Older nuns reported being tired and unable to meet the demands of the program.

2) Wat grannies were hesitant to speak about breastfeeding and other sensitive issues in the pagodas.

3) Older nuns had high rates of illiteracy.

4) Owing to their age, younger nuns are more familiar with the mothers in their respective villages.

The benefit of engaging younger nuns in development work is evident. The question then becomes: why do most younger women shy away from the nunhood? In fact, exterior social pressures aside, as a young woman it can be very difficult to receive permission to stay at the pagoda. With a lack of dedicated nunneries, most Cambodian pagodas as they stand are simply not structured for this type of arrangement: housing young men and women on the same grounds. Nuns are also not able to take advantage of the same educational opportunities that monks can access, which remain a key motivation for many young men to join the monkhood.

The fact that the monastic opportunities that exist for young men are largely absent for young women is one consequence of the fact that full female ordination is no longer available in Theravada Buddhism. Of course, this wasn’t always the case; female ordination has existed since the earliest days of Buddhism. The Buddha granted the first female ordination for his aunt and adoptive mother Mahaprajapati, after she and her hundred followers boldly shaved their heads, donned the golden robes of the monks, and demanded equal ordination rights. For many women of this period the nunhood represented an escape from the repressive Brahmanic patriarchy of the day. Bhikkhunnis (fully-ordained female monastics) were not subjected to arranged marriage, made victims of domestic abuse or forced to rely on the financial support of male relatives as were many of their contemporaries. The nunhood also allowed women to pursue avenues of mental development through study and mediation, free from the menial tasks of the housemaid. Many such tales of liberation written by these early bhikkhunnis can be found in the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns). The following, attributed to Sumangala’s mother, is one typical of these women’s experiences:

So freed! So freed!

So thoroughly freed am I --

from my pestle,

my shameless husband

& his sun-shade making,

my moldy old pot

with its water-snake smell.

Aversion & passion

I cut with a chop.

Having come to the foot of a tree,

I meditate, absorbed in the bliss:

"What bliss!"


Over time, however, the importance of the bhikkhunni sangha faded in the Theraveda tradition and eventually, somewhere around the 13th century, the lineage became extinct, as it remains today. While some may point to the ulterior motives of some conservative Theravada scholars for opposing the revival of ordination for bhikkhunnis, the generally accepted position is that the present circumstances do not allow for the ordination of bhikkhunnis because there are no longer any bhikkhunnis available to grant that ordination (five are required to be present for the ceremony).

The ordination of bhikkhunnis remains a controversial issue in most Theravada countries. The first bhikkhunni in Thailand, Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was ordained in 2003. Ordained as Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, the former academic in philosophy and religious studies is now abbess of the only temple in the country that houses fully ordained nuns. She has been outspoken on the issue of female ordination and sees it as having much broader societal implications. She stated in a recent interview, “People don’t understand what the connection is between this ordination problem and the problem of prostitutes, for example. When women cannot become ordained, because the image of women is so negative, that pushes women to the other end of the spectrum. That’s why the door to brothels is open for women. But why are the doors closed for women to become nuns? I talk about the need to see social issues as holistic — you cannot separate them.” Leaders of the country’s sangha do not officially recognize Bhikkhuni Dhammananda’s position, and she remains a controversial figure in Thailand, her temple marginalized by the Buddhist establishment.

Cambodian nuns have not been as vocal on the issue of ordination. They have instead been traveling down a different path, pushing forward what Peou Vanna, president of the Association of Nuns and Laywomen in Cambodia (ANLWC), calls “a quiet movement of Buddhist women.” The ANLWC has sought to bypass the inequity in the Cambodia’s current pagoda system by providing young women with opportunities similar to those young monks might receive. Their program allows young women from poor families to live with nuns, attend school, and receive practical and religious training. The association is also challenging the dominant perception that a nun’s primary obligation is cooking and cleaning for monks. ANLWC mobilizes nuns to play an active role in the development of Cambodian society, acting as teachers and counselors. The association encourages nuns to put their knowledge of the Dhamma to use for community conflict resolution and to provide counseling to those in crisis, including orphan children and those living with HIV/AIDS, through their knowledge of meditative practices.

In Cambodian society donchee do not have what some have called the “charisma of office” that monks enjoy. People listen to the advice of monks and give them alms as a way of making merit for the next life, but no such merit is afforded those who venerate donchee. As a monk trained with RACHA pointed out during our discussions in Pursat, “It is much easier for me than it is for the wat grannies. Many people come to hear my sermon and I can include messages about HIV and AIDS. They must listen and heed what I say. It is also much easier for a monk to collect money. These things are all much more challenging for the wat grannies.” Certainly full ordination would not only make make nuns more influential social actors, but also powerful partners for programs like RACHA’s. Even if ordination for nuns in Cambodia were to be allowed tomorrow, though, it would likely be a very long while before bhikkhunis were anything more than a novelty in the country.

Full ordination or not, there is clearly a long road ahead to reimagine the social position of Cambodian nuns. However, as Peou Vanna of ANLWC writes in a recent paper, providing opportunities for nuns to contribute to development work does raise their religious profile and begins to assert a new position for them in Cambodian society. “These activities constitute a quiet movement of Cambodian Buddhist women who have walked and are walking slowly towards equal rights and gender equity and promoting the equal rights of women within the realm of Buddhism as well as in the secular environment. Despite nearly a decade of effort put forth by the quiet movement of Cambodian Buddhist women, Cambodian nuns who observe the ten precepts have yet to be allowed to become novice female monks or bhikkhuni.” That Cambodian nuns will continue their slow walk is without question. The only uncertainly that remains is how long they will have to wait until they can walk in saffron robes.

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