For a nun to achieve equal status with a monk she must be ordained a ëBhikkhunií by another Bhikkhuni, but there are none in Cambodia, and prejudice against ordaining women is deeply ingrained.
Millions of women across the world will unite on March 8 to celebrate International
Women's Day. Cambodia too will be in full swing, with myriad events bringing women
onto the streets to champion their cause and keep the torch burning for gender equality.
But 78-year-old Soun Sommet, one of the country's forgotten women, will not be joining
them. Nearly everyone in her family was killed by the Khmer Rouge. With nobody to
provide for her and no income in her old age, Sommet had little choice but to look
elsewhere for the support she needed to survive. In 1980, she became a nun at Phnom
Penh's Wat Lanka.
Propping up her tiny, frail body on a small bed in her living quarters, the temple's
head nun explains why she and the white-robed women around her gave up their everyday
lives to devote themselves to serving Buddha.
"The people who come here are the people who suffer in life," she whispers.
"Women come here to prepare to die. They want to ask for peace from the Buddha.
"Seven of my children and my husband died during the Pol Pot regime. I have
no one to look after me. The children I had left were very poor so I did not want
to put the burden on them."
Seventy-three year old nun Soam Keuon tells a similar story.
"I came here because life is not stable and I have no children," she explains.
"The only thing I can depend on is Buddha."
Sommet and Keuon are typical of nuns in Cambodia - they are commonly over 50 with
neither husband nor children to support them. They constitute one of the most marginalized
Shunned by society and stuck in a subservient role in a rigid religious hierarchy,
nuns face an uphill battle for recognition in the male-dominated environment of the
Thida Khus, executive director at capacity building NGO Silaka, says the problems
run deeper than simply a dearth of social support structures for the elderly.
"Society believes that women do not have a role as spiritual leaders,"
she explains. "[Women] are expected to cook, to be the household person, to
help in the temple, not to get involved in spiritual affairs ... A lot more needs
to be done, but we face tremendous problems because of social obstacles."
The lack of social support means that domestic violence and problems in the home
are important factors driving women to a life in the monastery.
"For nuns right now, the majority seek refuge, need shelter, seek protection
from abuse, problems at home," says Khus. "Very few would seek it because
of a spiritual nature."
The traditional belief is that older women join the monastery to remove the burden
of care from their children. A young woman would only take the vows if she had disgraced
"Society thinks that [young women] join the temple if they have a love affair,"
says Khus. "It is a disappointment with life and not because of the wish to
For decades, this perception that only the aged, desolate and disgraced become nuns
has deterred young women from donning the white robes and committing themselves to
the nunhood, says Peou Vanna, project coordinator for Association of Nuns and Lay
Women of Cambodia (ANLWC).
"The culture of Cambodia said that if women had love problems they went into
the monastery," she says. "It is not true. This culture affects our ladies
and girls and they are afraid to be ordained."
It is not just social stigmas that prevent young women from following a spiritual
path. Practical barriers such as lack of access to education, and expectations to
follow the more conventional path of wife and mother are holding back young women
who might otherwise seek a religious life.
Dr Hema Goonatilake is the country director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a German
political organization linked to that country's Green Party. A Buddhist scholar,
Dr Goonatilake has been working with ANLWC since 1996.
"Conditioning is such that born a woman you have to become a wife and a mother,"
she explains. "In Cambodia they became nuns only in old age after they had finished
their duties as a wife and a mother."
Ingrained prejudice within the Buddhist religion also holds women back.
"Buddhism only recognizes educated people," she explains. "You have
to read and write, it is the main requirement. It is a very elitist religion."
The disparity between education rates for boys and girls bears witness to part of
the problem. Only 5 percent of girls make it to upper-secondary education. Less then
half of the country's women can read and write.
Many young men gain their education by joining the monkhood and taking advantage
of the schooling offered at pagodas; such opportunities simply do not exist for young
Another impediment for girls attending higher education is the lack of facilities
near their homes. Boys can stay at the numerous monasteries while they study, but
girls have a choice of only two nunneries.
"To be born a girl means we are weak in strength," says Wat Langka's Soun
Sommet. "As a woman we are not only weak in physical strength, but we do not
get access to knowledge."
Soun Sommet, 78: ìAs a woman we are not only weak in physical strength, but we do not get access to knowledge.î
But Dr Goonatilake says things are looking up: not long ago nuns were considered
mere 'temple-slaves', their main duty being first and foremost to fulfill the wishes
of the monks.
"They always played a sub-servient role," Dr Goonatilake explains. "They
were maids of the monks. They had no time to develop their own spiritual needs, they
were always sweeping and cleaning."
But with the formation of ANLWC in 1996, the NGO's 10,000 members in 14 provinces
have taken the initiative to prove their capabilities and raise their standing in
the community, while helping others to combat social ills.
"Before the association was established they came to the temple and just served
the monks," says ANLWC's Peou Vanna. "Now they know the value of their
role in society. They have empowerment. They have equality in society."
The NGO's main initiative is its 'training of trainers' program.
"We select nuns and train then at a center in Udong four times a year,"
says Vanna. "After training they return to their provinces.
"The subjects are para-legal training, peace building, conflict resolution,
HIV prevention, domestic violence, trauma counseling ... through the nuns we can
provide training to other women."
The Heinrich Boell Foundation helps to fund the initiative, which Dr Goonatilake
describes as "small but beautiful".
"The beauty of the project is that here is a whole community of mature women
whose lives are so full so they could share their experiences and knowledge with
others," she says. "They have experience of life. They get training and
then they share their knowledge."
The past three years has also seen an encouraging rise in the number of young women
becoming nuns, says Dr Goonatilake. She attributes this to a variety of social trends,
such as the difficulties women have in finding a husband and heightened awareness
of gender issues.
"More and more educated women are entering the monastery," she says. "They
are not married, they don't have children, just a spiritual calling."
Despite this progress, it is unlikely that nuns will ever be regarded in the same
light as monks, say those working in the field, as prejudice runs through all aspects
of Buddhism in Cambodia.
In order to reach equal status with monks, a position known as Bhikkhuni, a nun needs
to be ordained by another who has already become a Bhikkhuni. There is no such nun
in Cambodia, creating a Catch-22 situation.
Because of this, nuns are not believed to wield the same power as fully ordained
monks, and are consequently not invited to attend events that would give them much-needed
"The monks all live off the temple support," says Silaka's Khus. "They
are able to raise money to support their family. Monks are invited to events, to
bless at funerals, at weddings. But nuns are not."
And although this situation is slowly changing - since the formation of ANLWC nuns
have gradually eked out a more accepted role in society - the country still has a
long way to go until the nuns obtain any real recognition.
"They don't have formal status in the religious hierarchy," says Dr Goonatilake.
"[Ordained nuns] will never happen in Cambodia. They are not ready for that.
Not in our lifetime."