T he role of nuns has been largely ignored for years. That might be about to
change. Heng Sok Chheng reports.
NUNS have long held a low position in Cambodian society, largely unrecognized
and overshadowed by their male counterparts.
Most nuns are
poorly-educated and do not receive any Buddhist training or official
recognition. Their public image is maligned by those among them who beg for
money or food.
But their typical maturity and experience of life make
them ideal for positions of guidance, and moves are afoot to encourage them to
take a bigger role within Buddhism and the wider community.
and foreign NGOs are pushing for greater equality, status and responsibility for
nuns, though they face opposition from monks with more conventional
Currently to become a nun a woman just goes to a pagoda, has her
head shaved and wears white robes.
Considered "lay devotees", nuns are
not ordained. Their knowledge and practice of Buddhism is limited to listening
to monks, reading Buddhist scriptures and meditating.
become nuns, or Don Chee or Yay Chee as they are called, when for whatever
reason they do not fit into family life. They may be separated or divorced, or
have problems or a lack of support within their families and consider they have
no future there.
Most tend to be aged 40 or over - some choose to devote
themselves to Buddhism to prepare for their deaths - although a few younger
women are said to be becoming nuns rather than pursue traditional
The main duties of nuns are cooking for monks,
cleaning and decorating pagodas and often helping to care for orphans.
German NGO, the Henrich Boll Foundation (HBF), has just launched a project to
widen the social work that nuns do.
HBF's representative in Cambodia, Dr
Heike Loschmann, says the project is aimed at boosting nuns' self-confidence,
knowledge and skills.
Nuns would be encouraged to branch out into areas
such as mental health counseling for children and women, and participate in
nutrition, sanitation, education, contraception, family and anti-Aids community
Training nuns in "the Buddhist ways" would be an important
component of the project.
"Our vision was that Buddhism could not only
help the weak and the poor to help themselves, but also provide a basic value
system of morals and ethics," Loschmann says.
HBF recently organized a
seminar in Phnom Penh on the role of Don Chees and lay women in the
reconciliation of Cambodia, attended by nuns from around the country as well as
One who attended the conference was Cambodian-born and former
French nun Sokchom Charuwana, who has returned to her homeland to work with
Charuwana has established the Nuns' Association for Cambodian
Development in Battambang. The organization, sponsored by French and American
donors, operates out of Wat Slaket in Battambang.
Charuwana is now
seeking funds to build nunneries and centers in other provinces to train nuns in
fields such as community health.
Charuwana, 62, left Cambodia for
Singapore in 1972. She moved to France in 1975, where she became a nun in 1983.
She traveled to Sri Lanka to become a Buddhist nun in 1987, before returning to
Cambodia in 1992.
She sees her organization's role as to instill dhamma
(Buddhist virtues and principles) in poor women and children, because "as they
learn dhamma, they learn how to relieve their problems".
Nuns, she says,
are not considered equal to monks. For instance, monks get 10 years of Buddhist
education, while nuns get no training or certification.
saying that she is not angry at the inequality, hopes that nuns and monks will
one day be considered as equals.
Some monks are opposed to that idea, she
says, because they consider it goes against the long tradition of Buddhism in
But others, such as her mentor the Venerable Moharacha Bourkry,
one of the country's highest-ranking monks, are supportive.
says the low status of nuns is not peculiar to Cambodia, but exists in other
countries such as Burma, Laos and Sri Lanka.
One reason why Cambodian
nuns are sometimes disparaged is that some frequently wander the streets
Charuwana says instilling Buddhist training and beliefs in nuns,
to ensure that all behaved appropriately, was a key way to boost public
acceptance of them.
But she says it is only a small minority who spoil
the image of the majority of nuns who are keen to contribute to improving the
lives of Cambodians.
There are believed to be about 4000 nuns in Cambodia
- the exact number is unknown - but that could soon rise dramatically if
attempts to widen their social role and status are successful.
than 60 percent of Cambodia's adult population estimated to be women aged over
35, many of them single or widows, advocates of change say there is a ready
supply of potential recruits to help take the sisterhood into a new era.