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Nuns seen as ideal teachers of society

Nuns seen as ideal teachers of society

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.

Several local

and foreign NGOs are pushing for greater equality, status and responsibility for

nuns, though they face opposition from monks with more conventional

views.

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.

Generally, women

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

family-oriented life.

The main duties of nuns are cooking for monks,

cleaning and decorating pagodas and often helping to care for orphans.

A

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

programs.

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

overseas.

One who attended the conference was Cambodian-born and former

French nun Sokchom Charuwana, who has returned to her homeland to work with

nuns.

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.

Charuwana, while

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

Cambodia.

But others, such as her mentor the Venerable Moharacha Bourkry,

one of the country's highest-ranking monks, are supportive.

Charuwana

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

begging.

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.

With more

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.

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