March 06, 2013

How Buddhist Nuns Are Fighting Human Trafficking in Nepal

An Interview with Ven. Dhamma Vijaya

The following interview was previously published at Stories Untold: Interviews and Synthesis by Erik Campano on Patheos.com, and is adapted here with permission.


Recently Patheos has been putting the spotlight on American evangelical Christians’ efforts to fight human trafficking, as well as the critique from some academics that these efforts amount to the wrongful imposition of Protestant values on “rescued victims” (in quotes because both are controversial terms). There deserves to be, however, a broader range of conversations about trafficking that widens the lens beyond American Christian anti-trafficking work to include efforts in other countries undertaken by other faith traditions.

DhammaMoli is a small Buddhist community in Nepal that provides shelter and education to young local girls at risk of falling victim to human traffickers who might sell them to brothels in India and elsewhere. The organization was founded by two Theravada Buddhist nuns, the Venerable DhammaVijaya and the Venerable Molini (hence, “DhammaMoli”), both of whom received PhDs from Madagh University in Bihar, in northeast India. Theravada Buddhism is the most prominent school in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, but is only one of many Buddhist traditions found in Nepal, a country in which Hinduism and Buddhism famously coexist in unique ways. DhammaMoli is funded, in part, by a sister-organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Sister DhammaVijaya was generous enough to grant me an interview from Kathmandu to New York—not an easy task, given that communications technology at DhammaMoli is rather limited. The talented Nepali-English interpreter Suman Kansakar helped out. By speaking with Sister DhammaVijaya, I hoped to not only highlight the two nuns’ work but also to begin considering the ethical questions that are raised by an anti-trafficking approach based in a religious tradition.

—Erik Campano

Can you go into detail about how your personal spiritual practice motivates your work at Dhammamoli? In our practice, mindfulness is the main point, and that is how we have the confidence to tackle any situation carefully and appropriately. We have no experience of motherhood, but we try our best to raise the girls with love and kindness. This is the main part of Buddhism. And we teach them Buddhist songs and meditation. They try to learn very happily and with great interest. I find the girls are very happy and satisfied at DhammaMoli.

What Buddhist thought instructs you to run a project aimed at helping stop human trafficking? We were first exposed to the devastation brought upon young girls by trafficking during our visit to Cambodia. We were invited to pray and provide teachings to HIV-infected girls in a rehabilitation center. After we came back to Nepal, we read the news of 2500 or so Nepalese girls returning from India with Hepatitis-B and HIV, and staying at an NGO called Maiti Nepal [a non-faith-based anti-trafficking organization in Kathmandu]. I, along with Sister Molini, went to visit them at the Maiti Nepal center, and we were very touched by the plight of these young girls, who seemed to have resigned themselves to fate. The inspiration to start DhammaMoli came to us after this visit.

As for which Buddhist ideas instruct us to run a social project like DhammaMoli, it is very difficult to explain in brief. The fundamental discourse of Buddhism is lovingkindness for all living beings—even your enemies. In short, Buddha said that one should try, in whatever capacity one can, to help others—and more so, those who cannot take care of themselves. Even if you are able to save one life, that counts towards your achievement of nirvana.

What precisely does it mean that the girls are brought up in a “Buddhist monastic environment?” How much Buddhist doctrine and ritual do they practice while they are there? When we started DhammaMoli, the condition of village girls in our country was very bad. We saw newspaper headlines about girls disappearing all the time from remote areas of Nepal. So we decided that we would help such girls according to Buddhist teachings. We started with four girls, at an average age of 6 years, from different remote regions of Nepal. We first taught them the following:

•    Nepali, the national language. This is because there are many ethnic languages in Nepal, and Nepali is the common language across the country.
•    To be neat and clean
•    Monastic rules, regulations, and discipline
•    Buddhist theory and practice
•    After that, we sent them to a public school.

Can you tell us more about the monastic rules and discipline? For example, do the girls meditate every day? How long? They wake up to do a 15-minute meditation, clean, study, go to school, and chant and meditate again later in the day.

Nepal is both a Hindu and Buddhist country, and the two religions mix together quite thoroughly there. How is Hinduism is incorporated into the life of the girls at Dhammamoli? How have parents reacted to the religious aspect of the education there? Yes, Nepal is both a Hindu and Buddhist country. There is no influence from Hinduism in the life of girls in DhammaMoli. As they are all from remote areas of Nepal, their parents are poor and uneducated, and they don’t interfere regarding the religion. They are happy to see their children at DhammaMoli, in a clean environment and going to school. It is with their parents’ permission that the girls come to DhammaMoli.

Do the parents get to visit? How do they react to it? Yes, there are no restrictions on parents or relatives visiting the girls. We just ask that they visit them during the holidays or during free time. Some of the girls don’t have parents, so uncles and aunts come to visit. There is one girl from Lumbini whose mother always comes to meet us to check on her well being when we visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. During our last visit, she requested that she wants to see her daughter, but she couldn’t herself come to Kathmandu. So we arranged to send her daughter to her mother’s place for few days’ visit.

When you are going to villages to scan for at-risk girls, what indicators do you look for? Is it usually the parents who say, “Here, my daughter is in a dangerous situation, please take her,” or is it more that you have to identify by yourselves who is at risk, and then ask the parents if you can take the child? We visit villages frequently, and we ask the girls how they are living and what the problems are there, often due to poverty and illiteracy. When they see us and meet us, they are happy to find that girls can also be educated, go to school, and learn new things. After the girls have shown interest, we visit their the parents and tell them about our shelter program in Kathmandu. Then the parents decide to send their daughters to stay at DhammaMoli, so that they can escape dangerous situations that arise out of poverty, such as getting married off at an early age, or being sent to cities or to India for employment, which is how most girls are tricked into prostitution.

What might the girls do when they leave DhammaMoli? The girls are still in primary and middle school, so they have not yet graduated. Once they finish high school, we will honor their wishes at that time. They are welcome to stay at the Vihara or return back to their family. The girls are already learning English at our school, and we believe that education, along with Buddhist teachings, will give them the ability to make the right decision for themselves. This is something that they would not have acquired if they had been in their village.

How do the girls react when they leave home and are brought to Dhammamoli? Most of the girls who have come to DhammaMoli are young. They don’t know about anything. They are shy and quiet. They don’t know of the variety of food available, as they have grown up with only rice and lentil soup as their daily staple. They have not seen different kinds of vegetables, fruits, juices, and so forth. One of them didn’t know what a mango was; she was scared to eat one for the first time.

Do you know of other Buddhist organizations working to fight human trafficking? We believe that there are many Buddhist organizations fighting human trafficking, but we do not know of them specifically.

A lot of trafficking originates or ends in prominently Buddhist countries (Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, etc.). Is there something in Buddhism—not necessarily in theory, but perhaps in the way it is practiced—that enables sex trafficking, or that tacitly permits it to occur? We have travelled in many Southeast Asian countries where trafficking of girls is prevalent, and we feel that there are multiple reasons why this problem is there. The main reason is poverty, followed by illiteracy. Also, all of these countries are male-dominated societies, and a girl child is valued less, as she is seen as a burden.▼

In terms of the academic critique of US anti-trafficking efforts, certain feminist and queer theorists say that anti-trafficking organizations wrongly assume what’s best for the women and girls that they “save.” Other academics worry about certain NGOs exploiting the vulnerabilities of trafficking victims to proselytize for Christianity, denying their cultural heritage.

Here are some questions to consider:

To be intellectually consistent, must these academics say the same things about DhammaMoli? Is it wrong for these Nepalese girls to be brought to a safe place and then taught Buddhism from a young age?

What about the fact that DhammaMoli doesn’t expose the girls to other Nepalese religious traditions (Hinduism, Islam, indigenous practices, Christianity)? Does this constitute a similar denial of cultural heritage? When precisely do anti-trafficking efforts impose religion, cultural hegemony, heteronormativity or imposed “family values”—if ever?

What is the moral difference between an American Christian bringing an at-risk girl to a church and teaching her Christianity, and a Buddhist nun bringing her to a vihara and teaching her Buddhism?


Erik Campano is Associate Editor at Patheos.com, where his blog, Stories Untold, explores issues of faith and non-faith through interviews and syntheses of diverging opinions. He has anchored and reported world and local news for National Public Radio's All Things Considered at WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut, WNYC Radio in New York City, Radio France Internationale, and German Public Broadcasting.

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