Chan Sobunvy (centre) with 2 nuns | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne - Photo: 2013

Cambodia: Buddhist Nuns Crucial To Community

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsFeature

UDONG (IDN) – “When the war ended I had lost all my family. I was alone. I came here 27 years ago and I have found happiness now,” says 71 year old Sentcheant, one of ten nuns spending their old age together in this Buddhist nunnery, only one of two such places in Cambodia.

The Cambodian Khmer people have a proud Buddhist heritage going back to the 5th century, which is epitomized by the ancient Buddhist monuments of Ankor Wat. Even here in Udong, which is a 18th century Khmer capital city (about two hours’ drive from Phnom Penh), some 101 temples have been built by the kings.

“Our kings built temples to preserve our culture, save Buddhism and our Khmer language,” said Chan Sobunvy, secretary general of the Association of Nuns and Laywomen of Cambodia (ANLWC).

This rich Buddhist Khmer heritage most Cambodians are very proud of today was all but destroyed during the communist Khmer Rouge rule under Pol Pot. Thousands of Buddhist monks were killed and temples destroyed. But, since the UN supervised elections in 1993, there’s been a revival of Buddhism here.

Yet, Sobunvy laments that Buddhism needs to transform itself from being too ritualistic to applying its teachings to improve the society, especially its moral and ethical standards.

With the current state of the country, where the government is accused of land grabbing to benefit its business cronies, a revitalised opposition claiming electoral fraud and refusing to take their seats in parliament and unruly mobs attacking state property in protest, the social fabric in this Buddhist kingdom is under intense pressure.

“Yes, there is a revival of Buddhism here,” Sobunvy told IDN-InDepth News, “but, it cannot just be nationalistic, attention must be placed on the Buddhist philosophy and it needs to be practiced, especially to stem the violence in today’s society.”

The ANLWC was formed in 1995 with the financial assistance of a German Foundation to train women to be agents of social change. It initially had 7000 members in 13 provinces that were trained to become agents of social change.


In an email interview with IDN from Colombo, Dr Hem Goonatileka, an UNIFEM Gender for Development Expert from Sri Lanka, who initially managed the project said that what was at stake was not a gender issue, but, an issue of education of women.

“Many nuns had no education at all (so) we started from scratch reading and writing – they picked up fast – some of them knew their dhamma (Buddhist teachings) so well to teach others” she  explained.

The government at the time was transforming from communists to Buddhists and they limited the number of monks in temples. “After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, women returned to the community and started to help rebuild temples (because) there were very few men left in the community,” recalls Sobunvy. “The monks were not teaching the women Buddhism. They just let them come there, give them food and bless them”.

There were a lot of social problems at the time such as alcoholism, domestic violence, revenge attacks, and fast economic growth creating unsustainable expectations. The ANLWC decided to train a group of old women as nuns to act as counselors to young people, to tackle these social ills using Buddhist principles.

“Most monks don’t have life experience (as they haven’t married and raised families), but, nuns do have that. So they can become good counselors to school children, especially girls,” noted Sobunvy.

In 1996, local NGO RACHA also joined the fray, with the help of a USAID grant to set up the “Wat (Temple) Grannies” program. They selected 6 to 8 nuns from each village and trained them to spread health messages, such as breast-feeding, pregnancy and controlling diarrhea. Each was allocated 40-50 homes to spread the message.

Dr Chan Ketsana, RACHA’s Health Director explained in an interview with IDN that many of the “Wat Grannies” have now given up due to old age and they have trained their daughters or grand daughters to carry on the work.

“The older women we trained originally were not very well educated, (but) the younger ones are better educated today,” she pointed out. “When they are younger they have better knowledge but not the respect.”

Young ones not always available

Dr Ketsana also noted that the older women were more committed to the work, but the young ones have their own businesses to earn a living and hence are not sometimes available to do this volunteer work. “Young ones however can read and write and remember messages,” she added.

The movement towards making use of nuns to provide guidance, health and nutrition education to other women in the community, especially in the rural areas has somewhat stalled. With Cambodia’s economy growing, young people have more opportunities today.

But, Sobunvy argues that there is much conflict in the community, not only political, but also increasing incidents of domestic violence. She says that they have been fighting for gender equality in the country for more than 10 years, citing the example of the land ownership of the nunnery here. They are not allowed to transfer ownership to ANLWC because it cannot be categorized as a temple. Monks need to live there for such categorization.

During her stay in Cambodia Dr Goonatileka observed that nuns are not supported by the community, the way monks are. Perhaps after all there is a gender issue here, she admits. “(Projects to help nuns) were getting too dependent on foreign donors. Only if the community helps the nuns (with food etc) can such schemes succeed.”

Cambodia is today believed to be 95 percent Buddhist. Sobunvy argues that there is a need to practice the essence of Buddha’s teachings. “This government does not really practice the Buddhist philosophy. They allow bars and night clubs to spread everywhere, even near temples,” she complains. “People don’t respect the teachings. If they do there should not be conflicts everywhere.”

“We need to educate Cambodians about the Buddhist philosophy. If they understand that Cambodia can be a peaceful country,” she argues, “women can play this role if the government is willing to give a helping hand.” [IDN-InDepthNews – October 15, 2013]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Photo: Chan Sobunvy (centre) with 2 nuns | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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