A Buddhist Perspective on Women’s Liberation

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kisa Gotami asks the Buddha to heal her dead son.

This winter, BGR chair Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi spent two months in India. During this time he was invited to give the keynote address at a conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation,” held in Bodhgaya on January 30 and 31, 2019, under the auspices of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Here is a lightly edited version of his address.

Obstacles to Women’s Freedom

When we speak of “women’s liberation,” we first have to determine what women are to be liberated from. What are the obstacles to their freedom? Perhaps the most pervasive—and the most subtly disempowering—is the limitation placed on the opportunities available to women for personal expression and achievement. In traditional cultures, and even in the West today, these limitations are considered almost intrinsic to the social order. An unspoken consensus prevails that casts women into stereotyped roles that severely hamper their freedom to realize their creative potentials.

Women are seen assigned by nature to be wives and mothers. They are caretakers of the family whose role in life is exhausted by the tasks of finding a good husband, bearing children, and maintaining the household. If women do get the chance to take up a career, the general view holds that they should serve in the caring professions—as nurses, teachers, or social workers—but beyond these, when it comes to the more demanding professions and positions of social leadership, the gates are largely closed against them.

Today, however, through the impact of the modern ideal of human equality, women are entering almost all the spheres of activity traditionally considered the exclusive prerogative of men. They have excelled as doctors and lawyers, as corporate executives, as scientists and engineers; they have even served in government and become heads of state. Nevertheless, while women have risen to the top, the openings available to them have been much fewer than for men, and the requirements imposed on them to climb the ladder of success are much steeper and more rigorous. In many countries, women are condemned to work at menial jobs, often monotonous, arduous, and dangerous. They work for lower pay than their male counterparts who perform the same work, and yet they receive fewer benefits.

Apart from vocational limitations, women face other obstacles to full liberation. For one thing, women are disproportionately subject to physical violence, with few outlets open to them to seek redress for their grievances. Physical violence is common at the home front, and can even result in the death of a wife and daughters. In India, a wife who disappoints her in-laws—usually because her dowry is considered insufficient—may be killed by them or driven to such despair that she resorts to suicide. A 1997 report claimed that at least 5000 women die each year in India because of dowry conflicts and at least a dozen die each day in so called “kitchen fires” thought to be intentional. Domestic legislation has been passed to prevent bride-burning, but it is seldom adequately enforced.

Women in poor countries often fall victim to human trafficking. They are given over to traffickers, shipped from their home country to other countries (usually under false pretexts), and there they are compelled to perform degrading work, including prostitution. According to the UN Report on Human Trafficking (2009), the most common form of human trafficking (79%) is sexual exploitation, predominantly of women and girls. Surprisingly, women make up the largest proportion of trafficking agents.

Still another transgression against women is sexual harassment, which again has multiple expressions, from sexual pressures at work to taunts and insults relating to sex. The extreme manifestation of sexual harassment is rape, yet in the current social milieu, even in the advanced Western countries, it is very hard for women to report rape to the authorities. If their claims of rape are not rudely dismissed as implausible, the women are regarded as temptresses who brought the rape upon themselves through their own provocative behavior.

One example of how victims of rape are humiliated or discredited was highly publicized in the U.S. this past fall. President Trump had nominated a judge named Brett Kavanaugh to fill an empty seat on the Supreme Court. Just as he was about to be confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee a woman named Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology, alleged that when they were in high school, Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her at a party. Although she gave extremely convincing testimony at a Senate hearing, even stating that she was “100 percent certain” that the boy who tried to rape her was Brett Kavanaugh (which would have disqualified him for the position), the Republican senators on the committee came to his defense and tried to discredit her testimony. In the end, the Senators dismissed her testimony–and that of other women who reported sexually inappropriate behavior on his part–and confirmed Kavanaugh to the Court.

When such moving testimony is rejected, we can easily imagine the ordeals an ordinary woman must face in reporting sexual abuse by a person of power and stature. Nevertheless, over the past several years, a movement has gained ground in the U.S. (with offshoots in other countries) called “Me Too,” whereby women report how they were sexually abused or exploited by powerful men. In a number of cases, their revelations have brought to an end the careers of the men who abused them.

Steps toward the Liberation of Women

I would propose four key measures as means to promote the liberation of women. These are not exhaustive, but I would consider them essential to any program of women’s liberation.

(1) The first is opening up opportunities for girls to receive an education. This is especially necessary in traditional societies where it is believed that girls do not need to attend school because their destiny is to become mere wives and mothers. Ten years ago, together with some of my students and friends, I founded an organization called Buddhist Global Relief, whose mission is to combat global poverty and hunger. One of our key strategies is to support the education of girls, and we have projects like this in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, India, and Nicaragua.

In India, BGR partners with the Bodhicitta Foundation, an organization based in Nagpur founded by an Australian Buddhist nun, Ayya Yeshe. The Foundation runs three-year programs that train 30 girls and young women at a time from the Dalit community for degrees in social work, health care, education, and nursing. Their training also includes courses in women’s health and economic issues.

One girl in the current program is named Sonali, aged 15. Her father abandoned the family when she was an infant and her mother became a sex worker to support the family. The mother contracted AIDS and died by the time Sonali was 10. She and her sister were passed from family to family, working all day just to sustain themselves. Sonali heard about Bodhicitta and was accepted into the program. Now, she says, “for the first time since my mother died, I feel I have a home where I am loved and supported and not alone.” When she finishes high school, Sonali intends to study global politics and gender studies at university. She says, “Gender inequality literally kills women.… I think women have to stand up for their rights and education and proper paying jobs. If my mother had been educated and found a proper job, she would not be dead now.”

Many of the poor girls in economically backward countries have, I believe, untapped potentials. If these girls were properly educated, I think it likely that at least a few would be capable of making valuable contributions to society—as teachers, social workers, and even community leaders. But sadly, their lives are wasted because they don’t get the chance to go to school—to a good school that could cultivate their latent talents.

(2) A second measure is providing women legal protection from violence and sexual harassment in all its forms. In particular, attitudes toward rape have to change. The legal system has to recognize the disastrous impact rape—including “marital rape”—has on a woman’s self-esteem. A woman’s accusations of rape have to be taken seriously, with sympathy and understanding. This is a difficult hurdle to overcome, since those who administer the law—the police and judges—are usually males who tend to side with the accused rather than with the women making the accusation.

One practical way to deal with this problem would be to establish legal agencies (run either by the government or privately managed) that can serve as intermediaries between the women who feel violated and the civil authorities, the police and the courts. Such agencies exist in Western countries, but more are needed in other countries as well. These agencies would be staffed by legal professionals, preferably women, who would hear the complaints of the women and represent them in their interactions with the police and in court. The police department too should include a bureau specializing in rape cases, again made up primarily of women. They would be charged with investigating the charges to determine whether they merit prosecution.

(3) A third measure to liberate women from subordinate positions in society would be quotas for female representation in business, government service, and political administration. The quotas would ensure that women are admitted to positions of responsibility, and as they gain increasing visibility and authority, they would guarantee that in the future more women gain the opportunity to rise.

(4) As a fourth measure, liberating women from the liabilities to which they are subject will require far-reaching changes in social customs, and this in turn requires a change in perceptions–a radical shift away from traditional attitudes that demean women and ascribe a lower value to their lives. We need to make a complete turn away from deeply entrenched patriarchal models that give pride of place to men, replacing them with models founded upon the equality of the sexes. A minimal step in this direction would be implementing “gender sensitivity training” at the workplace and in schools. This training gives women the opportunity to express their feelings about inappropriate conduct on the part of men and to teach men the proper ways to relate to women.

The liberation of women in all spheres–secular and spiritual–requires above all a deep recognition of their inherent dignity, an honoring of their full humanity. As far back as 1869, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in the opening paragraph of his tract, On the Subjection of Women:

An opinion which I have held from the very earliest period … is that the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

This claim by J.S. Mill has still not been fully implemented. If a “principle of perfect equality” were to be adopted, women would enjoy equal rights at the workplace, including equal pay with males. They would be recognized as equal partners in marriage, with the right to determine whether and when they will bear children. They would be granted the full range of health care options, particularly the right to contraception so they can regulate their own reproduction. And their complaints of sexual misconduct to legal and business authorities would be recognized and properly investigated.

Buddhism and Women’s Liberation

When we turn from the secular sphere to Buddhism, we find that its record with regard to women’s liberation is a mixed one. On the one hand, the Buddha accorded extraordinary respect to women and recognized their potentials in both mundane life and the spiritual domain. In the Sigalovāda Sutta, for example, he describes the marital bond in ways that recognize the wife as a full and free partner in the relationship. Elsewhere he describes the ideal marriage as one in which both husband and wife observe the precepts, practice generosity, and revere ascetics (Aṅguttara Nikāya 4:54). With a great deal of hesitation, he sanctioned the creation of a monastic order for women, the Bhikkhuni Sangha, and he included women in his list of pre-eminent disciples.

Yet the Buddhist texts–including the suttas–contain passages that demean women and devalue their moral and spiritual capacities. For instance, Aṅguttara Nikāya 5:229 says: “Women are like a black snake–they are impure, foul-smelling, frightening, dangerous, and they betray friends.” Again we read in Aṅguttara Nikāya 2:61: “Women die unsatisfied and discontent in two things. What two? Sexual intercourse and giving birth.” The Jātaka stories go even further in representing women as obsessed by insatiable lust, even willing to plot against their husbands to satisfy their craving.

Sexual desire of course is a universal human trait, and thus women are not exempt from it; none are born as arahants. Still, the questions might be raised: “Which gender is responsible for the multi-billion dollar pornography industry, males or females? Which gender keeps the brothels in business? Which gender is most likely to engage in rape and sexual violence?” The answers, I think, are obvious.

In establishing the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Buddha did not set it up in a position of complete equality with the Bhikkhu Sangha, which would have been unthinkable in the social milieu in which he lived. As we know, he subordinated it in various ways to the Bhikkhu Sangha. Bhikkhunis, for example, must be ordained by both communities, while bhikkhus need be ordained only by bhikkhus. A senior bhikkhuni must pay homage even to a newly ordained bhikkhu. A bhikkhuni cannot reproach a bhikkhu, while a bhikkhu can reproach a bhikkhuni. In the texts, the Buddha is seen to predict that the going forth of women will cause the life span of the good Dhamma to be cut in half—a statement that has been partly responsible for the negative perception many monks hold about the revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.

This development has been a divisive issue over which a reigning conservatism among the prelates in the Sangha has become a major stumbling block to the highest spiritual liberation of women. Their objections, contrary to a common misconception, are usually not based on prejudice against women but on a narrow way of interpreting the rules governing ordination. Yet a more liberal mode of interpretation is possible and has been adopted by a number of learned monks both in Asia and the West. However, in my view, for Buddhism to become a full advocate of women’s liberation, it is not enough for small groups of open-minded monks to hold bhikkhuni ordinations on the sidelines. It is further necessary, in the heartlands of Buddhism, to have the status of bhikkhuni recognized by the Sangha authorities and, where relevant, officially endorsed by the government.

Of course, tradition too has a strong claim on our allegiance and we should not discard it in haste. Without the strength and conserving force of tradition, much that is central to the Dhamma could be diluted or lost. What must be done is to strike a healthy balance between the preservation of ancient forms and adaptation to present realities. If we hasten to innovate and neglect tradition, we might lose our anchorage in the continuous heritage of Buddhism. But if we let a rigid conservatism have the final word, we might fail to realize the Dhamma’s liberating potential for everyone, women as well as men.

A Change in Values

The present age has seen the emergence of a greater awareness of the uniqueness of the feminine and a call for the contribution of feminine voices—voices which have been subdued if not entirely suppressed in traditional Buddhist cultures. I personally believe that for Buddhism to thrive and realize its potential, it needs to be nourished, enriched, and renewed by feminine perspectives, to give space to feminine voices, especially on such crucial matters as social justice and care for the natural environment. The values at the heart of the Dhamma resonate well with the feminine point of view. Thus, I feel, these values should be clearly articulated and embodied in our Buddhist communities.

Beyond specific application to Buddhism, I would say that the full liberation of women in all spheres of life is critical to the survival of human civilization. From the dawn of history down to the present, the primary driving forces of civilization have been male attitudes, male values, male activities. I believe that the unchecked dominance of masculine values has been pushing humanity close to the edge of self-annihilation. To draw us back from the precipice, we need to listen to women.

Generalizations are always dangerous, but I would posit three values, deeply rooted in the masculine mind, that have largely determined the course of human history. These are conquest, competition, and extraction. The urge to conquer and subdue others has generated a culture of militarism and war. In the 17th through 19th centuries, this attitude culminated in colonialism, by which the countries of Europe divided up the lands of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, taking their resources to enhance their own wealth. In the last century the glorification of military might exploded in two world wars and a long cold war, and today can be seen in the many smaller conflicts dotting the globe.

Competition has led to the rise of a harsh economic system–corporate capitalism–in which the claims of human sympathy are pushed aside in favor of the brute struggle for economic dominance. In this system all value is reduced to monetary value, all virtues are downplayed in favor of wealth and ambition. As a result we see multinational corporations exercising control through a post-colonial type of imperialism. The capitalist economic system also leads to vast gaps in wealth between a small, extremely rich elite and everyone else, pushing almost a billion people close to the edge of survival.

The attitude of extraction governs humanity’s relationship with the natural world. We regard nature as little more than a source of materials for production and consumption, and thus we seek to exploit its forces in compliance with commercial motives. One consequence of this is the climate crisis, by which we are pushing the planet’s ecological boundaries beyond the point where they can sustain higher forms of life, including human life. If we continue along this trajectory—and we are foolishly doing so—we may decimate the geophysical systems on which human life depends. Already scientists predict that if it is not checked, intensified climate change will cause catastrophes on a scale far beyond our adaptive capacities.

In contrast to these masculine attitudes, I believe the future of life on earth requires a shift toward more feminine values. I will enumerate these as threefold, as correctives to the extreme masculine values. In place of conquest, we need to adopt a spirit of collaboration in promoting a culture of peace and mutual understanding between peoples of different nations, races, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. In place of competition, we need cooperation in building a society governed by more egalitarian ideals, a society that provides everyone with their essential needs–food, health care, education, meaningful work, and other basic social services. And in place of the extractive exploitation of nature’s abundant resources, we need an attitude of respect for nature and a sustainable economy, leading to the emergence of a culture marked by a deep appreciation for the awe-inspiring, irreplaceable wonders of the natural world. It is in promoting and actualizing these life-affirming values that I believe women can make an indispensable contribution to our shared human future. The liberation of women will not only free women from long-standing constraints. It will be, indeed, a double liberation, freeing men as well from their blind spots and self-destructive impulses.


The Politics of Happiness: An Essay on the Global Happiness Conference

By Randy Rosenthal

A recent UN report ranks nations by way of their quota of happiness, utilizing a complex set of metrics. But can happiness actually be quantified? Several glitches in the ratings suggest any such effort, while revealing in some respects, will always be far from perfect.

The top 20 happiest countries (World Happiness Report 2019)

On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the United Nations released the World Happiness Report. This includes an annual ranking of the happiest countries in the world, along with several essays about the relationship between government policy and individual happiness. A few weeks later, on April 13, the editor of the report, John F. Helliwell, participated in a panel at the Global Happiness Conference, held at Harvard Divinity School, and which I attended.

Any discussion of Global Happiness or the World Happiness Report usually includes at least a mention of Bhutan, whose former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, invented the term Gross National Happiness (GNH), as an alternative measurement to GDP. Since then, GNH has been a new paradigm of progress and development in Bhutan. “Happiness is a place,” has become Bhutan’s motto, and the nation’s tourist department describes the Bhutanese as the happiest people in the world. Unsurprisingly, several Bhutanese nationals planned and participated in the Global Happiness Conference. The morning’s Keynote address was given by Madam Doma Tshering, the ambassador of Bhutan to the UN. In the speech, she clarified that the purpose of the conference was “to exchange views on how happiness can shape a better world.”

In the texts of Early Buddhism, the words hita and sukha, “welfare” and “happiness,” are often joined together, and so it’s interesting to look at the relationship between government welfare programs and individual happiness. For instance, one of the most illuminating aspects of Madam Tshering’s speech was the concrete policy measures the Bhutanese government takes to deliberately create the conditions for happiness to arise. It’s a movement that goes back centuries, at least to Bhutan’s 1729 legal code, which states “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no reason for the government to exist.” But the idea also has a history here, too; even Robert Kennedy said that GDP “measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

And what is it that makes life worthwhile? That is, what is happiness? Well, the Bhutanese government, along with the diverse range of panelists who participated in the conference, seem to have determined that happiness is not only quantifiable, but can be implemented as government policy.

Bhutan focuses on nine domains to increase GNH, and while some of these—such as health, shelter, a clean environment, and good governance—are found across the world, the list includes four unique and innovative domains of focus that the Bhutanese feel specifically cultivate happiness: community vitality (that is, the depth and quality of relationships); cultural diversity, which creates a strong sense of identity; psychological well-being, which is a manifestation of spiritual fulfillment (and thus religious practices; Buddhism, in the case of Bhutan); and finally, time use.

Time use? Yes, this is actually the most acute technique of the nine, according to panelist Dasho Karma Tshiteem, Chairman of the Bhutanese Royal Civil Service Commission and previous Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission. Tshiteem said there is actually a recipe for happiness: “When you align the use of your time with what you care about.” In Bhutan, the GNH office is actually feared, kind of like the IRS in the States, because they really grill citizens. They ask people what they most value, and a popular answer is spending time with family. But then when asked how they actually spend their time, many people respond they are on Facebook and social media. This, Tshiteem said, is “a recipe for unhappiness,” as time spent is not aligned with what they value. (I couldn’t help but think that many people I know spend time on social media in order to connect with their families, so perhaps this isn’t the best example.)

It should be noted that Bhutan’s approach to GNH as an alternative policy of development can be contextualized with what is called “Buddhist economics.” According to panelist Wolfgang Dreschler, of Tallinn’s University of Technology, Buddhist economics “is based on the idea that happiness is not based on getting what you want, but managing your wants.” That is, minimizing your wants. It sounds wise, but this actually means the system is not as transferable as we might think. Buddhist economics is inherently Buddhist, so trying to transfer it to Western countries might be as feasible as trying to transfer Western democratic models to countries without a tradition of democracy; it doesn’t really work. Yet while we can’t transfer it, Dreschler says, we can learn from it.

As he’s been working in the field perhaps longer than anyone else, WHR editor John Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia, had several illuminating things to say about what makes a country happy—or unhappy. For instance, he said, to live in a country with great inequality makes you less happy, even if you benefit from that inequality. That’s likely why the US ranked nineteenth in this year’s GHR, one place lower than last year—though not as low as other, more unequal countries, such as China (93rd) or Russia (68th).

In this year’s report, Finland was ranked the happiest country on earth, followed by Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. We can certainly credit Nordic happiness to the social democratic welfare state model; years ago I lived in Copenhagen, and witnessed how government assistance alleviated the strain of marriage and child-raising, allowed students to graduate debt-free, and everyone to have health care without breaking the bank. This is all very significant, for such programs eliminate the financial stress that suffocates happiness. But happiness goes deeper into the Scandinavian social fabric than that. For example, the conference took place on a Saturday morning, and Helliwell said that on a Saturday morning in Norway, people paint each other’s houses. That is, Norwegians “do things for each other, with each other.” And that makes people happy.

One panelist, Sophus Reinnert, of Harvard Business School, is Norwegian, and he didn’t disagree with Helliwell’s claim about painting the houses. But he admitted he was often baffled by Norway’s consistent high ranking in the WHR, because Norwegians are so darkly brooding. Hilariously, he shared that once the semester is over and he’d get to do what made him happy, he’d want to walk along a cold Scandinavian beach; the picture he showed his class to illustrate his desire, of a lone man in a gray coat walking on a snowy beach, was actually the third image that comes up when googling depression. His point is that happiness for one person can be very different from happiness for another. And to further nuance the issue, it can’t be ignored that Scandinavian countries also have a high rate of suicide. So how do we square that with them being ranked as the happiest people on earth?

Another wrench in the gears of the idea of happiness came from Arnaud Colley, who, in addition to being a motivational speaker, author, and “Chief Happiness Officer” for several luxury corporations, is French. “In France,” Colley said, “we are happy when we get together, put on yellow vests, and shout ‘We are not happy!’” While we can again say that what is happiness for one is different from what is happiness for another, a deeper response would be to look into the idea of happiness itself. Can shouting about one’s unhappiness actually be considered happiness? Just because we like to do something, even if it gives us pleasure, doesn’t necessarily mean it makes us happy.

And that brings us to another crucial factor, one that occurred to me when Helliwell mis-spoke; in a slip of the tongue, he meant to say, “we want welfare economics to be considered applied science, rather than something purely theoretical,” but instead of “theoretical” he said “a theology.” And to me, that’s actually a more accurate word to describe happiness studies, and the science of well-being: a theology. Like one’s spiritual beliefs and understanding of the divine—things that are unverifiable and unquantifiable—happiness is inherently subjective and highly mutable. And so I am very skeptical of efforts to quantify it, including reports that are based on such studies. The whole endeavor is similar to how evangelicals claim to be able to prove the existence of God; it’s a misconceived mission.

In the second panel of the conference, Arnaud Colley said he has two goals when consulting with corporations: “Bring joy; bring purpose.” This seems to be what we mean by the word happiness: joy and purpose. After all, as Bob Dylan once said, “anybody can be happy,” implying that happiness is a misconceived goal. Fulfillment and purpose are more important—for Dylan, fulfillment through artistic creation, a grueling act that many artists will admit makes them anything but happy.

With all this nuance in mind, it must be noted that, ironically, Bhutan ranked 95th on this year’s happiness index—despite being ranked fifth by their own metric. This poor ranking may be due to Bhutan’s Buddhist nationalism, which, like similar ideologies in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, has led to persecutions of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly ethnically Nepali citizens from south Bhutan. After protesting laws prohibiting their language, dress, and other expressions of their Hindu identity, they have been driven from the country. Several members of this community attended the conference, and a couple of them asked questions that made the Bhutanese moderators visibly uncomfortable. Bhutan has also criminalized homosexuality and an LGBTQ identity. Clearly, there is a discrepancy between theory and practice in the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth,” if not a faulty conceptual approach of looking at happiness in this way altogether.

Yet despite such complexity and my skepticism regarding Happiness Studies, there are certainly benefits in studying Bhutan’s focus on GNH, and these are policy goals that every government should prioritize, especially in developing nations. In fact, by having GNH as “the conscience of the nation,” as Ambassador Tshering said, Bhutan was able to lower infant mortality, raise literacy rates, reduce poverty, and increase per capita income. These material domains create the conditions for strong communities and relationships, which are, according to these emerging theories, the foundations for happiness.

Yet Dasho Karma Tshiteem said that because most people in Bhutan do not meditate—as they don’t in any country, Buddhist or not—the government is pursuing a policy of promoting meditation practice for its citizens. And this brings us to the most important point. Yes, it is good for governments to take responsibility by enacting policies that provide their citizens with the foundations for creating happiness, and yes, we should do things for people and with people. But ultimately, happiness is dependent on oneself, through purifying the defilements that cause unhappiness—greed, anger, delusion, craving. And this can only be done through meditation.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at bestbookediting.com.

Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab

By BGR Staff

Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope.

For over thirty years now, parts of Punjab have been stricken by a tragedy barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. A fatal combination of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring cost of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and the usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, have combined to make it impossible for them to sustain themselves on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.

Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet without any way of earning an income, the women left behind–sometimes older, sometimes quite young–are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children and sometimes elderly relatives as well.

Working under the aegis of the Kabliji Memorial Trust, Building Bridges India (BBI) is committed to empowering women whose husbands committed suicide because of their indebtedness, leaving them to repay mounting debts and support their families. Over the period October 2017 through September 2018, Buddhist Global Relief partnered with Building Bridges on two projects in the Sangrur district in the southern Punjab:

(I) a project to increase food production by introducing women to organic farming, which would improve their health and nutrition and increase their incomes; and

(II) a project to train women for long-term sustainability through handicraft and garment production.

Underlying both projects is BBI’s commitment to fostering women’s sense of efficacy, community, and ability to negotiate the challenges they encounter within their own families and in the broader society. Since BGR sees the empowerment of women as one of the most effective ways to rescue them from degrading poverty and chronic hunger, we were delighted to join hands with Building Bridges in sponsoring these projects.

I. Organic Farming Initiative

BBI’s organic farming initiative is designed to promote the use of organic farming techniques, increase the production of nutritious fruits and vegetables, and improve the health of women and their families. BBI has trained a total of 300 people at ten workshops on organic farming. The workshops were held on land adjoining gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in Makod Saab, Balran, Hamirgarh, Chotian, and Khokhar from October 2017 to August 2018. Most of the participants were from poor, landless, and small farmer backgrounds. Two professors from Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, Dr. Daljit Singh Khurana and Dr. V.K. Kaul, facilitated them.

The main objectives of the workshops were to teach women about the nutritional value of particular fruits and vegetables, introduce them to natural farming techniques, and involve them in educational hands-on activities. The target group was from the social strata that either never had the chance to attend school or dropped out because of their social circumstances. The project also nurtured the women’s capacity for self-reliance and identified some among them who could act as master trainers or drivers of change.

A workshop in October 2017 taught participants how and when to sow such winter vegetables as radish, spinach, peas, turnips, carrots, fenugreek, eggplant, and tomatoes. A workshop in April 2018 taught them to sow summer vegetables like beans, cucumber, pumpkin, okra, tomato, ridge gourd, and lemons. In March 2018 women were taught how to grow several varieties of fruit, including mangoes, apricots, papayas, melons, and watermelons.

A total of 45 women and men participated in three workshops conducted by Professor Kaul in November and December 2017. The professor taught the participants about simple, bio-efficient methods of growing oyster mushrooms. Of the 45 women who had participated in these workshops, a year later 20 had taken up mushroom cultivation in their homes, both for personal consumption and for sale on the market.

BBI organized workshops in producing pickles from vegetables that the women harvested in the winter, both to donate to the gurdwaras and to sell on the market. Over the past six months, approximately 25 women produced 100 pounds of pickle from winter vegetables. These women were each able to earn about Rs 2,000 after selling the vegetables and pickles the first time they tried this.

Health Awareness Workshop
To increase women’s understanding of their own bodies, particularly reproductive health, Sunita Gupta, a medical doctor, organized four workshops with a total of 100 women in four centers from July to August 2018. She provided women with information about contraception, personal hygiene, and ways to prevent and treat common infections. She also spoke to them about the causes of malnutrition and the importance of a balanced diet. The women who participated were able to ask questions and clarify common misconceptions.

In collaboration with Rajan Gupta Eye and Health Care Hospital in Tohana,BBI organized five day-long camps  in July and August 2018. The camps were held in Makod Sahib, Balran, Gaga, Hamirgarh, and Khokhar Bishanpura centers, and were open to all the women who participate in BBI centers. Over 250 people joined the camps. Most were diagnosed with eyesight-related problems for which they were treated with medications. Ten women underwent cataract surgery. The eye screening camp taught women about the importance of routine eye care and the causes of eye disease and blindness.

During the health camp in November 2017, participants’ blood was checked to determine their nutritional deficiencies. The tests revealed that most women had moderate to severe anemia, caused by malnutrition, particularly inadequate iron and vitamin A. BBI did a follow-up survey at the end of the project cycle in September 2018 and found that the incidence of anemia and malnutrition had declined. The women are now much better informed about the importance of a nutritious diet and they eat more vitamin-rich vegetables and place more value on their own health. These women look healthier and seem more energetic than they did in the past.

II. Capacity Building: Handicraft and Garment Production

This project aimed to develop economically marginalized women’s vocational skills and entrepreneurial abilities, with a focus on sewing, embroidery, and craft production. During the project period 100 women in Lehel Kalan, Balran, Chotian, Hamirgarh, and Mandvi were trained in basic sewing and embroidery. After providing them with basic skills, BBI identified a designer who could conduct the workshops and help the women reach a more upscale market. This was Ms. Shalini Saluja, a graduate from Pearl Fashion Academy in New Delhi. Ms. Saluja founded Indie Cotton, a successful boutique that collaborates with craftspeople from all over India to create exquisite handicrafts. Indie Cotton aspires to offer sustainable livelihoods to workers and thus make trade commercially viable for everyone involved.

A total of four design workshops were organized with 100 women in the Balran center from November 2017 to March 2018. Ms. Saluja and Ghazala Khan identified suitable designs for workshop participants, and instructed them on the threads and patterns required to do many different kinds of embroidery. The focus was on the revival of phulkari, a traditional hand embroidery from Punjab, and its adaptation to meet contemporary tastes. In addition, BBI decided to make home furnishing items like cushion covers, table mats, napkins, table runners, tablecloths, accessories, key chains, and stoles, using traditional hand embroidery and crochet.

The workshops were organized with 50 women in collaboration with a government institute, the Indian Technical Institute (ITI) Moonak, in June and August 2018. The main topics covered during the workshops were communication skills, the importance of group work, product design, pricing, quality standards, reliable product delivery, publicizing the goods, and learning about market demand. Participants acquired skills in functional and numerical literacy including learning about bank operations, basic accounting, and marketing skills.

Long Term Sustainability: Self-Assessment and Impact
BBI has regularly monitored and evaluated its programs to ensure that participants are from the most economically disadvantaged groups. Although they have made a particular effort to include women who have experienced a suicide within the family, they have included other women with pressing financial needs. BBI’s goals in the last phase of the BGR grant were to expand the scale of activities to include more people, provide them with additional skills, and enable the women who had been trained to become agents of change within their communities.

With respect to the organic farming initiative, over the past year, BBI has hired experts who have taught women new methods of cultivation and food storage. For example, women were able to produce more green vegetables than they could consume and learned how to dry and store them for use the following season. BBI organized health camps at regular intervals, which local government officials, doctors, and nurses attended. A survey found that the health of the women and their family members improved and the incidence of anemia and malnutrition declined. This was likely due to the organic farming initiative. With respect to garment and handicraft production, BBI hired a designer who has worked with women to improve the quality of their products and ensure greater consistency in the quality of their work. It forged a partnership with the ITI which developed women’s entrepreneurial skills.

As a result, trainees’ income has increased from around Rs 4,000 a month before the workshops began to about Rs 7,000 a month today. In addition to paid professionals, BBI selected 15 of the most enthusiastic participants to train other women in their villages in the skills they acquired.

The BBI report concludes by thanking Buddhist Global Relief for providing them with the resources they need to give opportunities and hope to destitute women. They write: “Our efforts would have been unimaginable without your support.”

 Voices from the Field
“I joined Balran Vocational Training Centre in July 2017 to get training in tailoring and embroidery. With this training I can now stitch clothes for my family and myself and I’ve been able to earn an income by selling my clothes on the market. I am thankful to Dr. Sunita and other experts for helping me understand my health and how it’s related to social issues. I hope they will continue to visit and provide support to young women like me.”
Kiranpal, Balran center, December 17, 2018

“I attend the activities at the center regularly and have learned so many new things there. My family is very poor and we need to learn how to increase our income by developing new skills.”
Sukhjinder Kaur, Lehel Kalan center, December 19, 2018

“I participated in the workshops on organic farming with Dr. Khurana and Prof. Kaul. I enjoy growing mushrooms and other vegetables. I learned so much from the workshops and want to continue to participate in them and in all the other activities at the center.”
Rani, Makod Sahib center, November 27, 2018

“I come from a very poor family and did not have any means of earning an income until I joined the center in August 2016. I learned to use a sewing machine to make clothes and do phulkari embroidery with different color combinations. Since receiving this training I’m earning enough money to pay for the school fees of my two younger siblings and contribute to household expenses.”
Jasveer Kaur, Balran center, November 26, 2018

“I joined the center to learn how to sew. After that I became interested in organic farming and participated in the workshops in October 2017. I’ve been able to grow vegetables to feed my family and to sell them for an income. Although our family is poor, our living conditions have improved since we became involved with these projects.”
Neetu Sharma, Hameergarh center, December 17, 2018

This post has been largely based on the final project report from Building Bridges India to Buddhist Global Relief for the period October 2017 to September 2018.

Hot Meals and Mentoring for Poor Kids in Mongolia

By BGR Staff

One-third of Mongolia’s population experiences extreme poverty and is unable to afford basic food and shelter. The Tibetan monk, Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, was determined to do something about this.

Born in Eastern Tibet in 1939 to nomadic parents, Ven. Rinpoche received full monastic ordination in 1961 under His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He completed his formal studies in India and was awarded the highest degree of Geshe Lharampa, equivalent to a Doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. In 1995, the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to go to Mongolia to teach Buddhism to the Mongolian people. After his arrival in Mongolia, he set about finding ways to overcome the high levels of poverty he encountered there. He established Asral NGO in 2001 with the objective of keeping families together and preventing children from going onto the streets. Asral is the Mongolian word for “care.”
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BGR Exceeds Its EWEC Target

By Tom Spies


In 2016  BGR made a commitment to the Every Woman Every Child initiative (EWEC) that it would help to advance EWEC’s global strategy through our projects.  Here is some background on EWEC:

Every Woman Every Child is a multi-stakeholder movement to implement the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, launched by the UN Secretary-General in September 2015 in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since its launch in 2010, Every Woman Every Child has mobilized hundreds of partners for maximum effect, with hundreds of organizations having made commitments to advance the Global Strategy. The partners include governments and policymakers, donor countries and philanthropic institutions, the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, civil society, the business community, health workers and their professional associations, and academic and research institutions.

BGR had committed to expending $1,600,000 over the 5 years from 2016 through 2020 towards programs to advance the EWEC goals, benefiting an estimated 16,000 individuals.  A few days ago we made an interim measure of our progress to date, and found that after 3 years we have already exceeded our 5-year commitment, expending $1,844,317 towards the EWEC goals, and benefiting an estimated 30,000 individuals.

This is an achievement truly worth celebrating. From this you should know that your donations are part of a worldwide movement helping to ensure the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents around the world. Thank you all for your compassionate concern in supporting this endeavor!

Tom Spies is Executive Director of Buddhist Global Relief.


Training Single Women in Cameroon

By BGR Staff

BGR has been supporting the Cameroon organization CCREAD (Centre for Community Regeneration and Development) since 2017 on projects that provide livelihood training to widows and single mothers. In 2018, through the grant given by BGR, CCREAD was able to establish a second tailoring and design training unit, which enabled the organization to conduct more training sessions and enroll 68 new women and girls into the program.

As of February 2019, 68 widows and single mothers are undergoing full-time training, spending three days per week on intensive practical sessions in smaller groups split from the main training hall. Thirty-eight of the current 68 women in this cycle of training had been displaced as a result of political crisis and are now being empowered at the training center. Each of those 38 displaced women came to the training with children below the age of 10. CCREAD is helping to feed these children at the training center while their mothers undergo training.
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‘Terrifying’: Rapid Loss of Biodiversity Placing Global Food Supplies at Risk of ‘Irreversible Collapse’

By Julia Conley,
Staff writer, Common Dreams

Deforestation for palm oil in central Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Image by Ardiles Rante / Greenpeace)

“This should be at the top of every news bulletin and every government’s agenda around the world.”

A groundbreaking report by the United Nations highlighting the rapid, widespread loss of many of the world’s plant and animal species should be on the front page of every newspaper in the world, argued climate action and food access advocates on Friday.

Go here for a concise summary of the 570 page report.

The global grassroots organization Slow Food was among the groups that called for far greater attention by world leaders to the “debilitating” loss of biodiversity and the disastrous effects the decline is having on food system, which was outlined in a first-of-its kind report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

“This should be at the top of every news bulletin and every government’s agenda around the world,” said Slow Food in a statement. “Time is running out, we must turn things around within the next 10 years or risk a total and irreversible collapse.”

According to FAO’s study of 91 countries around the world, the loss of thousands of plant and animal species is affecting air and water quality, tree and plant health, and worsening the spread of disease among livestock—all with dangerous implications for the human population and humans’ food sources.

“Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” said Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO’s director-general.

“Consider biodiversity as a global puzzle,” Switzerland’s secretary of state for agriculture, Bernard Lehmann, said Friday. “Losing too many pieces makes the picture incomplete. Thus, biodiversity loss for food and agriculture represents a big risk for food security.”

Along with the report, FAO shared a video on Youtube outlining the dire implications of biodiversity loss. “Today only nine crops account for 66 percent of total crop production,” the organization said. “Our forests are shrinking. As they disappear so do the plants, insects, and animals they host…Now is the time to act.”

According to FAO, at least 24 percent of nearly 4,000 wild food species, including plants, fish, and mammals, are declining in abundance—but the report is likely giving a best-case scenario of the crisis, as the status of more than half of wild food species is unknown.

Changes in land and water management, pollution, the warming of the globe and the climate crisis are among the factors that FAO is blaming for the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

Declining plant biodiversity on working farms has meant that out of 6,000 plant species that can be cultivated for food, fewer than 200 are used significantly as food sources. The report pointed to The Gambia as a country where the loss of wild food sources has led the population to rely heavily on industrially-processed foods.

Of more than 7,700 breeds of livestock worldwide, more than a quarter are at risk for extinction, according to FAO, while nearly a third of fish species have been overfished and about half have reached their sustainable level, meaning humans must immediately stop driving them toward extinction in order to save the species.

In the United Kingdom, MP Caroline Lucas of the Green Party pronounced FAO’s findings “terrifying” and demanded that governments take notice immediately to save world food sources.

Leaders must incentivize the use of sustainable practices for farming, Lucas argued, as well as pushing for a worldwide ban on dangerous pesticides like neonicotinoids, which have threatened the world’s pollinators and in turn have put at risk every third bite of food that humans take.

Combating the loss of biodiversity “relies on combining modern knowledge and technology with its traditional counterparts, and redefining our approach to agriculture and food production, placing the preservation of biodiversity and ecology on equal footing with profit and productivity,” said Slow Food. “On every level, from small-scale farmers and producers, to the highest levels of government, and through regulations like those in the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), must be geared towards a food system that protects biodiversity.”

Originally published by Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License