The Drukpa nuns from Ladakh are women from an age-old Buddhist sect who are using their martial arts expertise to challenge gender roles and teach women self-defense, as reports of rapes rise in India.

Unlike other nuns, their chants and prayers are followed by jabs and thrust kicks. Between meditation sessions, they attend gender equality lessons. Even their traditional maroon robes are switched out for martial arts attire, complete with black belts.

Horror stories feature daily in newspapers and television channels of girls being raped on their way to school, women stalked and harassed heading home from work. Even children haven’t been spared!

The National Crime Records Bureau says 34,651 rapes were reported in 2015 – or four rapes every hour – a rise of 43 percent from 2011. There were 82,422 sexual assaults and a 67 percent increase over the same period.

“Most people think nuns just sit and pray, but we do more,” said 19-year-old Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, one of the Kung Fu trainers. “Kung Fu will make them stronger and more confident,” she said, adding that they decided to teach self-defense after hearing of cases of rape and molestation.

“We thought we must share what we know with others,” said 28-year-old nun Jigme Yeshe Lhamo at a five-day workshop at Naro Photang – a majestic Buddhist palace-like building belonging to the centuries-old nearby Hemis monastery.

Almost 100 women aged between 13 to 28 followed a rigorous 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. schedule during the course in August. It included techniques on tackling being attacked from behind, moves such as takedowns and strikes, and sessions about how to respond to possible sexual assault scenarios.

The woman of the hour; Wangchuk is one of around 700 nuns who belong to the Drukpa lineage – the only female order in the patriarchal Buddhist monastic system where nuns are equal in status to monks.

Traditionally, nuns are expected to cook and clean, are limited to the kitchens and not allowed to exercise. But this changed almost a decade ago when the leader of the 1,000-year-old sect, His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa, encouraged the nuns to learn Kung Fu.

Influenced by his mother to advocate for gender equality, he also gave the nuns leadership roles and helped them study beyond Buddhist teachings to become electricians and plumbers thereby empowering them.

Carrie Lee, president of Live to Love International, a charity which works with the Drukpa nuns to support marginalized Himalayan communities, says they are exceptional role models.

“The Kung Fu Nuns are heroes of the Himalayas,” she said.

Watch the inspiring video here:

This story was first reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation

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