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A Future World, Kung Fu Nuns
Illustration Marianne Wilson

Climate change and kung fu nuns: the fight for women’s safety in South Asia

Pin It
A Future World, Kung Fu Nuns
Illustration Marianne Wilson

Climate change and kung fu nuns: the fight for women’s safety in South Asia

In South Asia, there’s a devastating correlation between weather-related disasters and the rising number of women being trafficked for sex

Every year, in the remote depths of the Himalayas, hundreds of nuns clean plastic from the waterways of the mountain range. Trekking miles, the group picks up tonnes of rubbish, carrying it down the mountains, and shipping it back to Delhi to be recycled.

Known as the Kung Fu Nuns of the Drukpa Lineage, these women are at the forefront of environmental and social change in the Himalayas. With an increasingly temperamental climate exacerbating natural disasters and rapidly melting the mountain’s glaciers, Himalayan communities are facing extinction. For women and girls in the region, there’s an even more immediate threat: as they’re thrust into poverty and displaced from their homes, they become increasingly vulnerable to sex trafficking.

In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the Kung Fu Nuns offered aid to remote villages in need. Observing a disturbing increase in people selling off their daughters following the disaster, the nuns took direct action by way of bike rides across the Himalayas. “It was to show these villages that women were strong and capable enough to bicycle,” the group’s communications coordinator Carrie Lee tells me, “so they’d also be physically strong enough to farm, thereby worthwhile keeping and raising, and not selling off.”

Although the Kung Fu Nuns are one of a kind, the plight of those they’re determined to help is not unique to the Himalayas. With 18.8 million people displaced from their homes due to weather-related disasters in 2017 alone, climate change is an enormous threat to countless women and girls – not in some far-off future, but right now.

With some of the highest numbers of climate-related displacements in the world, people in South Asia are particularly at risk. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, in 2017 there were a total of 2.7 million new disaster-related displacements in India (1.3 million), Bangladesh (946k), and Nepal (384k). Dubbed ‘climate refugees’ – though this term isn’t recognised by international law – those migrating are often doing so within their own country, meaning they don’t have legal rights specific to their situation (unlike refugees crossing borders to flee conflict). This lack of recognition, and the fact they’ve typically been uprooted with no warning, often means internally displaced people don’t get the help they need, and it’s within this insecure environment that traffickers thrive.

Drawing on research conducted after two cyclones hit Bangladesh (in 2007 and 2009), a 2016 report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) identified women-headed households as especially vulnerable to exploitation.

“The poorest and most vulnerable will be hit first and worst,” Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, explains. “And among those, it’s nearly always women and children. Where you have environmental degradation and forced land clearance, you see migration towards urban city centres; there you see women who are incredibly vulnerable being coerced or forced into the sex trade, as they have no other means of survival.”

This gender imbalance is reflected in broader trafficking statistics. As reported by The Global Slavery Index, there were 40.3 million people worldwide living in modern slavery in 2016, 71 per cent of whom were female. Of this percentage, nearly three out of every four women and girls trafficked were done so for the purpose of sexual exploitation. While in South Asia, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states that in 2016, women and girls made up 59 per cent of the region’s total number of trafficking victims.

“There’s a perception that it’s somewhere else and in the future, but it’s not, it’s here and now” – Steve Trent

Although there’s largely a lack of both media attention and state action when it comes to trafficking, there are local organisations working tirelessly to rescue victims and prosecute perpetrators. One of these is India’s Rescue Foundation, a non-governmental organisation taking direct action to rescue trafficked women and girls from prostitution. Speaking over the phone from their base in Mumbai, project director Gerard Mukhia tells me he believes climate-related trafficking directly correlates with how quickly and efficiently governments respond to disasters.

“If you have a chaotic response to a situation like an earthquake, in that chaos families will get scattered,” Mukhia reveals. “But if you have a response team who are coordinated, and focus their efforts on not just helping families recover, but also protecting them from being separated, I think that would really play a big role (in the reduction of human trafficking).”

Mukhia tells me that following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, trafficking into India “increased by 500 per cent”, meaning victims were more spread out across the country. “A lot of the prostitution was brothel-based,” Mukhia reveals, “but now it’s branched out into massage parlours, spas, commercial residences, and private residences.” Based on this, the Rescue Foundation started running community awareness programmes, in order to educate local people who could then provide rescue help. “It’s something that’s in their peripheral, but they don’t want to acknowledge it exists,” Mukhia explains, going on to tell me that local cooperation has increased since the awareness programme began.

Education is also central to the Kung Fu Nuns’ method of working. “The nuns’ motto is: ‘No one’s coming to rescue you’,” Lee tells me, “so they do self-defence training. Not that in a week a girl is going to learn to be a badass kung fu master, but in these regions it’s the only safe place for these girls to come, and for the first time in their lives they’re learning the words ‘molestation’ and ‘rape’.”

It’s a bleak idea that nobody is coming to rescue trafficking victims, and although organisations like the Rescue Foundation are working tirelessly to help, there isn’t nearly enough acknowledgement of how big the problem is, particularly when it’s linked to climate displacement. “There’s a perception that it’s somewhere else and in the future,” Trent asserts, “but it’s not, it’s here and now. The Western world has benefited the most from carbon, and yet people in poorer states are feeling the real impacts – whether it be forced migration, or the ultimate destination for a vulnerable woman into the sex slave trade.”

With Greta Thunberg leading weekly school strikes, and activist group Extinction Rebellion taking direct action, climate change is being talked about now more than ever, but it seems little is actually being done when it comes to legislation in severely affected countries, particularly when human rights are involved. “There’s a role for education in rural areas, but you don’t need everyone to understand the connection between climate migration and trafficking in order for a city authority to put a plan in place to prevent people being trafficked,” Alex Randall, programme manager at the Climate and Migration Coalition explains. “You’ve got to create cities that can grow, where rural migrants can go to and be safe, and that’s as much about their work, housing, and education rights as it is about social safety nets.”

Although it might feel like a problem far too big to tackle, there’s so much that can be done in the face of this mass climate displacement – whether that’s educating both those at risk and the wider world in general about the heightened danger of sex trafficking, or fighting to make social and legal change. India’s proposed anti-trafficking bill, for example – though flawed – is a step in the right direction, proving the country is paying attention to the problem.

With human trafficking at a 13-year record high, and the world in a climate emergency, action needs to be taken now. “Many causes are driven by a kind of dialogue that says perfect is possible,” Trent concludes, “and in this situation perfect is not possible, but I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of good. If we get to good, we can be changing the lives, right now, of many tens of thousands of people.”

In the film below, PhD student Otto Simonsson meets some of the young Bangladeshi girls forced into prostitution following climate displacement. The documentary will be screened in UK parliament on May 22.