LONDON (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Buddhist nuns swapped their maroon robes for black belts on Thursday (Nov 16), performing somersaults, high kicks, splits and punches to demonstrate how they are using Kung Fu to empower women in the conservative Himalayas.
The two nuns - from an age-old Buddhist sect based mainly in India and Nepal - are not only raising eyebrows due to their martial arts expertise, but are also teaching women in India self defence amid rising reports of sex crimes.
"Some people make comments. They say we should just sit and pray and meditate," said Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, 19, who demonstrated her skills on stage at the Thomson Reuters Foundation's Trust Conference.
"But a nun's duty is more than that. We have to better society and do good for others."
There were 34,651 rapes reported in India in 2015 - four every hour - up 43 percent from 2011, government data shows. Activists say the figures are grossly underestimated.
"Girls face problems when they go out and especially in the evening they don't want to go out alone," said Wangchuk.
"Kung Fu can help them... Kung Fu makes you confident."
About 700 nuns globally belong to the Drukpa lineage, which is the only female order in the patriarchal Buddhist monastic system where nuns have equal status to monks.
Traditionally, nuns are expected to cook and clean and are not permitted to engage in sports. But this changed 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.
He also gave the nuns leadership roles, supported them to study beyond Buddhist teachings and become electricians and plumbers, and to take a more active role in their communities.
They treat sick animals, organise eye care camps and have trekked and cycled through the Himalayas to raise awareness on issues from pollution to human trafficking.
In the aftermath of a massive earthquake in Nepal in 2015, the nuns trekked to remote villages to remove rubble, clear pathways and distribute food and medicines to survivors.
They also heard that girls and women were being trafficked across the border to India.
"It was terrible. People were selling their sisters, daughters and even mothers just to have money to rebuild their homes," Wangchuk told delegates at the conference, which focuses on modern day slavery and women's empowerment.
"Some men just see girls as a bunch of money... but we need to change this and help promote equality. His Holiness likes to encourage girls. He says there can be no world peace unless we are all equal."