Buddhist nuns are everywhere among the streets of Myanmar -- of all different ages, some as young as 5. Dressed in pink loose-fitting shirts and pants with orange scarves, they have shaved heads and rely on alms to pay for their schooling, food, housing, and other basic needs.
Monks don't have the same economic handicaps. The large temples pay for their needs, but that's not surprising. In Myanmar, being a woman is hard, more so if you are poor and live in the north of the country, where tribes are still battling the government.
Girls in these areas are in a precarious position, constantly in danger of being trafficked across foreign borders. According to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking:
"Myanmar is a source country for women, children, and men trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation. Myanmar people are trafficked to Thailand, China, Malaysia, South Korea, and Macau for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced labour."
There are no reliable estimates on the number of people trafficked annually in Myanmar, although a total of 134 trafficking cases were investigated in 2008, involving 303 victims (153 female and 50 male), and 342 traffickers were prosecuted. UNICEF for example, estimated in 2003 that 10,000 girls were being trafficked every year from Myanmar into Thai brothels alone.
The number has not declined.
Concern over trafficking has led many parents in the north, who earn an average of $1,200 a year, to send their daughters south to the capital of Yangon and the only outlet for escape and education -- the nunneries.
One of these institutions is located in Than Lynn, a 30-minute drive from the center of Yangon. At the Thadama Myintzu Nunnery, run by the nun Daw Aye Theingi, more than 200 girls, who range in age from 4 to 18, live in two small buildings with a rudimentary outdoor kitchen and bathing area. In many cases, the girls do not see their parents for years, if ever again.
Due to a generous donation, the nunnery is building a modern three-story building to house all the girls, but it won't be ready until summer. Daw scrapes up the $200 a year it takes to send each girl to a local school through donations.
"I want a better life for them," Daw said. At age 18, the girls will decide if they want to stay or leave to look for a life in the city. Almost none of them return home.
If the video here doesn't make you cry or open your heart, I think you might be made of wood.
Please note, due to local corruption and the nunnery's lack of Internet connection or modern appliances, we can not say for sure how to give money directly to these girls or Daw - but Sonne International is one organization that has a donation fund for the nunnery and seems legit.
Another way to help is to give to organizations on the ground that directly help women in Myanmar like the We Women Foundation.
But being aware, sharing this story, and putting pressure on the Myanmar government goes a long way. And if you ever get to Yangon, please stop by and say hello to some very special nuns for us.
*Thanks to Jacada Travel for organizing this trip and finding this nunnery for us.