Do Thailand's female monks need an ERA?

Thailand's female monks are critical to helping the country's women, who can't be alone with male monks, but they still face substantial discrimination because they lack legal recognition.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Ordained female monks, Bhikkhunis (pee-KOO-nees), in Thailand consider their gender to be an essential bridge to the women they help through charity work and spiritual guidance, since women are forbidden to be alone with male monks, known as Bhikkhu (pee-KOO).

But Thai Bhikkhunis have their own limitations, not just because they number only 25 compared with the approximately 200,000 male monks here. They lack legal recognition – a denial that accompanies various withholdings of public benefits, and it highlights a persistent issue of discrimination for women across the country.

A new push to achieve legal recognition for Bhikkhunis won’t grant them entirely equal status with male monks. But Bhikkhunis and their supporters are eager to accept any gains. Like their male counterparts, the women pray several times a day and discuss Buddhist teachings. But only Bhikkhunis can physically touch women, who often have traveled long distances for prayer.

“I love that it is easy to touch and talk with [the Bhikkhunis],” said Khun Tip, who visits the monastery daily. “Women who have problems with their husbands or families cannot talk to male monks about these things.”

Male monks receive government assistance, whereas Bhikkhunis rely on private donations.

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