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By Ed Brayton
The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, founder of Buddhist Global Relief, our current Challenge the Gap beneficiary, says that when he first formed the organization, its focus was a bit too broad. The initial hope was to combat all of the manifestations of poverty and hunger, but soon the focus narrowed. “Now we focus much more specifically on relief of hunger and malnutrition,” he said, “and we do so in a variety of ways, not only by providing food to people who are experiencing hunger and malnutrition, but also by supporting projects which are aimed at implementing ecologically sustainable methods of agriculture, methods which will increase crop yields and also preserve the natural environment.”
But it is especially important in nations where poverty and hunger are most persistent, he says, to empower women in multiple ways. “We also try to improve the status of girls and young women by providing them and their families with food so that the girls can remain in school rather than being compelled to drop out of school in order to work to support their families. And we also support projects which give young women who haven’t had a good education vocational training so they can help support their families,” he told us.
Bodhi says that the importance of helping girls and women became clear to him as he researched solutions for poverty. “One thing that I kept on coming across again and again,” he said, “is that one of the key steps in helping communities overcome poverty is to improve the status of girls and women within those communities. And I’ve learned that when girls are given a good education, first they’ll have a better understanding of proper nutrition for their families, they’ll also marry later and bear fewer children, so they won’t have a large family that they’re responsible for feeding. And also they’ll be able to work and to earn more in order to provide for their families.”
To that end, BGR also supports programs to help women escape the sex trade, particularly in Cambodia. Parents are often told by a relative or a friend that they can get their daughter a job at a hotel or a bar, but once away from their families they are forced into prostitution. Giving these women and their families the means of supporting themselves is crucial to preventing the girls from being exploited in that way.
Equally important, Bodhi says, is that the group never uses the work it does to proselytize for Buddhism. While they are inspired by the Buddhist values of loving kindness and compassion, BGR “never made it any part of our mission to try to use support for food cultivation as a means of propagating Buddhism.” The desire to alleviate suffering, he says, is all the motivation the organization needs, and they have “no intention of in any way interfering with people’s traditional cultures or trying to persuade them to give up their own religion in order to embrace Buddhism.”
Bodhi says that BGR’s mission dovetails perfectly with that of Foundation Beyond Belief and that the groups share a common recognition that the Buddhist and humanist values of kindness and compassion cannot remain merely abstractions. They only have meaning when they are put into practice to help improve the human condition.