When it comes to the Tibetan women’s situation in Tibet today, there are two factors that are important. Both have a direct relationship with the Chinese occupation: nun’s role in the resistance and the Chinese family planning rules and the way they were conducted.

Nun’s resistance

Many Tibetan girls choose to become nuns in the occupied Tibet. It seems that monastic life is a reaction to double oppression: both as women and as Tibetans. Through the traditional, monastic life nuns help to preserve traditional, Tibetan values and actively participate in the struggle against the occupation.
Findings suggest that they feel a right and a duty to act politically on behalf of the rest of the Tibetan people. The nuns have in the recent years, together with the monks, assumed a leadership role in demonstrations against the Chinese, even though they risk their lives.
Partly it reflects that the nuns and monks, opposite to the others, do not marry and therefore are not responsible for children and family. And partly it can be related to their Buddhist faith: it is to sacrifice their lives for others – in daily situation would Tibetans say – can ensure rebirth as a human. A large number of nuns have been jailed in Tibet. Amnesty International reports that women are subjected to particularly brutal and humiliating treatments, including sexual abuse, when they are arrested.

Chinese family planning

Overpopulation is a major problem in many parts of the world, including China. The Chinese authorities decided in 1982 that the population should be kept under 1.2 billion people until the year 2000. The motto was and still is: «one family, one child». Before the Chinese invasion the size of Tibet’s population was stable. One can fear that the restrictive population control together with the mass immigration of Chinese is leading to a reduction of the Tibetan population in Tibet in relation to the Chinese.
The Chinese family policy causes specific consequences for women because it is directed against that which is unique to women, namely their body and the ability to have children. According to reports from women who have fled, family planning in Tibet widely use abortions, sterilizations and at worst killing of newborn babies. The surgery is often carried out by coercion, physical force or pressure in other ways. In some cases the sterilization is done without women’s knowledge e.g. while she visits the doctor for an examination. There are reported forced abortions up to the 8th month.

Violations of human rights

Use of force or power by interventions in case of sterilization and abortion are against the fundamental human rights. China has ratified the UN Convention which prohibits all forms of discrimination against women. Family policy as practiced in Tibet must be seen as violation of Article 16 e which states that a woman has the right to decide when she wants to have children and how many children she wants.
To give birth to children without permission is considered a punishable offense by which the mother may lose her job and the family their ration cards for necessary. Children may lose the right to remain in the national register and not have the right to go to school. This way family planning also affects the children.
Overpopulating can be combated by education as a long term solution, rather than the short term solution that involves abuse of the Tibetan women. Chinese authorities in Tibet are not focusing on education about contraception or teaching in general. Very few of the teaching take place in Tibetan. According to official Chinese figures, 2/3 of the population in Tibet are illiterate. Women’s Convention’s provision in Article 14 d about women’s right to education on par with men, becomes illusory when even elementary school is no more than a dream for much of the population.
The persecution of Tibetan women for the practice of their fundamental civil and political rights: Amnesty International said, that there were 628 prisoners held in the TAR jails by the end of 1994 for their political beliefs, including 182 women and forty five persons under the age of eighteen and some as young as twelve.

Tibetan Women in exile

It has been estimated by the United Nations that there are currently one million refugees in the world. More than eighty percent of refugees are women and children.
There are 130,000 Tibetan refugees residing in over thirty countries outside Tibet.
Planning Commission of the Tibetan Government-in- Exile, Dharamsala, shows that the male/female ratio among the Tibetan exile population in India is roughly 51:49.

Re-establishment of Tibetan Women’s Association in exile

Originally founded in Lhasa on March 12, 1959 two days after the National Uprising.
Reinstated in exile India on September 10, 1984.
Today has 15,000 members (all Tibetan women) and 57 regional chapters in Asia, Europe, United States and Australia.
Slogan: Advocacy for Home, Action in Exile.
The only NGO that advocates the rights of the women inside Tibet while working to empower women in exile.
Website: www.tibetanwomen.org

Suggested reading

  • Rinchen Dolma Taring, Daughter of Tibet, the autobiography of Rinchen Dolma Taring, London (Wisdom) 1986 (1st edition 1970)
  • Dorje Yudon Yuthok, House of the Turquoise Roof, Ithaca, New York (Snow Lion Publications) 1990
  • Hanna Havnevik, Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms and Social Reality, Oslo (Universitetsforlaget) 1989
  • Hanna Havnevik, “Nonnenes rolle i dagens Tibet”, Mennesker og rettigheter nr. 4/1990, s 11-14
    Amnesty International, Women in China. Imprisoned and abused for dissent, Juni 1995 (concerns also Tibetan women)
  • Janice D. Willis (red.), Feminine Ground. Essays on Women and Tibet, Ithaca, New York (Snow Lion Publications) 1989 (1st edition 1987)