By Dechen Tsering (Berkeley, California). Originally published in Tibetan Women's Association (TWA) 2011 DOLMA magazine. Republished with permission from the author.
On July 16, 2011 a young Tibetan woman in Tenzingang[i] settlement in India was assaulted, beaten and paraded naked in a public space by other Tibetans for allegedly having an affair with a married man. I know that Tibetan women aren’t exempt from violence against women[ii] given that worldwide one in three women will have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused, usually by a family member or an acquaintance.[iii] Still, I found it difficult to believe that such an extreme case of gender-based violence such as the Tenzingang incident was possible in my community.
While the perpetrators were both women and men, it is clear that the violence was directed against the woman in a gender specific manner, exposing and attacking her naked body in full public view. On the contrary, the married man with whom she was alleged to have an affair experienced no physical or violent punishment, but rather was held accountable financially to his wife.
The Tenzingang incident is an extreme example in our community of how male-power and sexism influence how we treat women and men differently under the same circumstances. Violence against women appears to be ‘permissible’, not only in this incident, but also in many homes where women quietly suffer from domestic violence. In the Tenzingang incident the heinous violence against the woman was ‘justified’ in the name of ‘shaming’ her for her affair.
The community’s initial response was surprisingly subdued, perhaps even apathetic. We, Tibetans, publicize and campaign against violence against Tibetan women by forces outside our own community. Why then are we tempted to be silent and secretive when the perpetrators are of our own?
On July 18, 2011 the President of the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) “first contacted the Secretary of the Central Tibetan Administration Department of Home (DoH) who informed her that the matter is being assessed and a report underway.”[iv] Meanwhile, TWA decided to wait till “authentic information” from DoH was released and held back from releasing TWA’s statement condemning the “horrendous act of violence against a woman.” On August 10, 2011 TWA was informed of the Tenzingang officials’ public and communal-style settlement between the perpetrators and the survivor of the violence. According to TWA’s own investigation into the matter, the ‘settlement’ was reached as follows:
“The Settlement Officer convened a heads meeting of community leaders...The decision was: the key perpetrator (Kunsang[v], age 38) would have to pay for rituals to appease local deities upset with the incident, who might cause harm to the village; Kunsang had to make a lavish ritual offering amounting to Rs.30,000 to the Gyutoe Monastery, the only Buddhist monastery in the vicinity (TWA's representatives observed that the invoice amounted to Rs.22,000), and she also had to make a deposit of Rs.40,000 to the Settlement Office, to pay for likely future ritual performance should the village suffer the wrath of the local deities. Her husband Ngawang was fined Rs.20,000 and her brother Choedup Rs.5,000 for complicity, these fines also intended for ritual purposes. Choedup also faced a 17-month suspension (till December 2013) from the post of President, Local Tibetan Assembly. The victim of the assault, Choenyi, charged for adultery, was made to apologize and do prostrations in front of the altar bearing the photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
Let’s analyze this ‘settlement’ for a moment. It resulted in a total monetary fine of Rs.95,000 (US$1,940) levied on the perpetrators all of which were intended to appease the local deities perceived to be offended by the severity of the incident with the victim prostrating apologetically. I support spiritual centers but a just settlement must take the woman survivor and her child into account. It seems to me that in this official settlement, the gods are appeased, the perpetrators are not prosecuted and the woman survivor and her child are left to fend for themselves.[vi] As one woman put it succinctly, “the batterer gets invited to parties, it’s the woman who gets isolated.”
On August 28, 2011 TWA shared on the Tibetan Support Group email list (TSG-List) their statement condemning the “extreme assault on a Tibetan woman by other Tibetans”. According to TWA, they were “dissatisfied with the decision primarily because it only addressed the issue at a surface level and because it lacked the vision to treat the root cause: gender violence and discrimination against women.” On August 30, 2011 TWA sent two representatives to conduct a thorough investigation on the Tenzingang incident and published a detailed report a month later.
The initial – and in some cases, ongoing - reticence in our larger community to speak up publicly against this incident and gender-based violence in the Tibetan communities in general, I believe prevents us from becoming a genuinely violence-free and compassionate community. Rather than stand by in silence, I hope that each of us will strive toward building a peaceful, just and compassionate society and acknowledge that we are like any other community with our share of virtue and shortcomings.
I honestly believe that the fact that the cat is out of the box with regard to gender-based violence in our community can be a positive development depending on how we respond as to this deeply taboo yet critical issue. As a community, do we continue to leave gender-based violence unchecked - risking an escalation the scale of Tenzingang incident? Or, do we take this shameful incident and turn it into an opportunity to transform our community toward positive change? As a Buddhist I believe in the basic tenant that change is the only permanent phenomenon of life and that tolerance in our diversity - be it gender, religious practice or sexual orientation – is critical to genuine unity. A proactive approach to addressing all forms of violence against women is more conducive to our community’s overall growth and development.
Moving Forward From a Place of Strength
We are not alone in this struggle. Gender-based violence is being openly addressed in many countries around the world at myriad levels including by the United Nations. Within our community, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like TWA, Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and many new groups are the driving forces behind positive change for Tibetan women and men alike. To its credit, in 2008 the Tibetan Kashag (Cabinet) launched a Women’s Empowerment policy and program to empower women’s role in governance within the CTA.
However, the Kashag’s policy so far has failed to openly acknowledge and address the issue of domestic violence despite the fact that there are women in our community who are living in fear of gender-based violence be it in private or public. I was therefore very glad to see our women parliamentarians’ initiative to introduce an unprecedented resolution during the September 2011 parliamentary session condemning the Tenzingang incident and calling on the Tibetan administration to launch a concerted campaign against violence against women. I applaud the parliamentarians for their unanimous decision to pass the resolution ending violence against women in our community.
To that end, I believe participation of and partnership between men and women is paramount to promoting awareness to the root causes of gender-based violence and to bringing about a transformational change within our community. There are increasing numbers of strong, educated and outspoken Tibetan women in all areas of intellectual, professional and political arenas. There are also progressive, educated and confident men comfortable in their masculinity that can demonstrate that advocating against gender-based violence is a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness. It is my hope that these men and women in our community become active allies and speak out against gender-based violence.
There are numerous creative and effective programs around the world, including in India, that demonstrate ways to address a seemingly impossible challenge.
Grassroots activists can provide shelter, financial and emotional support and solidarity to survivors as well as educational workshops for communities, engaging community leaders and religious leaders. Workshops can be geared towards men and women both separately and together to question accepted notions that violence against women is acceptable under certain circumstances. In New Delhi, Aakar, a non-profit organization, uses film and theatre to initiate dialogue between men and women on male masculinity within the Indian and global context. Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) is a male-run voluntary organization in Mumbai that uses creative arts and media to organize forums for men to oppose violence against women through preventive and mass awareness programs, counseling to couples facing marital conflict, offering self-defense workshops for women, and publishing a men’s magazine on gender issues. SAHAYOG in Uttar Pradesh, working on women’s rights and violence against women, conducts capacity building, research, documentation and advocacy. Male members of SAHAYOG founded the Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) network that works with youth, local government officials, NGOs and universities using creative media for advocacy and to raise awareness about male roles in ending violence against women.
Tibetan non-governmental organizations play a pivotal role in leading these efforts on the grassroots level. I applaud TWA for prioritizing prevention of gender-based violence in our community through initiatives such as its Empowerment Through Action and the new resolution.
This responsibility of creating a safe non-violent society, however, does not fall solely on the TWA, but needs to be shared by other organizations. We can start by recognizing and reporting gender-based violence, supporting and protecting the survivors, holding perpetrators accountable and offering rehabilitation programs for perpetrators. NGOs can also play a critical role in lobbying governments for appropriate policies, programs and resources to fund these initiatives.
In many countries, gender-based violence is increasingly being understood as a public health issue rather than a private matter requiring strong action from government authorities to set appropriate legal standards and to enforce them. Through its health, home and education departments, the CTA could develop policies that promote gender-sensitivity in the community. It could also provide shelters and supportive services and sponsor conferences on gender-based violence in schools, government offices, and settlements. These efforts could involve the CTA’s Women Empowerment Desk and Tibetan organizations such as TWA and Tibetan Youth Congress.
Successful gender-based violence strategies usually involve effective criminal prosecution of perpetrators. While the Tibetan Civil Court is the highest legal authority within the CTA, it has no jurisdiction over violations of criminal laws. However, this limitation should not deter our government, settlement officers and community leaders from developing policies that set serious consequences for perpetrators. Moreover, the CTA could take a clear stand against all forms of gender-based violence. Furthermore, the government through the settlement officers and community leaders, could assist survivors of domestic violence in bringing legal action in the appropriate Indian legal courts by using existing laws such as the Domestic Violence Act 2005.
The action plans from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (in Beijing) recognized the elimination of gender-based violence as central to gender equality and the empowerment of women. In 2003, UNESCAP[vii] organized a four-day sub-regional training workshop on “Elimination of Violence Against Women in Partnership with Men” in New Delhi for members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. The workshop was designed to increase capacity within regional governments to promote policies, and design and implement measures and activities to end violence against women in partnership with men and NGOs. The CTA could learn from the results of this and similar workshops to inform its approaches to gender-based violence.
Violence against women and girls is a universal problem of epidemic proportions, but its human cost often remains invisible. Survivors often experience life-long emotional distress, mental health problems, poor reproductive health and are at higher risk of acquiring HIV.[viii] Women who have been physically or sexually assaulted tend to be intensive long-term users of health services.[ix] In the United States, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.[x] One-third of Indian women ages 15-49 have experienced sexual violence.[xi] This translates to millions of women in India who have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of husbands or other family members. The impact of violence may also extend to future generations: children who have witnessed abuse, or were victims themselves, often suffer lasting psychological damage.[xii] My heart also goes out to the four-year old daughter of Choenyi[xiii], who could potentially be deeply impacted by the public humiliation her mother suffered.
We Tibetans have no statistics on gender-based violence – not because the issue doesn’t apply to us but due to a lack of prioritizing this issue. But just as it takes only one burning candle to light up the darkness in a room, it only needs a Tenzingang incident to debunk any myth about the Tibetan community being void of gender-based violence. When a young single mother in a remote settlement in Arunachal Pradesh gets dragged out of her settlement, is beaten and publicly humiliated while a community watches helplessly – I cannot help but ask – where is our commitment to freedom, justice and non-violence? I believe that any society that condones violence against women undermines the full capacity of its people, something we Tibetans certainly cannot afford to do.
In his inauguration speech, Kalon Tripa Dr. Lobsang Sangay, highlighted education as the “number one” priority of his administration. This is an encouraging step for many reasons, not least of which is the impact education can have on reducing prevalence of gender-based violence. For example, a survey on domestic violence in India found that 46 percent of married women with no education have experienced spousal violence; similarly, nearly half of the women whose husbands have no education (47 percent) have experienced spousal violence.[xiv]
The Kalon Tripa took office on August 8, 2011 in a ceremony that was by far the most internationally publicized Tibetan official inauguration. On his campaign trial, Dr. Lobsang Sangay encouraged Tibetans to change with the times, to strive toward non-regionalism (Cholkha Yemey), non-sectarianism (Choelug Yemey) and non-gender-based discrimination (Phomo-Yemey) or gender equality (Phomo-Da-Nyam). By no means do I wish to underestimate the unprecedented challenge this Kalon Tripa has in leading the Tibetan political administration and struggle without His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the political helm. As his ardent supporter during both the election rounds, I continue to have hope that Kalon Tripa Dr. Lobsang Sangay will transform his campaign promises into action by using the Tenzingang and other recent gender-based violence incidents in our community to promote gender-equality in our community. With the facts from the Tenzingang incident laid out by TWA’s investigative report, I appeal to the Kalon Tripa and the Kalon of Home Department (Nangsi) to issue a strong statement condemning the incident, to ensure that the perpetrators of the Tenzingang incident are barred from immigrating to Canada under the 1000 Tibetans Resettlement Project and to spearhead development of specific policies and programs toward the elimination of gender-based violence in our community.
Only then, I believe, can we achieve a compassionate manifestation of Phomo-Da-Nyam.
Dechen Tsering’s Bio:
Dechen Tsering is the Community Resources Director at Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA), a nonprofit in Oakland, CA that promotes behavioral health and wellness of underserved communities. She has over 15 years of experience in international development, program management, grantmaking, women’s rights advocacy and community health education. She served as the full-time volunteer President of the Tibetan Association of Northern California (TANC) in the Bay Area from 2008-2010. Between 2005-2008, she served as the Program Officer for Asia and Oceania at the Global Fund for Women, one of the largest grantmaking foundations supporting women’s rights groups worldwide. From 1999 to 2005, Dechen worked to prevent blindness in India, Nepal, Tibet and Cambodia as the Program Manager for Seva Foundation in Berkeley. Following graduate school, Dechen spent two years (1994-1995), working at the Tibetan Delek Hospital in Dharamsala, India during which she initiated the first HIV/AIDS education programs for Tibetan high school students at TCV and residents of Tibetan settlements. As a student, Dechen volunteered at CTA’s Department of Health during a summer stint that changed the course of her academic pursuit from environmental architecture to public health. Her past internships include the Office of Tibet, CARE and International Rescue Committee in New York City.
Educated in a Christian missionary school in Darjeeling, India, Dechen moved to the United States at age 18 to complete high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; B.A. in Environmental Studies from Antioch College in Ohio; and Masters in Public Health (MPH) from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. Raised in Nepal, India and the United States, Dechen has traveled extensively on job assignments particularly in Asia and the Pacific Islands, including three trips to the Tibetan Plateau. Dechen lives in Berkeley with her partner and their 10-year old son.
[i] The Tibetan refugees have been settled in Arunachal Pradesh since early sixties. They are spread in three refugee settlement areas in the state, Tenzingang, Miao and Tezu, with a total population of approximately 6,000. In addition, there are the scattered communities of Bomdila and the settlements of Tuting, giving a total population of approximately 9, 000 Tibetan refugees in Arunachal Pradesh (Nani Bath, The Sentinel).
[ii] In 1993, Article 1 of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVW) defined the term “violence against women” as: “Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action expanded the definition to include particular vulnerabilities of women belonging to the elderly and the displaced; indigenous, refugee and migrant communities, women living in impoverished rural or remote areas, or in detention (United Nations. 1996. The Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action: Fourth World Conference on Women: Beijing, China: September 1995, paras. 114-116).
[iii] Heise, L., M. Ellsberg, and M. Gottemoeller. 1999. "Ending Violence against Women." Population Reports. Series L. No. 11. Baltimore, Maryland: Population Information Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.
[iv] Violence against a Tibetan Woman in Tenzingang: TWA’s Report. September 30, 2011, p1.
[v] Names used in this report are as per TWA’s report published on September 30, 2011.
[vi] Under India’s Domestic Violence Act 2005, a woman survivor of domestic violence has the right to the services of the police, shelter homes, and medical establishments. She also has the right to simultaneously file her own complaint under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code.
[vii] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
[viii] Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999.
[ix] Krug, E., et al. (eds.). 2002. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva: WHO.
[x] Violence Against Women, A Majority Staff Report, Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, October 1992, p.3.
[xi] National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), India 2005-2006.
[xiii] Names used in this report are as per TWA’s report published on September 30, 2011.