The Gender and Racial Dimensions of Tibetan Exile Reproductive Policy

‘Any state or civil or moral interference in a women’s reproductive decision is a violation of her rights—be it China’s birth control policies in Tibet or exile government’s guidelines or any form of moral and social pressure on women to increase population in exile.’

– taken from Reproductive Governance in the Tibetan Community in Exile – Discrepancies and Digressions

It is good to see a Tibetan exile woman, Dhardon Sharling, taking up the subject of the gender dimension of Tibetan exile political policy and ideology on reproduction. I was the first to publicly write about this issue in March 2013, in Tibetan exile online publication Phayul. I prefer to take it as a compliment that its influence is such that Sharling is unwilling to credit my work, rather than conclude her research was not very thorough (or even worse, partly plagiarised). “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, as we say though (see UPDATE below).

Sharling is one of the few Tibetan exile women (along with Kunsang Dolma and Sang Mota) publicly writing and speaking about issues that challenge or criticise Tibetan exile policy and culture when it comes to gender. The vast majority of internationally recognised, first-class English-language scholarship on gender and women in Tibetan culture, history and Buddhism is still being produced by non-Tibetan women (such as Janet Gyatso, Sarah Jacoby, Rita Gross and others).

Unfortunately, Sharling’s article bypasses/glosses over the equally disturbing issue of nationalism via ideas of ‘racial purity’. Here is my original article on the subject (from Tibetan exile online publication, Phayul.com): Is Breeding More Tibetan Children Really the Answer to Tibetan ‘Identity Challenge’? The Dangers of Ethnic Nationalism in which the possibility of ‘ethnic nationalism’ is not ruled out:

Lobsang Sangay appears to be straddling both a form of cultural nationalism (bound by ethnicity and culture) and political nationalism (shared political goals and citizenship). The continuing practice of arranged marriages organised by Tibetan families in exile, particularly with the pressure placed on young Tibetan women to participate, is a sign that ethnic nationalism is alive and kicking. However, given the current situation in exile and in Tibet, wouldn’t it beneficial to err on the side of shared political goals as opposed to shared ethnicity though, with the inevitable racism and intolerance it can breed? Or focus more on preserving the Tibetan identity by continuing to set up and support institutions that help keep it alive in other ways like TIPA, TCV schools and various monastic learning centres?

And as Sharling points out:

The exile Tibetan reproductive discourse infuses ethical and moral dimensions to the issue as women refusing to marry and failing to produce more children are seen as being un-nationalistic, and uncaring about Tibetan demographics. The social dictum for a women to reproduce now sounds moralizing and has become a condescending organizing principle in everyday exile discourse at all levels: individual, social and institutional.

Another surprising omission from Sharling’s article (which I mentioned in my Phayul article) are not only issues of global overpopulation but the excessively high levels of mother and child mortality in India, Nepal and Tibet.

A programme called “One H.E.A.R.T.” (Health Education and Research in Tibet) teaches caregivers and expectant mothers in Tibet proper prenatal care, as well as how to deliver babies safely.

According to Executive Director Arlene Samen :

The numbers are shocking: One in every 33 Tibetan women dies in childbirth. One in every 10 babies dies within the first month. But One H.E.A.R.T. says its program already is changing that.

As Gabriel Lafitte points out:

Why did it take a woman from Utah to organise Tibetan women to help each other? Now that she can no longer enter Tibet, is anyone replicating and building on her work? Organising work in Tibet has to be low key, almost invisible, since Chinese fears and suspicions of organised Tibetans are so strong, even if the sole purpose is to reduce death in childbirth. But this is at most only a partial explanation. Women in Tibet have long been told they are lesser births and must wait passively for the state, in its benevolence, to provide modern hospitals. Almost no-one has been encouraging women to believe in their own strengths. Emily Yeh, a Colorado anthropologist, has shown how much Tibetan men and women have come to believe China’s message that Tibetans are lazy. Yet it did not take much to turn this belief around, just basic community development skills, time and dedication.

Although it has been well-documented that the Chinese communist government denies women reproductive freedom in Tibet. It is also clear that adequate healthcare and education for mothers and children in Tibetan exile is still well below acceptable standards. In the Tibetan exile Planning Commission’s Official Report and Census (2010) on the exile community it stated that:

The infant mortality rate of the Tibetan population in exile was recorded as 15.44 per 1000 child-births and it has gone down to 60.3 percent in comparison to 1998. Household economic improvement and better health coverage of the population with essential child health services such as mother and child care programs have ensured continued declines in level of infant mortality.

While this is positive news (if true) it shows there is still more work to be done. The average across the 27 EU member states in 2010 was 4.2 deaths per 1 000 live births. Infant mortality rates tend to be higher than the EU average in central European countries, with the exceptions of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, both of which have had consistently lower rates. And where are the figures for mother mortality please?!

So, before men in suits (or chubas) dictate reproductive policy  and encourage women (in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘cultural purity’) to have even more children, shouldn’t they first focus on making sure pregnant women and their babies are able to survive (and do that without the need for ‘outside’ charitable assistance)?

UPDATE: Sharling claims she did not read my piece and was not aware of it. Which, considering that her article took NINE MONTHS to research is hard to believe. (My article, for the record, took only a couple of days to research and write). Anyone with a Google search and a few relevant keywords would have found the article easily. In addition, it was published in one of the leading Tibetan exile online publications, Phayul, and was one of the few dealing with an issue directly related to women in the Tibetan exile community. Either Sharling is lying; her research and knowledge in this area is not particularly thorough; or she has deliberately ignored it. Reality can often be stranger than fiction, folks.

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