Forty Years in Tibet 

Women are the easiest targets of Chinese occupation

NATASHA MA (Toward Freedom: March/April 1999)

On March 10, Tibetans will commemorate the 40th anniversary of their uprising against Chinese invaders. Each one will remember personal losses, injustices, and sacrifices.

One 62-year-old mother, Sonam Dekyi, will continue campaigning for the release of her only child, Fulbright scholar-musicologist Ngawang Choephel, from a prison deep inside Tibet. Her son's "crime": supposedly spying and "counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement." His sentence: 18 years. Dekyi has been denied the right to visit him in Tibet, a violation of Chinese law.

The families and friends of six nuns who died in Lhasa's Drapchi Prison of suspicious causes in June 1998 will continue to mourn for them. Their voices could well be among those recorded by a small Sony tape recorder smuggled into the prison in 1990. After bravely singing protest songs, each nun's sentence was increased from seven to 11 or more years.

Those Tibetans lucky enough to have escaped across the border into Nepal and India will continue missing their homeland and loved ones left behind. The women subjected to torture, rape, violations of reproductive rights, and other forms of discrimination will continue to suffer emotionally and physically in exile.

This year, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) will review China's compliance with its obligations. With that in mind, in 1988 the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, with the help of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), conducted a year long investigation of women's rights in Tibet. It focused on torture and reproductive rights, but also looked at prostitution, health care, education, and employment. The results of their findings are being submitted as a "shadow" report to the UN to counter China's claims.

A fact-finding team was sent to Dharamsala, India, in August 1998 to interview recently-arrived Tibetans now living in exile. Political repression, physical and psychological abuse, and economic hardship were the reasons Tibetan women gave for leaving their country and families. Their overall wish to survive spiritually had compelled them to walk from seven to 22 days over the Himalayas. Women who had been incarcerated reported gender-specific torture: pregnant women beaten until they aborted; married women sexually molested with electric batons; nuns, vowed to celibacy, raped.

Tibetan women are particularly vulnerable to torture because of China's practice of indeterminate detention, interrogation, and the absence of any meaningful right to counsel. Medical care in detention is grossly inadequate, and medical personnel reportedly take part in torturing prisoners. Nuns often are subjected to penetration of the vagina and rectum with electric cattle prods. ICLT's investigation of torture confirmed previous documented reports by TCHRD and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) that torture of detainees especially nuns is common and systematic, and sexual abuse of Tibetan women is common practice.

ICLT's investigation also found continued systematic violence in the form of coerced sterilization, contraception, and abortion, including late-term abortion. The use of coercion to prevent births, as well as the lack of a rational basis for limiting births among a people whose country is sparsely populated, suggest that the Chinese government intends to commit genocide. Local officials receive awards if their units meet birth control quotas. The constant monitoring of women's reproductive cycles monthly, sometimes even weekly, vaginal exams impinges greatly on women's privacy rights. Fetuses into the second and third trimesters are forcibly aborted. Reportedly, hospitals in Lhasa have special abortion and sterilization units for Tibetan women. One man interviewed said his village job required him to participate in the annual roundups, where up to 200 women were aborted at a time.

TCHRD has received extensive testimony on coerced sterilization of Tibetan women. In addition, it monitors government news regarding sterilization and reports that the local radio in Amdo Province announced in 1990 that 10 percent of women of child-bearing age had been sterilized. On February 2, 1992, the Lhasa Evening News announced that four sterilization teams had operated on 1294 women in Lhundup, Nyomo, and other counties.

China claims it has taken "vigorous steps" to promote female education, yet it admits that 36.6 percent of rural women and girls are illiterate or semi-literate. Widespread discrimination against Tibetans in employment deters Tibetan girls from continuing their education. And education is not free the cost is unaffordable for most Tibetans. Individual teachers sometimes demand money from students or parents. The teaching language in most schools is Chinese, setting up a further barrier. In addition, Chinese culture is emphasized at the expense of Tibetan culture.

Tibetan women also lack access to basic health care in ICLT's assessment. The available care is too costly for the average Tibetan woman. Even in the capital, Lhasa, 40 percent of children under seven suffer from anemia; 38.4 percent have rickets. And Tibet has a higher maternal mortality rate than China: 20 per 10,000 as compared to 6 per 10,000. Nuns probably account for no more than three or four percent of the total monastic population in Tibet, yet they represent 25 percent of the prison population.

Living now in retreat in the mountains of Dharamsala, northern India, with 1000 fellow nuns, Gyaltsen Wongmo welcomes new female arrivals from Tibet, many of them victims of severe punishment and torture. "The process of healing the spirit and the body is slow," she concluded in her testimony before the US House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, "and our memories of Tibet are always with us."

World Tibet Network News WTN-L