Tibet, or as it is also known, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is five times the size of the UK with 5% of the population. 10 March 2008 was the anniversary of the (failed) 1959 Tibetan uprising against the rule of the Communist Party and the day was marked by demonstrations and protests against the Chinese government. The protests escalated into violent riots. There are unconfirmed reports that as many as 100 people died during the riots. The response of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been to mobilise thousands of combat troops to restore order.
Tibetan women, like women everywhere, find themselves oppressed, marginalised and silenced in almost every area of life but, in addition, have to contend with the PRC’s violation of internationally-recognized standards of women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, the right to education and the right to be free from discrimination.
These actions of the PRC are all the more distressing when taken in the context of the history of Tibet, which is thought to have existed for some 3,000 years. There is a reference to the existence of a "women’s kingdom" (queendom?) in southeastern Tibet as long ago as the second century AD; a matriarchal and matrilineal society where political power seems to have been in the hands of women. Over the years, Tibet has developed a rich tradition of women in positions of power. Tibetan women have also been known as capable administrators and brave warriors. Up until 1949, women were important to the economy as traders and farmers. Even the division of labour was considered complementary and not exploitative. But since the PRC took power, this history and the human rights of Tibetan women have been eroded almost out of existence.
The PRC controls the Tibetan economy for its own interests and as a consequence Tibetan women are not permitted to take part in the economic decision-making processes that affect their lives. They are held back by the lack of access to education, health services, employment and participation in development projects.
The main beneficiaries of China’s development policies in Tibet are Chinese settlers. The resulting increase in poverty amongst Tibetans exposes Tibetan women to extreme hardship in finding employment and educational opportunities, not to mention the difficulties in obtaining even basic amenities for sustaining their families.
Small wonder, then, that so many Tibetans have fled as refugees, perhaps 130,000 people scattered across the planet. Tibetan women who escape are vulnerable to exploitation and violence even as they flee political persecution.
Women all over the world suffer discrimination, violence and other violations; Tibetan women’s struggle adds another element: surviving forced military occupation. Inside Tibet, Tibetan women are discriminated as minorities, tortured as prisoners of conscience and involuntarily subjected to the Chinese policy of birth control and other human rights violations. They have no right to freedom of speech and expression.
Writer/director/composer Rich Martini has made a documentary film called Tibetan Refugee which comprises interviews with Tibetan refugees.