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How Tibetan women protect their habitat

Jan 30, 2012

Colorado: "It is only in exile that I am free to speak my life's joys and sorrows," says Ama Adhe, from her book 'Ama Adhe: The Voice that Remembers', a 1997 Wisdom Books publication by Adhe Tapontsang (as told to Joy Blakeslee). According to Feminist Bookstore News, this book presents "the story of a woman who sustained her human dignity, integrity, and compassion in the face of immense degradation and suffering ... both compelling and inspiring", while Amnesty International calls it "a moving testimony which serves to further international awareness and understanding."

Gathering true and accurate reports in the stories of the suffering of refugee women is vital to improving conditions for all women worldwide. With clear memories of homeland each refugee suffers from terrible homesickness in addition to the recovery from the traumas of incarceration, violence, abuse, and all elements of conflict.

Tibetan refugee Ama Adhe Tapontsang's story is no exception. Her triumph over insurmountable odds through conditions of personal abuse and torture during her 27-year stay in prison was soothed by memories of her love for people and the pristine beauty of the land where she was born. During those tough days appreciation for the land and her family's culture helped lift her to a different time... a different world.

But in order for a culture to survive, its lands need to be protected. In fact, today, government accountability in reporting conditions for women also spills over to the need for accountability in reporting environmental conditions, as they impact women just as strongly.  

The Tibetan Plateau, known as the "Roof of the World", is a 16,000-foot-plus region that has more than 2,000 natural lakes – watersheds for India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh. That's enough water for 47 per cent of the world's population. It is a land where 1000-year-old forests grow on steep hills, rivers scream down impossible slopes, and there's enough sunlight to make the region second only to the Sahara desert in terms of solar wattage potential.

Unfortunately, this pristine habitat is slowing fading now. In March 2007, the World Wildlife Fund reported that four of the 10 rivers of the world listed as the greatest environmental dangers were located in the Tibetan regions of China. These rivers, which currently face possible serious environmental impact, are the Yangtze (Dri Chu in Tibetan), the Salween (Ngulchu in Tibetan), the Mekong (Za Chu in Tibetan) and the Indus (Sengye Khabab in Tibetan). Their deterioration is partially due to factors like too many hydro-power dams, unchecked pollution, overfishing and climate change.

UNESCO's WHC - World Heritage Committee has expressed "serious concern over the potential significant impact" to the environment and to people who are dependent on these rivers for life, stating that the World Heritage Committee has not, to date, been given enough information by the Chinese government to make proper assessments of the situation.

Before 1959, six million Tibetans inhabited the region of China that is now known as the TAR - the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Tibetan people had co-existed for centuries within their natural environment but official policies after 1959 envisioned a new use for the land. It included endless opportunities for roads, mines, dams, mass agriculture, "modernisation" and industry.

For women, personal struggles and environmental stress often go hand in hand. As the primary caregivers of the family they are certainly no strangers to suffering, whether it is a shortage of food, water or livelihoods.

In 2000, the CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) had linked environment to the right to health in its Concluding Observations on the State Report of Romania, expressing its "concern about the situation of the environment, including industrial accidents, and their impact on women's health." Similar concerns may be rising in areas inside the TAR now.

During the United Nations 36th Session of CEDAW in August 2006, Sharon Horn, Director, Human Rights in China (HRIC), said, "Without grassroots ownership of the important issue of gender empowerment, the Chinese Government cannot build meaningful partnership with both local and international actors to form useful solutions for the advancement of women." Founded by Chinese students and scholars in March 1989, the HRIC is an international, Chinese, non-governmental organisation with a mission to promote international human rights and advance the institutional protection of these rights in China.

As a grassroots organisation, the Tibetan Women's Association (TWA), too, has been focusing its efforts to help those who have been affected by the drastic changes in the Tibetan region over the past 75 years. Based in Dharamsala, India, the TWA has 47 branches in countries including Nepal, the US, Japan and various countries in Europe, with over 13,000 members. Their objectives include raising global awareness of the situation in Tibet, empowering women in exile, addressing human rights abuses perpetrated against Tibetan women, preserving Tibetan culture and environment, and to "join hands with the women of the world to promote peace and justice for all."

The Central Executive Committee of the TWA is advocating strongly for greater transparency in the process of reporting to CEDAW. "In view of the grave situations faced by Tibetan women in Tibet, we urge the Chinese authorities to invite the Council's Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women on an official fact-finding mission which will include an extensive programme in Tibetan areas of present-day China."

In addition to being the champion for Tibetan women's rights, the TWA plays a powerful role in the protection of land by focusing on local environmental issues. To aid these campaigns, its regional chapters hold regular cleanup drives in their areas, as well as organise local reforestation programmes. For instance, in July 2007, the TWA planted fruit tree seeds blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as they do each year across the Tibetan refugee settlements in celebration of His Holiness's birthday.

The women of the TWA also give lectures and public information to poor and needy families regarding environment, health, diet and hygiene. They offer a "broom squad" service during religious gatherings and other community events to ensure that spaces are left clean and safe.

In the Harvard Human Rights Journal (2001) Laura S. Ziemer has written, "The right to life is the most important of all human rights legally guaranteed and protected by contemporary international law. On the other hand, the right to life is the one which is, most of all, connected to and dependent on proper protection of the human environment ... we cannot forget that this is an original right from which all other human rights derive."

Ama Adhe, who lives in Dharamsala now, still dreams of her land. "... an exile can never forget the severed roots of beginnings, the precious fragments of which are always within the heart... As I pass through the hours of each day, I feel my memories remain with the memories of my family and friends whose bones have become part of a land now tread by strangers." (The Voice that Remembers, Wisdom Books)

By arrangement with Women's News Network (http://womennewsnetwork.net)

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