Caring about Care

*My aunt calls care a form of religious practice. Care is physical; it is intimate. It is sacred, a form of worship. During a pilgrimage trip to Bodhgaya over a year ago, I would carefully observe the tender and delicate way my aunt would dress my momola during the mornings- before our walks around the temple, how she’d tie the cloth around the waist of her chupa, or when she would oil and comb my momola’s hair, braiding it with a pink tapshey. We had all convened together in the sacred landscape of Bodghaya to pray and worship. Yet, I didn’t need to go to a temple to see this-I was seeing a form of worship every day right before my eyes. Like clockwork- it was a ritual. A meditation.

Caring for the elderly is just one form of care. Many of us have probably heard this African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” For perhaps the vast majority of us in this room, more than likely, this village consisted and still consists of a community of women that includes not only our mothers, but also our aunts, grandmothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. They are the ones who labor for hours handling routine domestic work such as buying groceries, cooking, cleaning, and washing. And that’s on top of the 8-9 hours they already spend working their normal jobs. Data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development confirms that globally, the responsibility of care work disproportionately falls on women. In the case of India, compared to the 50 minutes of unpaid labor that men do, women work approximately 6 hours. And while these statistics aren’t available for our own community, should these data be collected, given what I’ve seen through my own family and relatives and our society at large, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see that these large gender disparities also exist in our own community. 

My momola and her sister.

Yet, as important as these forms of labor are in maintaining a home, a family- they are rendered more or less invisible. They aren’t measured economically. Their values aren’t calculated into a nation’s gross domestic product. To make this form of labor more economically visible, Oxfam, an international development agency recently calculated that globally, women’s unpaid labor last year was worth an astounding $10,900,000,000,000- an amount worth more than what the world’s 50 biggest companies made in 2018. 

The UN’s theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is Each for Equal: An Equal World is an Enabled World. Helping work towards a fairer, more equal division of household labor between men and women in our community is an important step in helping build a more enabled and empowered community. We often bemoan the lack of female representation in key CTA leadership roles despite the fairly equal numbers of male and female participation in the CTA. Creating a fairer, more balanced distribution of care work can free up women’s time and make it easier for them to emerge in important leadership roles in our community- the CTA included. Creating a culture where care work is distributed equally within the family also teachers younger generations that care work is not just a women’s job-that both men and women are equally capable and responsible for handling care work. 

As we convene together for CTA’s fourth annual Tibetan Women’s Day and celebrate the generations of strong Tibetan women who have come before us- those who labored constructing roads, our settlements, and our exile community from the ground up into what it is today- all the while carrying the large burden of care work I can’t help but think that the best way for all of us to celebrate and honor them is by committing to creating a culture where both men and women are equally responsible for care work. These changes, in addition to enacting and implementing more generous welfare programs such as accessible and affordable childcare, healthcare, and maternity leaves can go a long way in not only uplifting women but also our entire community. 

Me presenting my speech.

*Disclaimer: This article is based on a speech that I gave to a CTA audience for its Tibetan Women’s Day Event.

References: Wezerek, Gus and Ghodsee, Kristen R. “Women’s Unpaid Labor is Worth $10,900,000,000,000.” The New York Times, 5 Mar. 2020. Op-Ed.

Tenzin is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is conducting gender sensitivity training in schools and settlements to further women’s empowerment within the Tibetan refugee community. Tenzin was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but raised most of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Tenzin’s Tibetan heritage has largely informed her interest in themes of exile, displacement, statelessness, how these elements converge both on the socio-political and the personal, existential level. She is interested in questions of how place constructs our identities, sometimes both grounding us and alienating us, especially in the context of diaspora and exile. In addition to having studied in India for two years during elementary school, this will be Tenzin’s third visit to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Her first visit to Dharamsala was in summer of 2013 when she interned for Tibetan Women’s Association and then after graduating from Bowdoin College in 2016, she enrolled in Sarah College for Tibetan Higher Studies for two years where she studied Tibetan language and Buddhist Philosophy. She is eager to make a third return to Dharamsala as an AIF Clinton Fellow and assist the CTA in addressing gender equity and gender violence in the Tibetan community.

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