A home or a country we can call our own is something that most of us take for granted. We do not ponder over what a privilege it is to have a passport, a demarcated nation which you have the freedom to live in and have citizenship of or even essential services such as police or Helplines by the government for our safety. These were questions that I had discussed in abstract during the course of my studies or during conversations with peers. However, it was only after I started working closely with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and met people from the Tibetan community in India and heard their stories that Statelessness became a tangible reality for me.
Statelessness places people in a very vulnerable and uncertain position wherein clarity about legal recourses, applicable government schemes and rights are lacking. Women, especially are in an even weakened position due to the inherent patriarchal foundations of societies. “Female refugees across the world are highly vulnerable to all forms of sexual and physical violence.”(Obradovic, 2015) All these factors combined made CTA, which functions as a government-in-exile for the Tibetan diaspora, pass the Women’s Empowerment Policy (WEP) in 2008 (revised in 2017) and even establish the Women’s Empowerment Desk (WED) to work towards its implementation. One of the major sections of the WEP focuses on Sexual and Gender based Violence (SGBV) and its prohibition, prevention and redressal.
In a strategic planning session with their consultant, WED came up with the idea of a Helpline specific to the Tibetan community especially women as a means to combat SGBV as well as serve as a one stop centre for any information, assistance or support required. After consultations with different stakeholders across the community, WED realized that while women’s empowerment was being worked on extensively, the issue of SGBV was not really being addressed. This was an important gap which needed to be amended for the safety of the community as well as in light of the zero-tolerance policy of CTA.
The need for a Tibetan Women Helpline specifically was very important because of the reluctance of the community members to call Indian national helplines due to language and cultural barriers, fears of discrimination and even lack of clarity in terms of redressal or support available to them as foreign nationals. Another important reason was the inclination of the community to wish to settle things within themselves, this tendency could be counterproductive if no proper support system or proper channels of information were in place. The Helpline would also contribute towards gathering data about SGBV cases within the community which is quite deficient but important to form and strengthen policies.
The Tibetan Women Helpline was launched in March 2020 at Dharamshala by WED under the purview of CTA and in partnership with the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) to serve as a medium of help and support for any and every Tibetan women, girl or community member. Its main operational functions include:
- Counselling services for the aggrieved
- Safe Space for a limited period in cases of domestic abuse or violence
- Information dissemination: government schemes, benefits available, legal know how or any other inquiry within their capacity
- Connecting the aggrieved with the concerned authorities in positions of power to take action if so desired or required
- Sustenance Fund to the aggrieved if applicable
It has been a slow beginning with just 2 to 3 cases trickling in during the initial months. However, with increased awareness and sensitization, the number of cases have gone up to 3 per month. 80% of the cases reported are of domestic violence.
There were many challenges in establishing the helpline, one of the main challenges has been the reluctance of the community to call due to fear of stigma as it is quite a small community. A lot of sensitization sessions, awareness generation and door to door campaigning was being done to tackle this issue in monasteries, schools and settlements. However, the ongoing pandemic hampered a lot of these community-based initiatives. Another issue faced is outreach and publicity of the Helpline itself as an available facility to Tibetan people. With physical interaction with the community not a viable option, we had to shift to the virtual landscape for increasing outreach and impact but due to the lack of proper access and understanding of the online world amongst all community members, our reach and effectiveness has been restricted. Nevertheless, adapting to the current needs, both the WED Team and the Helpline team have been strategizing on utilizing the social media platforms to their advantage and capacitating themselves for the same.
My role as an AIF Fellow placed at WED has been to ensure smoother coordination between the Helpline Team and it’s mother organization WED as well as to support the Helpline Team in strategizing their outreach and awareness plan especially their use of social media for the same. With an active Instagram account, ‘tibetanwomenhelpline’, we have started sharing information and data on SGBV and even held live session on important issues such as ‘Self Breast Examination for Breast Cancer Awareness’. Our hope is to reach more members of the community and encourage them to contact us in case of any problem faced or help required.
Although the Tibetan Women Helpline was launched as a pilot project in just Himachal Pradesh the future vision is to scale it to all Indian states. Breaking the silence around these issues is a very slow and patient process but we are glad that these conversations are at least one step forward in destigmatizing issues and encouraging women and girls to speak up and out. The main purpose of this Helpline, as put beautifully by our WED Team members, is to just make the Tibetan women and community members feel safe and have the comfort to reach out and know that there is someone willing to listen, to support, comfort and help them. It is important for them to know that they have choices available even in statelessness.
A Few Posters of the Tibetan Women Helpline
Marija Obradovic, “Protecting Female Refugees against Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Camps”, 9/11/2015, United Nation University Publications, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/protecting-female-refugees-against-sexual-and-gender-based-violence-in-camps.html
This article would not have been possible without the wealth of information provided by both the Women’s Empowerment Desk (WED) team – Tsering Kyi and Tenzin Tsetan as well as the Tibetan Women Helpline team – Dolma Samkar, Dolma Kalsang and Dolma Tamdin.