By Tenzin Dharpo and Tenzin Nyidon
An uncharacteristic chatter is abuzz in sections of the Tibetan community these past few days. A YouTube vlog by a young Tibetan mother lamenting her position of having to choose between her child and her beloved profession as a music teacher in a Tibetan school, here in the capital of the exile Tibetan set-up, drew sympathy and solidarity among many on social media. However, the support for the young mother has expectedly, not translated into condemnation for the policy, or lack thereof, that has given rise to this predicament.
People are beginning to see the matter as a new issue that has ruptured the social fabric and their way of life. Except that, neither the issue is new, nor the consequences it has on affected individuals. Challenges and difficulties of motherhood have existed since time immemorial and so have inadequacies of systems and policies. The Tibetan community in that respect is not immune.
Phayul conducted a months long investigative pursuit with stakeholders at various intersections of the exile Tibetan community.
Official line: indifference or complacency?
The existing policy level safeguard for women by the Central Tibetan Administration, or the exile Tibetan government is a three-page, stopgap draft with high moral line but vague deliverables. An unpublished research paper by US aid outfit National Democratic Institute titled ‘A Gender assessment of Tibetan Women’s political participation in Exile’ stated, “The CTA’s Women’s Empowerment Policy is virtually unknown in the Tibetan community and lacks actionable goals and a clear path to achieving its objectives”.
The policy drafted in February 2017 while vying for progressiveness on paper has not trickled to standards that are not only necessary but rudimentary. The Program Officer at CTA’s Women Empowerment Desk Tsering Kyi told Phayul, “We recognize the need for an amendment to the policy so that it can be relevant with current time and requirement, especially when it comes to reproductive health of women. It is our duty to revise the policy and I feel the administration will also have no objection to any proposals to amend the policy”.
The positive statement from Kyi however shields the complacency that the successive administrations over the years have shown in failing to revise and implement components of the policy that have since become administrative shackles for female civil servants.
As per the existing ‘Code of Conduct’ for CTA’s civil servants, female employees gets only three months maternity leave while male employees get a mere 15-day paternity leave. Here lies two issues; first it overlooks the caregiving needs of a father towards their child and second, it contributes to assumption and common practice that women/girls have to look after the home or family. The stereotype not only discriminates against women but limits men’s participation and connection with the family and stigmatize their role as caregivers. So why overburden the mothers and undervalue fathers?
The window of three months for a mother to physically recover from pregnancy related complications or recovery in general is inadequate, says Dr. Tenzin Tsomo Tenga, a gynecologist at Dharamshala based Delek Hospital.
“At least six months of exclusive breastfeeding is recommended from a medical standpoint, during which the baby is entirely dependent on the mother. However, after childbirth, mothers face significant stress due to hormonal changes and are susceptible to mental health issues due to the combination of caring for the baby, managing household chores, and fulfilling work responsibilities. This multitasking takes a toll on their mental health and often leads to postpartum blues, depression, and even postpartum psychosis,” Dr. Tsomo said.
Pelyoun, a grassroots advocate for menstrual health and women’s rights in the Tibetan community made a valid point regarding the importance of breastfeeding. “I think parental leave duration should be sufficiently long enough for both parents. Both the WHO and UNICEF recommendation is that children need to be breast-fed for at least 6 months. So, from that standpoint alone, 6 months should be an absolute minimum for both the parents,” she said.
From the mare’s mouth
Over the course of few months, Phayul engaged with 9 Tibetan women, who are both stake holders in the larger discourse but also victims of the status quo, for lack of a better word.
Dr. Tenzin Lhadon, a researcher at the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI), believes that the existing maternity leave regulations are “inadequate”. “I have witnessed my own sister’s struggles in bringing up her son and observed the emotional and physical pain she went through. Mothers should have an extended maternity leave period of one year,” she opined.
In contrast, Dechen Palmo, another researcher at TPI, said that the three-month maternity leave was sufficient for her needs. As a mother of two and currently pregnant with her third child, Dechen, however, acknowledged the privilege of receiving help from her mother and sister at home after delivery. She recognized that not everyone may have the same privileges or support systems. She further added that her office and supervisors have helped her, by providing her flexible working hours and no restrictions on breastfeeding. “This flexibility enables mothers to breastfeed their babies whenever needed,” she said.
But, such flexibility and help is not uniform in CTA’s working environment. A young mother who works for the CTA spoke to Phayul on the condition of anonymity. She confided, “I have to juggle my role as a mother and office-worker simultaneously. And when I inadvertently fall short in both roles, there is tremendous mental stress. We are expected to give 100 percent to the job as well as 100 percent to the baby but we end up not being able to give 100 percent to both. Society expects mothers to rear children like they don’t work and work like they don’t rear children.”
“As there is tremendous pressure on me, my body’s ability to produce milk for my child has also reduced significantly which has affected the growth of my child”, she further revealed.
As a father of new born, Dr. Tsewang Dorji, also a researcher at TPI, says the 15-day paternity leave was grossly insufficient, that he had to use his limited annual leave (30 days) that CTA provides to all its employees, to help his wife and take care of his child. “Using annual leave for paternity purposes may not be an ideal solution, as it can limit the time off available for other personal needs throughout the year. Paternity leave should be a separate entitlement specifically designed to support the fathers,” he added. Tsewang, who hails from Tibet, feels blindsided by the existing provisions which does not consider the well-being of the parents or the children.
If the sum of budget allocated for the Women Empowerment Desk, a sub-department staffed conservatively, under the CTA is any indication of the importance placed on the subject, WED has been sanctioned for 60-80 lakh rupees by the parliament which amounts to 0.2 % of the overall budget of CTA of just over 303 Crore rupees for the fiscal year 2023-24.
In comparison, the CTA’s Department of Home under a project initiated by the former administration funded the construction of the new complex of Dharamshala settlement office, at a budget of 2 Crores and 90 Lakhs with amenities like a community hall, restaurant and shops. Around 85% of the total cost of the project was funded by CTA.
To make matter worse, the abysmally low budget for WED is not a voluntary allocation but chip-away funds collected through compliance clauses from donors, particularly from US based funders and aid outfits that mandate a sum of their grants to be used for specific issues like sensitization for gender-based violence among others.
To give context, according to CTA Department of Home’s Workforce Information System (WFIS) 2021 data, there are 88,275 Tibetan refugees in India, of which almost half are women (male: 46,876, female: 41,387). Also, 45% of CTA’s staff, almost half, are women as per official numbers, however less than 0.2% budget is allocated to WED which aspires to empower them. So is the mismatch intentional?
Social worker Pelyon thinks so. She told Phayul, “It can be argued here that because the budget allocation for Women’s Empowerment Desk is kept low, that they are currently under staffed and are unable to promote programs on gender equality to the extend which can be termed reasonable for an administration (CTA), which claims there is gender parity in our society without any substantive evidence.”
“Few studies conducted in the community have indicated that there is still a low level of knowledge in our community on the issues of sexual and reproductive health and sexual and gender-based violence and LGBTQIA+ issues. All of these programs are possible only if there is an increase in the budget to promote and produce the actual picture of the community on the issue of gender equality,” she further argued.
Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan traditional medicine set-up in exile and another mass employer of Tibetan refugees in India like CTA also provides only 3 months maternity leave and 15-day paternity leave. Tibetan Children’s Village schools, which has multiple schools across India and employs hundreds of Tibetan staffs only provide 2 months maternity leave.
In a departure of common practice in the Tibetan community, Tibetan Legal Association (TLA), an NGO based in Dharamshala which consists of three active female staff members have stirred the pot in that regard. The tiny organisation adheres to the Maternity Benefit Act of 2017, passed by the Indian government and provides a maternity leave period of 6 months to its employees. Tenzin Dolkar, a legal analyst at TLA said, “With this, we not only want to support and empower women but also set a standard of keeping up with the changing times and enabling power to bring change.”
Legally, the government of India provides 6 months maternity leave while some countries in the west provide durations as long as 13 months.
A young mother who spoke to Phayul on the condition of anonymity against the maternity leave policy of CTA acknowledged that there are many benefits and schemes for mothers and children provided by the exile administration. “While I complain about the inadequacies, I must also speak about the help I received from the CTA schemes such as the baby room facility and the help with nutrition for the baby among others.”
The CTA provides a multitude of schemes and initiatives to promote health of mothers and children. Reproductive Maternal Newborn Child and Adolescent Program (RMNHA) launched by the CTA’s Department of Health aims to provide comprehensive healthcare services and support to pregnant women, new borns, children, and adolescents in the Tibetan community. The services include cash incentive of 1500 rupees (18 $) for pregnant woman as delivery allowance, laboratory test facility, supplements, diet help, immunisation and feel-good scheme like baby-bag.
Many Tibetan settlements, schools and regional CTA offices provide day-care baby creche facility, although there are places where such facilities are not available and quality of staff and day-care service are up for debate.
Where does the buck stop?
The incumbent President Penpa Tsering falls in line with his predecessor, who incidentally happen to be both men, in maintaining the status quo when it comes to issues such as maternity leave, as well as larger issues related to women.
In his campaign manifesto, the Sikyong assured to support women in leadership roles while also promising “primary importance” to care for mothers and child. When the issue of maternity and menstrual leave were raised in the parliament during the session in March 2022, he responded by saying that his administration does not have the resources like developed nations to provide such care. Social worker Pelyoun retorted, “Without even attempting to explore the possibilities of achieving this or seeking expert advice on this, is a very “lazy response” coming from the Sikyong”.
But President Tsering has appointed half of his cabinet with female ministers as per his campaign promise. Many say that he has the political space and authority to show a more empathetic and realistic approach to the issue until his term ends in the beginning of 2026.
The legislative wing of the CTA has also not fared better in that regard. While some lawmakers have expressed their support for maternity and menstrual leaves as well as greater support for women concerning other key issues, the overall mood of the house has been discouraging and have used issues related to women to ridicule and worse, for comedic relief.
“As a woman who experiences the pain and discomfort regularly, you find it both amusing and discouraging to see your parliament or policymakers discussing the issue in such a manner,” Dr. Lhadon, a research fellow at TPI told Phayul.
Many Tibetan mothers have been silent sufferers, who while mending their body, brave against the societal, administrative and regressive norms and policies. Against the larger context of Tibetan movement and freedom, the plight of Tibetan mothers who produce the next generation of Tibetan people are left to fend for themselves. And no body, it seems, is coming to their aid.