REPRODUCTIVE GOVERNANCE IN THE TIBETAN COMMUNITY IN EXILE — DISCREPANCIES AND DIGRESSIONS
AN ESSAY BY TENZIN DHARDON SHARLING
Introduction – Reproductive Governance
This paper analyzes reproductive governance in public policy and how it applies to the exile Tibetan discourse surrounding women’s reproductive responsibilities. Drawing heavily on Lynn Morgan and Elizabeth Robert’s ‘Reproductive Governance in Latin America’ (2012), this study explores how political rationalities, social responsibilities, and ethical assumptions frame the domain of reproductive discourse in the Tibetan exile diaspora. This study also analyzes how the reproductive governance in Tibetan exile community faces the risk of being formulated as a public policy and how the discourse is fraught with discrepancies and digressions that need to be ironed out.
According to Morgan and Roberts, the concept of reproductive governance is “mechanisms through which different historical configurations of actors—such as state, religious, and international financial institutions, NGOs, and social movements—use legislative controls, economic inducements, moral injunctions, direct coercion, and ethical incitements to produce, monitor and control reproductive behaviors and population practices” (p.1).
The authors seek to apply the concept of reproductive governance to other contexts in order to understand shifting political rationalities within the domain of reproduction. I found their explanation of “reproductive discourses as being increasingly framed through morality and contestations over ‘rights’, where rights-bearing citizens are pitted against each other in claiming reproductive, sexual, indigenous, and natural rights, as well as the ‘right to life’ of the unborn” interesting and highly relevant to my study on reproductive discourse in the exile Tibetan community.
Morgan and Rogan’s work opened a whole new terrain for me to use ‘reproductive governance’ as a framework to understand the socio-economic and political beliefs and expectations shaping the reproductive debate in the Tibetan exile diaspora. The authors point out how “overpopulation was the main target of reproductive governance in Cold War Latin America” despite lacking much “evidence that Latin America as a whole had a population problem.” The authors also explain that although the effects of reproductive policies are often analyzed and approached as national phenomena, it is clear that global economic and social movements also have an impact on population and reproduction patterns. In a similar vein, the exile Tibetan discourse necessarily involves an examination of socio-political factors: China’s birth control policies, imposed on both Tibet-based and exile Tibetans, hinder Tibet’s culture, and identity from thriving – that which forms the foundation of the reproductive debate.
Scholarship on reproductive governance point towards how governance regulates the reproduction debate, decision and dictum. It also explains that the governance can be mandated by either the state, religious institutions or figures, and authorities, civil society or individual mentality. This paper looks at how political figures and social actors in the exile Tibetan community govern the reproduction debate in the exile and how it faces the risk of settling into the framework of public policy, accompanied by the concern surrounding the dwindling population in exile, . Furthermore, this paper examines the implications of the exile reproductive discourse on feminist studies, and whether the reproductive rights rhetoric is the solution to the current state of reproductive governance in Tibet, fraught with discrepancies and digressions.
Reproductive governance in exile—heading towards a policy formulation?
On October 15, 2008, the Kashag outlined the policy while underscoring the need to strengthen women’s role in the administrative and political domains of the democratic Tibetan community. On the 48th anniversary of Tibetan democracy in exile, the Kashag (Cabinet) of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) announced an eight-point policy to empower women in exile.
While this was widely considered a milestone achievement for Tibetan women and a huge step on the part of the CTA, the preamble of the policy disclosed a flawed depiction of gender status in Tibetan history. It stated that “no gender discrimination of any kind have taken place in the history of Tibet.” This gave rise to critique from Tibetan feminists, Tibetan intellectual society, and Western supporters as well. The eight-point policy catered to the nuns, women’s leadership at the grassroots and institutional level, women’s health and childcare, women and sports, among other empowerment initiatives.
Notably, however, the sixth policy read: “The new policy will lay special consideration on the health of mother and child in order to develop a future posterity with good morals and facilitate a steady growth of population. Moreover, special workshops and necessary facilities will be given to those women who have formed their new families to help them become good mothers.” While written with the best intention to protect the ‘mother and childcare’, the statement offers a worrying implication by advocating a framework for reproductive governance. This policy alluded to the need for women to reproduce “and facilitate a steady growth of population.” The policy also presents “good morals” as a prerequisite for mothers, and “good mothers” and bad fathers as the prerogative.
In 2012, when the spate of self-immolation protests in Tibet escalated, exacerbating the already tragic political situation in Tibet, the Tibetan government in exile, under the provision of Article 59 of the Charter of Tibetans in Exile, called for a Special General Meeting of Tibetans in September 2012. 432 delegates from 26 countries took part in the meeting to discuss and strategize an action plan for the Tibetan government in exile and for exile Tibetans to address and resolve the Tibetan political crisis.
The meeting adopted 32 recommendations and a list of campaign actions, finalized with the consent of the overwhelming majority of the participants. The 16th recommendation read: “That there is a real problem of the Tibetan population being too small for the purposes of carrying on the struggle both from the current and from the long term perspectives is an obvious fact. There is therefore a need to increase the birth and nurturing of Tibetan children and the Central Tibetan Administration should give special consideration to caring for families having three or more children.”
Though it does come as a surprise that a political meeting to discuss the crisis in Tibet sees a solution in stepping up the child breeding dynamics, what is more alarming is the fact that the recommendation is implemented with immediate effect. The Department of Health of CTA annually allots over six million Indian rupees for the ‘mother and child care’ program catering to the reproductive health of the mother and child. For many years, the CTA has been considering offering financial incentives and additional support to encourage exile Tibetan families to have more than three children. Beginning in 2014, the scheme was implemented and made available for families in India, Nepal and Bhutan with four or more children. The government offers support in the form of scholarships, health benefits, and rewards.
During the annual budget session of the Tibetan Parliament held in March 2014, I raised a question to the Health Minister, asking him if the ‘need to reproduce more number of children’ is a policy of the department of health of CTA. The minister responded, “It is not a policy but a guideline and in a stricter sense, a request.” Last year, the political leader of the Tibetan government in exile, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the 43-year-old Harvard graduate, was quoted in an interview saying, “Tibetan women are encouraged to produce more children….It is important to have Tibetans in numbers.”
Population in exile—the concern?
One of the visible and pressing reasons why an increased population in exile is seen as a social and political imperative is because of the dwindling Tibetan population in Tibet and the stagnant growth rate in the exile population. On April 12, 2009, the Planning Commission of CTA conducted a worldwide survey of the Tibetan population in diaspora. The report, titled “Demographic Survey of Tibetans in Exile-2009”, states that the survey found the total population of Tibetans outside of Tibet, as of 12 April 2009, stood at 127,935, constituting 70,556 males and 57,379 females (in comparison, a population of 111,020 recorded during the 1998 survey. The report mentioned that the sex ratio for Tibetan population in exile is 798 females for every 1000 males, which is a growth of 6 points over 792 recorded in 1998,
The survey also showed some aspects, particularly regarding the population growth rates, which, according to the CTA, could mark a “worrying trend for the exile Tibetan community. The annual growth rates, which were estimated to be 2.8 percent for the last 30 years (1969-1999), has dropped to 1.96 percent in 2009. The survey also showed that the total fertility rates, based on “own-child method”, which, for the period prior to 1998, was estimated to be as high as 4.9 during 1987-89, having gone down to 1.18 in 2009; thus, showing a 3.65 total decline in the fertility level in 2009.
The survey said two major factors – namely, “growth in literacy rate among the young child bearing Tibetan women and rise in contraceptive prevalence” – might have caused the fertility transition in the Tibetan population. The survey opined that “while more educated women take a longer time in building their careers that delays their age at marriage resulting in fewer children or forgoing having them altogether, the contraceptive prevalence has risen substantially from only 10 percent among the married women in 1980’s to 95 percent in 2001.” The survey results expressed concern over the decline in exile population. This does leave room for worry as the Tibet-based population remains stagnant and threatened.
The decline in population growth rate and fertility rate in exile are exacerbated by the socio-political conditions back home in Tibet, where the Chinese government’s policy is posing serious threats to Tibetan demographics; thus, raising the onus on the Tibetan community in exile to compensate for the loss of population, or to fill the gaps by producing more children.
Implications of the reproductive discourse on feminist studies
Examining the reproductive governance debate and rationale in the exile Tibetan discourse, we can see certain themes like women and nationalism, ethics and politics, and the right rhetoric, which collectively reflect debates among feminist scholars, such as Ethne Lubhied, Alex Buttler, Morgan and Roberts.
1) Women and nationalism: It can be understood that by producing children, Tibetan women in exile are seen as ‘reproducing nationhood.’ Women who produce more children are thus seen as fulfilling their nationalistic duty. Butler’s discussion of ‘Feminism, Nationalism, and Exiled Tibetan Women’ (2003) looks at the overlaps and tensions between nationalism and feminism, in exile.
Of the very few literary feminist works on ‘women and nationalism,’ Anthias and Yuval-Davis (1989), postulate that one of the major ways in which women have participated in the national process is as “biological reproducers of members of ethnic collectivities” (p. 7). The Tibetan political struggle weighs heavily on the reproductive assumptions, expectations and governance. Tibetan Women are seen in roles such as guardians of national culture, family traditions and breeding for political goals.
2) Ethics and politics: is it the political reason for the ethical judgment or it just the politics of ethics? In the Tibetan context, political rationalities determine and influence women’s reproductive freedoms, a woman’s right to be able to determine – without coercion – the spacing and number of children. The exile Tibetan reproductive discourse infuses ethical and moral dimensions to the issue as women refusing to marry and failing to produce more children are seen as being un-nationalistic, and uncaring about Tibetan demographics. The social dictum for a women to reproduce now sounds moralizing and has become a condescending organizing principle in everyday exile discourse at all levels: individual, social and institutional.
3) The right to life rhetoric: Butler (2002) makes a “linkage between Western pro-life attitudes and those of Tibetan women.” Tibetans have a pro-life attitude and as Buddhists would vouch for the “right to life of the unborn.” But strangely, the same approach would be lacking in the ‘right to reproductive health of women’, including an abortion. Heavily influenced by Buddhist pro-life beliefs and propagation, Tibetans see abortion as a taboo and sin, and is thus considered ‘un-Buddhist and un-Tibetan.’ In a culture where women are criticized and censured for not marrying, and for not producing more than three children, one can imagine the kind of censure women who chose to abort would face.
Is Reproductive Rights rhetoric—the solution?
In the exile Tibetan scenario, the utilization of the reproductive rights rhetoric seems to offer the resolution to reduce the contradiction between reproductive choice for women in Tibet and in exile.
A reproductive rights is the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children. The right of women to make decisions concerning reproduction should be free of discrimination, coercion and violence. It is the women herself who should have the right to her own body and have the freedom to make her own reproductive choices. Any state or civil or moral interference in a women’s reproductive decision is a violation of her rights—be it China’s birth control policies in Tibet or exile government’s guidelines or any form of moral and social pressure on women to increase population in exile.
Reproductive governance among exile Tibetans is practiced widely and faces the dangers of becoming an established part of the policy framework. It is a flagging issue thwarting any discourse on gender and women’s empowerment in the Tibetan context. However, the collective notions of the impetus of population control in Tibet and the need to fill the gap by putting the obligation on women in exile to reproduce more can give way to a policy formulation. Any individual with commonsense and basic knowledge needs to realize that putting pressure on the “57,379 women in exile” to produce more children cannot rationally justify China’s birth control policies in Tibet.
Though the need to reproduce is a pressing issue and women in exile face the pressure to reproduce to fulfill their patriotic duty, it is the women’s prerogative and her right to her body that ultimately counts and matters. As strange as it may sound, I am inclined to juxtapose the two taglines—‘Women in Tibet have the right to reproduce and women in exile have the right not to reproduce.’ To put it more succinctly or sensibly, I would propose a cohesive tagline: “Both women in Tibet and in exile should be entitled to their own reproductive rights, and this is a legal right enshrined in ‘Article 1 of the UN Charter’ that needs to be respected and upheld.”
Butler, A. (2003). Feminism, Nationalism, and Exiled Tibetan Women. Kali for Women, New Delhi.
Demographic Survey of Tibetans in Exile (2009). Planning Commission, Central Tibetan Administration.
Davis and Anthias, F. (1989). Women-Nation-Sate. The Macmillan Press, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire.
Luibhéid, Eithne (2013) Pregnant on Arrival: Making the Illegal Immigrant. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Morgan, L. and Roberts, E. F.S. (2012). Reproductive Governance in Latin America. Anthropology and Medicine 19:2
Tears of Silence (2009), Tibetan Women’s Association Publication, Dharamsala, India.