Safety in statelessness: Tibetan Women Helpline

Trishla Bafna, AIF Clinton Fellow 2020-21 (Photo courtesy of Trishla Bafna)

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 the 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 resources, 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.

The entrance door of the Tibetan Women Helpline Office. (All photos courtesy of Trishla Bafna)

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.

Inside the office of the Tibetan Women Helpline.

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.

References:

-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.

*A previous version of this article was originally published on June 14, 2021, by the American India Foundation: https://aif.org/safety-in-statelessness-tibetan-women-helpline/

Author Bio:

Trishla is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. For her fellowship project, she is developing guidelines and policies, tools, and implementation strategies for gender mainstreaming across programs to strengthen the capacity of the Women’s Empowerment Desk within the Central Tibetan Administration. Trishla has always been passionate about gender, justice and affecting change. As a student of History, she learnt the value of interpretation and thought processes which aids her in any social or other change she aims to bring about. Her internships with the CSR department of Tata Steel (for underprivileged children), NGO Kolkata Sanved (empowering victims of abuse through Dance Movement Therapy) and other development organizations encouraged her to pursue Human Rights for her higher education. Her dissertation was an experimental intervention which focused on bridging the gap between the theory and practice of gender equality through making ‘Gender’ a subject taught in schools. She also interned with the British Red Cross in London to understand the nuances of women-led sponsorship in international development. She worked at UNOPS Sri Lanka as the Partnerships Intern for a year wherein she not only gained international exposure but also experience in project conception and management across sectors with gender mainstreaming an important aspect of her learnings. The AIF Clinton Fellowship gives her a unique opportunity to understand gender at a grassroot level as well as to formulate scalable strategies for attaining gender equality. Her ultimate aim is to work in the development sector to make the laws, policies and theories of gender equality and Human Rights accessible and applicable to all by means of education and other practicable change-making solutions. In her free time, Trishla loves to read and sometimes write quirky feminist rants for her blog, travel, dance and enjoy her mother’s cakes whenever possible.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India is a fully funded, interdisciplinary, experiential learning program that places young professionals in service with communities in India for ten months. In partnership with local NGOs, Fellows learn about inclusive leadership in poverty reduction through collaboration and capacity building.

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