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26november200991Dharamsala: Yesterday evening, to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Tibetan Women's Association held a discussion panel on Tibetan gender equality at the TCV day school in Mcleod Ganj. Four leading members of the exile community spent ten minutes each voicing their perspectives on women's rights both in exile and inside Tibet, and afterwards answered a series of questions posed by the audience. About 80 people attended the discussion-a mixture of women and men, Tibetans and foreigners.

The panel began with Tibetan writer and researcher Lukar Jam, who said that the situations of Tibetan women in Tibet and in exile present two drastically different pictures. He stated that, "In the exile community, about 80-90% of women are literate; in Tibet, 80-90% are illiterate."

This statistic shows that women's status and education has vastly improved during their five decades in exile. Lukar added that the Tibetan Women's Association set a policy last year to encourage Tibetan women to find better jobs within the exile community. He also mentioned that before the Chinese occupation, wives and husbands were granted equal rights by Tibetan rulers.

Kirti Dolkar Lhamo, a current member of the Tibetan exile Parliament and the president of TWA, spoke on the historical differences between men and women in Tibetan society. She explained that because women were expected to work inside the home and were excluded from higher education, they faced many limitations and had a lower social status than men.

She pointed out that today, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government have gone to great lengths to empower women and encourage their participation in the larger society. Kirti Dolkar Lhamo stated that, "The exile government is following the guidelines of the United Nations concerning women's rights."

She told the audience that the Tibetan Parliament must include at least two women members in its body of ten, or it will be disqualified. Additionally, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has declared that women and men are equal, and encouraged women to participate in Tibetan democracy.

Despite this, stated Kirti Dolma Lhamo, "Women in the Tibetan exile community are not coming forward to claim their rights". The government has extended equal opportunities to Tibetan women, but many are still lacking, due to the traditional expectation that they work inside the home. "When girls pass class 12, they have to look after the family, while boys go on to receive further education-this is embedded in our society," explained Kirti. She encouraged Tibetan women to rise up and seize the opportunities available to them, failing to mention whether Tibetan men would be willing to share in household duties in exchange.

The next speaker, writer and activist Tenzin Tsondue, pointed out that Tibetan husbands no longer look down on their wives, which was once normal in Tibetan society. He added that Tibetan women are in a much better position than their female Indian neighbors. Tenzin concluded that while men and women are different, specifically in terms of physical strength, this does not mean that the genders are unequal. He stated, "If we understand that men are better in some things and women are better in others, then there is no gender bias."

"Relative to other countries, Tibetan women's status is not that bad; but there remains room for improvement," declared Rinchen Khando Choegyal, former Kalon and founding president of TWA, and current executive director of the Tibetan Nuns' Project.

26november200992"These days, women are not given to their husband's family," she noted as an example of improving gender relations.

On the subject of religious-based discrimination, Rinchin clarified that, "When Tibetan Buddhism flourished in Tibet, women's rights decreased; not because of the Buddha's teachings, but because those who brought the teachings carried along certain negative aspects of Indian culture."

There is currently much debate in the exile community about the fact that Tibetan Buddhist nuns are not allowed to reach the same level of religious education (Geshe, or doctorate of philosophy) as their fellow monks. This is perhaps the only area of society where open discrimination against Tibetan women remains the norm. Rinchen stated that in 1984, His Holiness expressed his wish that nuns be able to receive higher education, but despite this, "many nuns are afraid to take this opportunity."

When the Tibet Post International posed the question, "If Tibetan women didn't come to this debate, does that mean they're satisfied with what they have?", Rinchen replied that women in the Tibetan exile community hesitate to attend public discussions and debates, because such meetings have been culturally set aside as "male" activities. In spite of this, there were about a dozen young Tibetan women in the audience, as well as a few older ladies.

The panel discussion was carried out in Tibetan, with several translators available for the English-speaking audience. It should be noted that the quotes in this article are based on the translated version of the discussion.

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