Interview: Tibetan Legal Association (TLA) Know Your Rights Campaign for Tibetan Nuns By Tenzin Pelkyi

Legal Awareness Program at Nunneries*Yama Choezom is a member of the Tibetan Legal Association (TLA), which recently launched a Tibetan legal awareness training at nunneries in the settlements in India to provide education and resources on sexual harassment and gender discrimination protections.

Pelkyi: I understand that you were part of the team that conducted the two-hour legal awareness program at various Tibetan Nunneries around Dharamsala last year. What was that experience like?

Yama: I felt that there is a need to do more of such legal awareness programs on similar topics and discuss in more depth. They have very limited access to outside information.

I personally felt a very strong attachment towards nuns, as a fellow Tibetan woman. Their simple way of living and hard work towards achievement in Buddhist studies is impressive. I felt like they are part and parcel of preserving our Buddhist heritage.

Pelkyi: In the last TLA newsletter, it was stated that instances of sexual violence in the Tibetan community are “either hidden or compromised for the sake of society.” Can you explain how this type of abuse can be hidden from our society? I know cases like the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape were discussed and that it shocked the nuns to hear about it, but was there a different response to cases in Tibetan society? I think it’s an important aspect to discuss because so often people tend to think that if they can’t see or hear about something, that it’s not really happening.

Yama: Sexual offences are being hidden to avoid being dragged into gossip and bringing shame. This is due to our way of thinking or cultural influences that make Tibetans feel that sexual offences are matters of shame even for victims. By nature, we [as Tibetans] are more forgiving and accepting; I base this statement on an instance where a five-year-old girl had allegedly been raped  by two Tibetan men in Mundgod Settlement in 2013. Although it has been reported differently in different media, according to Phayul, no First Information Report (FIR) was filed. The father wanted to report to the police but later, after discussion with the administration in Mundgod, he declined to report, as he believed it would bring a bad name to our leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The village leader finally settled the matter by way of private compromise. It may also have been due to lack of legal awareness. Tibetans should be aware of the fact that compromise of rape is not legal, according to recent judgments of the Supreme Court of India.

It’s true that things which are hidden or not seen are presumed to be not happening in our society. Thus, many people believe that there is no sexual assault in the Tibetan community; but that is not true. There are many untold stories.

One such story was affirmed from an article published anonymously on the Tibetan Feminist Collective. Generally, Tibetans live with a peace-loving mindset trying to avoid legal proceedings and not straining relationships, even with culprits of crime.

Pelkyi: I was also surprised to hear that nuns generally are not aware of crimes against women in Indian society. What is the reason behind this? Is it the nature of their training that makes it so? Are they simply not encouraged to follow the news? Or are there other factors at work here?

Yama: There are three possible reasons for nuns not being aware of crimes against women in Indian society:

Firstly, they follow the routines and rituals of nunneries, and so they do not have a strong link to the outside world. Many nuns think that sexual harassment is not so relevant in their life, as they live within their community. Secondly, they do not have direct access to televisions, which broadcasts daily news. In some nunneries, they are not allowed to use cell phones, except on Sundays. So, I think they are missing lots of important information available on social media and news channels. Trilokpa, a nunnery located in a remote area, said that there are very rare visits by the officials and other programs due to their distant location. Thus, it could be due to their isolation.

Pelkyi: Part of the stated objectives of the training was to “educate the nuns about crimes against women, women’s safety and how to protect one’s self.” What kinds of commonly asked questions did you get from the nuns? Were you surprised by their knowledge or lack thereof about any of the training topics?

Yama: Although they expressed their lack of awareness regarding crimes against women in India, questions they asked included topics like general documentation problems, such as spelling and mismatching of names. It is apparent that due to immigration and language barriers, all Tibetans including the nuns have problems with their legal documents like IC and RC.

Moreover, as it was the time of demonetisation chaos in India, they asked about the tax slap and how they should handle what little the nunnery has. We cleared these doubts.

Pelkyi: At the trainings, you spoke on the issue of women’s rights under the Indian Constitution and fundamental rights available to Tibetans as foreigners. What kinds of legal mechanisms are available for Tibetan refugees who have experienced gender-based violence and sexual assault? Were international treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) also discussed?

Yama: According to Guidelines and norms laid down by the Honorable Supreme Court in Vishaka and Others vs. State of Rajasthan and Others (JT 1997 (7) SC 384), popularly known as Vishaka Guidelines, an employer is required to set up an ‘Internal Complaints Committee’ (“ICC”) at each office or branch having more than 10 employees of any gender for the prevention of sexual harassment.  The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) official can make a complaint to the CTA body for internal Redressal.

Apart from that, one can resort to Indian courts to assert their rights. Certain fundamental rights such as Article 14 are applicable to foreigners also. Since discrimination on the basis of sex amounts to the violation of fundamental rights, one has the right to file writ petitions to the High Court under 226 of the Indian Constitution and to the Supreme Court under article 36 of the onstitution.

Due to the shortage of time, we didn’t get time to discuss CEDAW and many other international codes relating to women, but we are determined to make them informed about international laws in the future.

Pelkyi: In teaching the nuns about measures to address sexual harassment, the newsletter stated that you had discussed the “Sexual harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013.” Can you explain what this legislation is and what types of remedies are available to nuns who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace?

Yama: It is “An Act to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and Redressal of complaints of sexual harassment and   matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.

The Act requires the employers of organizations to set up an Internal Complaint Committee. The committee shall be presided over by women who are senior in portfolio with experience of three years of service. The members are preferably amongst ones who are committed to the cause of women or have experience with social work or legal knowledge. Since the nuns have institutions that are similar to the workplace, the appropriate authorities are informed so that they can act as per the guidelines.

Pelkyi: I know this is the second legal awareness program by TLA and that over 300 nuns were reached as a result. I think this is a wonderful development, but I am sure there are suggestions for improvement and expansion. Do you have any thoughts on this or any proposals that came up after conducting this training?

Yama: During the training, we got just two hours for each nunnery. We informed them of the legal protection available to them. I think that we should seek more time to elicit their problems. For that, we hope to set a separate time for group discussion, brainstorming sessions, and interaction with the nuns in the next round of awareness programs.

Pelkyi: Recently, as you know, some twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns were the first ever to receive Geshema degrees in India. As His Holiness said, men and women have equal rights in Buddhist studies. Do you think historic achievement this will have any impact on combatting gender-based violence in our society?

Yama: They proudly told us that they have nuns who completed the Geshma degree as they introduced their nunneries. I am also really proud of the nuns who got the highest degree in Buddhist studies. I feel that it is a historic milestone and it is a proud moment for all Tibetans as well. But, I don’t think that it will be the ultimate force to end the gender-based violence in our society. However, it gives public recognition to the nuns’ remarkable educational achievements and knowledge of Buddhism.

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