1959 was a critical year in determining whether Tibet would survive as an independent nation. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Tibetan women showed a deep sense of patriotism and unwavering courage, which ultimately led to their organized struggle for freedom. The movement was initiated and led by brave women such as Kunsang, Galing Shar Choe-la, Pekong Penpa Dolma, Tavu Tsang Dolkar, Demo Chime, Tson Khang Meme, Kukar Shar Kelsang, Rizur Yangchen and Tson Khang Tsamla.
On March, 12, 1959 a day after the National Uprising Day, thousands of women gathered on the ground called Dri-bu-Yul-Khai Thang in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. This demonstration – Women’s Uprising Day – was the spark that initiated the Tibetan women’s movement for independence.
At that time they passed a resolution including the following points:
Chinese should go back to China
Tibetans are the rightful owners of Tibet
Tibetans are capable of taking care of all their affairs
China has no right whatsoever inside Tibet
The Tibetan women will continue with their struggle until the Chinese stop interfering in Tibetan affairs
Enormous processions were carried out in the streets of Lhasa and memoranda telling China not to meddle in Tibetan affairs were handed to the Chinese authorities. Representations request for supports were submitted to the Consulates of India, Nepal and Bhutan in Lhasa. A similar appeal was also make to the leaders of the Muslim community in Lhasa. Chinese authorities responded by resorting to brute force and arrested the leaders of the movement and many other innocent women. They were sentenced to indefinite prison terms, and many of them were mercilessly beaten to death. However, these repressive measures did not dampen the women’s courage. They did not let themselves be cowered by the Chinese.
Ten years later, in 1969, during the notorious period of the Cultural Revolution, Kunsang led her prison mates in protest against China. As a result, she and a number of other Tibetan women activists were brutally tortured and executed. The execution took place near Sera Monastery. The women were made to kneel before their graves. Their heads were shaven clean and they looked so bruised and emaciated that onlookers could hardly recognize them. In the presence of a large number of prisoners, the Chinese authorities announced the so-called crimes they were convicted of. To terrorize them further, Chinese soldiers opened fire all round them. Those brave women refused to kowtow to the Chinese.
Instead of being a party to the forces of falsehood, they chose to sacrifice their lives. The executioners then fired a shot each at the back of their heads. They fell into the graves on their faces. The soldiers then fired a few more bursts of bullets on them in their graves. Without examining whether they had died or not, the graves were then covered with soil. In the same year a nun named Thinley Choedon organized and led the Tibetan women of Nyemo area in a revolt against the Chinese. They fought with the Chinese and those Tibetans who were working for the Chinese. Many Chinese lost their lives and many others had their limbs broken. The situation became so tense that the Chinese in Nyemo had to run away.
With the use of violent force, the Chinese soldiers arrested Thinley Choedon along with sixty other Tibetan women. They were beaten mercilessly and then taken to Lhasa where the Chinese soldiers made them march in the streets as a warning to others. They were finally executed in the Powo Ling kha Park in full public view. The rest of the women were executed in Nyemo and Shigatse, also in public.
All Tibetan women, both inside Tibet and in exile always remember the sacrifices made by those brave women who fought in the early years of our struggle. We are determined to follow in their footsteps and march forward to achieve our goal. Our leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has introduced democratic principles in the governance of our country. There is equal opportunity for women to hold responsible political and administrative positions. We shall therefore continue with our struggle for the sake of our country and our people, while in exile. While carrying out our day-to-day responsibilities to the best of our abilities, we are all the time conscious of who our real enemies are, who our real friends are, and who our real leader and guide is. It is also very important to guard ourselves against falling victims to guide of our adversaries.
The Chinese have carted away priceless Tibetan art objects to China. Many innocent Tibetan children were forcibly taken to China for indoctrination. Six thousand monasteries were razed to the ground. Several massacres of Tibetans were carried out. One million and two hundred thousand Tibetans died as a direct result of Chinese occupation of Tibet. Tortures in the prisons, starvation, suicide and getting beaten to death accounted for most of the death. After forty-years of occupation, Tibetan women inside Tibet continue to play a high profile role in the struggle against China’s illegal occupation of our country. Consequently they suffer particular brutality at the hands of the Chinese authorities. Like our male counterparts, Tibetan women continue to be imprisoned for participating in peaceful non-violent demonstrations. They are also detained, sentenced to and jailed-and in many cases without any formal trial for activities such as displaying the Tibetan national flag, distributing independence posters and leaflets, or communicating news and true information.
The Tibetan women’s movement was revived in exile in 1984 in the form of the Tibetan Women’s Association in order to organize women’s support for independence and to provide valuable services to the community. Their responsibilities include helping to preserve Tibetan culture, fostering unity among Tibetan people, and ensuring that Tibetan children grow up educated with a strong sense of their Tibetan heritage. The Tibetan Women’s Association is committed to shoulder the activities and aspirations that were started by our sisters in Tibet 40 years ago.
Today, one of TWA’s main objectives is to promote awareness at the local and international level of human rights abuses in Tibet, particularly those targeted at women, such as gender-specific torture and forced sterilization and abortions. The TWA also emphasizes the preservation of Tibetan traditions in exile, by organizing activities promoting Tibetan culture and religion. TWA has also initiated projects to address the various social welfare, educational and environmental needs of the exile community.
“I think a great contribution has been made by women both inside and outside of Tibet. Outside Tibet, Tibetan women are participating more forcefully and effectively at various levels in many fields, and also the women’s associations are very active in social activities especially education. The Tibetan Women’s Association has also made a great contribution to the freedom struggle. Inside Tibet, in recent years, nuns have been leading most of the demonstrations in Tibet. Even in the past there were many brave women struggling peacefully for freedom. On the 12th of March, 1959, a big women’s demonstration took place in Lhasa and many heroic activities happened. So there has been a great contribution made”.
— His Holiness The Dalai Lama, as stated in an interview to TWA on July 20, 1995, Dharamsala H.P. India