Tibetan Women’s defiant voices: the World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995

Voices that refused to be silenced: the inspirational story of the Tibetan Women’s Delegation in Beijing 1995

Tibetan Women at the UN conference in Beijing 1995
TWA partnered with seven other NGOs concerned with Tibetan women’s issues to take part in the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing 1995.

This conglomerate was comprised of:
1. Tibetan Womens Association, India
2. Tibetan Women’s Organisation, Switzerland
3. Tibet Rights Campaign, USA
4. Norwegian Tibet Committee, Norway
5. Canada Tibet Committee, Canada
6. International Campaign for Tibet, USA
7. International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, USA
8. UK Tibet Support Group, Britain.

A neverending journey; Tibetan women’s fight for representation in Beijing

One problem met us before the long struggle for representation in Beijing; should we even participate? We knew that Tibetan women would never be treated fairly and thus the potential of boycotting was discussed by the Tibetan Support Groups (TSGs) and Tibetan Associations (TAs) involved. We decided that to boycott would only please the Chinese government and also would fail our duty as free Tibetan voices to tell the world what is happening to our Tibetan sisters.

Following the decision to take part, under TWA Central’s committed leadership the NGOs involved spent over two years in preparation, attending Preparatory Conferences held around the world. Whilst uncertain as to whether we’d be able to participate, we gathered for strategy meetings and finalised a group of 80 planned attendees.

The event was comprised of two parts; the NGO Forum held from August 31 – September 8, and the official UN conference held from September 5 – 15. All of our eyes were fixed on gaining attendance at the official UN conference, with TSGs and TAs having already been present in past NGO Forums. The NGO Forum attendance was confirmed without problems, although this meeting was then moved to Huairou, an hour’s drive from Beijing, in a transparent but unsuccessful attempt to stop it drawing any attention.

The Forum organizers also assured us that those registered would not have problems gaining a visa. However, at a meeting in Canada a representative from the All China WomenUs Federation refused to guarantee visas to Tibetan women even if they are citizens of other countries. Following this, at a local Chinese consulate, response to an inquiry about Tibetan women getting visas indicated that they would be granted. However, they never were.

As for the battle for representation at the important official UN conference, this held many struggles, with our eight groups being part of a total 200-300 NGOs excluded from the conference – initially without official reasons. Eventually the baffling reason for our exclusion was given as; “the objective and purpose of the organisation was either not clearly relevant to the conference or outside the scope of the conference”!

We then focused all of our efforts and those of our supporters upon lobbying member states of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).We had a clear argument, with our exclusion adding us to a long list of other NGOs excluded in ways that similarly denied human rights and discriminated; namely, gay & lesbian groups, Catholics for Free Choice, Taiwanese and Tibetan groups.

All Tibetan groups appealed the decision and the applications were reviewed at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meeting in Geneva, June 1995. However the decision for exclusion was only confirmed for all eight groups, despite the fact that three groups had been recommended by the U.N. Conference Secretariat. Six organizations from Taiwan were also excluded.

Finally, none of us were officially granted permission to participate or able to obtain visas. However our voices would not be stifled so unfairly; nine exiled Tibetan women of the Tibetan Women’s Delegation participated in both the Conference and Forum nonetheless, including TWA’s Tsering Dolma Gyalthong.

A monumental event for Tibetan women and our defiant message sent across the world; what took place in Beijing

The demonstration staged by the nine Tibetan women in Beijing and the continuous harrassment from the Chinese authorities (as well as from Tibetan women from the official ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ delegation) resulted in unseen levels of media attention and our message being sent out not only to Tibetans in exile in India and Nepal, but non-Tibetans around the world.

Our nine brave representatives were: Tsering Tsomo, Yoden Thonden, Chimi Thonden, Dorji Dolma, Tenki Tendufla, Phuntsok Meston, Tsering Dolma Gyalthong, Kesang Wangmo and Tenzin Jimpa. These nine women were from a total of fifty Tibetans in exile who attempted to gain visas by hiding their affiliations; they went to Beijing along with a dozen supporters, the small but resolute delegation arriving on August 26, 1995.

On day one of the NGO’s Forum the delegation presented a film on Tibetan women refugees, during which a Chinese man took the video from the player and attempted to run away with it! At the time, Chinese propaganda press stated that this “was an attempt to split China, and was deemed unacceptable to the police officers on duty and an infringement on China’s sovereignty.”

On day two the delegation staged a striking event that would symbolize the treatment of Tibetan women by the Chinese regime, as well as garner deserved media attention: they marched single file to the Forum’s center in heavy rain, with their mouths gagged with silk Chinese scarves – those that had been distributed at the opening ceremony. A crowd gathered quickly, captivated by this candid demonstration, and spontaneously began to sing freedom songs such as “we shall overcome” (from the American Civil Rights movement anthem). Photographs of these courageously gagged, silent and still Tibetan women with tears freely falling down their faces were broadcast to the world – a vivid and emotive symbol of China’s unjust silencing of Tibetan women’s voices.

The Tibetan delegation continued to communicate its message throughout the conference, taking this opportunity to educate others about the many human rights violations against Tibetan women. This included setting up an unauthorized booth with banners such as ‘Tibetan Women in Exile’ and ‘STOP the KILLINGS”. The women continued their efforts despite constant surveillance and harassment from the Chinese authorities, even including physical assaults.

Despite the considerable difficulties, all involved agreed the seemingly neverending efforts had been comprehensively worth it; with hitherto unseen media coverage of Tibetan women’s issues spreading its way around the world, including many headline news stories.

The courage of our sisters in undertaking this unprecedented direct action cannot be overstated; they managed to speak out whilst not knowing what punishment and harm they may come to by the Chinese authorities.

Their impertinence in challenging the Chinese on their own land presents a truly inspirational and touching moment for us all.

In addition to the Tibetan Delegation and countless unyielding support we received, we were urged on in our fight by official messages of support from the Dalai Lama, as well as the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies and the Kashag.

Following Beijing, TWA’s Tsering Dolma Gyalthong went to Washington DC for a public talk by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, where she prostrated to His Holiness onstage and was greeted by a standing ovation in the crowd. She was then presented with a long kata (the distinct white ceremonial Tibetan scarf) in recognition of the Tibetan women’s work prior to and during the conference.

This event was profoundly moving for all involved, with Tsering Dolma Gyalthong sharing the stage with His Holiness as the entire audience rose to their feet and applauded her, aware not only of the many troubles the Tibetan women had endured to send their message out to the world, but also now aware of Tibetan women’s many struggles against Chinese treatment – thanks to the bold and inspiring actions of Tsering Dolma Gyalthong and the Tibetan Women’s Delegation

For more information, there is an excellent report by the Tibet Justice Center here, written by Eva Herzer who was present at the conference.

You can view the Tibetan Women’s Delegation Report here, which was submitted to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing 1995.

Also view the photographs on Flickr.
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