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Tsering Kyi: Why This Tibetan Woman Leader Is Becoming An Inspiration

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NOTE: This interview was originally published on the American India Foundation Blog. The author is an AIF Clinton Fellow of the 2020 – 2021 batch working with the Central Tibetan Administration. The original post can be viewed here:

Set in the mountainous terrains of Dharamshala, overlooking the mighty Himalayas, the Central Tibetan Administration or CTA is a unique governmental system in many ways. Globally, it is amongst a rare few hierarchically organized set-up for a government in exile.

The CTA has proved to be dynamic and progressive compared to traditional governments by taking the initiative to mainstream gender across their policies. This is being done by the Women Empowerment Desk or WED. Amongst its myriad activities focused on women is a helpline serving victims of domestic and gender-based violence.

The stand-out point of WED is its inherently strong women leadership.  Ms. Tsering Kyi is the wonder woman leading WED to the zenith of success, efficiency, and impact-creation through her determination, focus, dedication, and perseverance. The following is a conversation with Kyi la, which inspired and moved me greatly.

Tsering Kyi educating a bunch of teenaged school boys on gender issues.
Tsering Kyi conducting a gender sensitization workshop with a class of teenage boys

Shivangi Singh (SS): Please tell us a little about your childhood and background. How did the unique experience of being a Tibetan living in India shape your life and identity?

Tsering Kyi (TK): I was born in Ladakh and did my schooling till 10th at Tibetan Children Village School at Ladakh. I was born to a middle-class family; I am the eldest among four of our siblings. I am the first generation who went to school and got access to education.

My grandparents had fled Tibet in 1959 and came to India in exile, and my parents were born in the early 1970s in India. Growing up, I remember my mother often pushed me to do well in my studies; therefore, my parents played an important role in educating my siblings and me.

Growing up in Ladakh, surrounded by a Tibetan community and being in a Tibetan school, I never felt like I was a refugee or exile in India. What I do recall most is that in school, we were often reminded about the political status of being refugees, and we would have school events and patriotic songs dedicated to our Tibetan martyrs paying homage to them.

So, these events shape my own belief in my country Tibet which is somewhere else, and that we have to preserve our own culture, tradition, and language. But I never really realized the depth of being a refugee until I walked into the Indian community after high school on my own.

Growing up, I don’t remember facing a subtle form of discrimination based on my race, ethnicity, and language until I joined my college. When I shared my story of being Tibetan in India, many of my classmates and Indian friends would curiously ask, “Where is Tibet? Is it in India? Are you from the North East? Nepali? Chinese?” So, these questions really plant a question within me: How Tibet is less known to many and how Tibet’s struggle for freedom and invasion by the People’s Republic of China in 1959 is unknown.

Therefore, these experiences helped me to be more aware of the Tibetan political status and how important my role as Tibetan plays in creating awareness and sharing knowledge about Tibet with my non-Tibetan friends. Since then, I advocate for the Tibetan issue whenever the opportunity arises, especially to those who don’t know what Tibet is or where it is and its relation with His Holiness the 14thDalai Lama.

Apart from these differences, I was born in India. Indian culture and food had strong influences on me as an individual, especially in my choice of clothing, food, songs, and lifestyle. Even though it was more difficult to be friends with Indian friends in college, I have some of my best friends who are Indian. We do share the bond of friendship, which is beyond our ethnicity, background, and political identity.

Tsering Kyi leading a gender education session with men of the Tibetan community.
Tsering Kyi leading a gender education session with men of the Tibetan community

SS: What motivated you to join the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)?

TK: I was motivated to join CTA after completing my study in Women’s and Gender Studies from the USA in 2018. While studying my course, I realized that there are so many great things and opportunities that one can contribute to in the sector of gender and gender-related issues within the Tibetan community.

I knew that CTA has a Women’s Empowerment Desk that works towards empowering women and also towards achieving gender equality. So, I found it a good fit for me to work under CTA and give back and contribute to my community within my knowledge and capacity and, at the same time, gain experience in this sector.

On the other hand, I chose CTA because the accessibility and the platform that one receives to implement and learn is a unique experience. Since CTA is the Tibetan government in exile, I always wished to work under the government body.

SS: What do you love most about your work at CTA?

TK: Getting the opportunity to serve and contribute back to my own community is the greatest experience and gratitude that I feel being a part of CTA.

SS: Why was the Women Empowerment Desk created in CTA? What are the social issues that you address?

TK: Women’s Empowerment Desk was created to address Tibetan women inside and outside Tibet. It was founded in 2008 with the formulation of a policy called the women empowerment policy. Since then, the WED has been associated with various social issues like; gender inequality, health care, gender-based violence, mental health, child abuse, bullying, menstrual health and hygiene, and sexual and reproductive right, etc.

Tsering Kyi working with WED team at CTA
Tsering Kyi working with the Women’s Empowerment Desk team at CTA

SS: What is it like being an inspiring woman leader in the Tibetan community and India at large? Who are the women who inspire you the most?

TK: The woman who had played an important role in my life and inspired me is my own mother. She has always prioritized us for our wellbeing, and she has been able to nurture us and take care of us even after the difficulties that she has faced in her own life. So, I get inspiration from people who see the beauty in the ordinary and who choose to stay real and true to themselves.

SS: What are some of the most moving stories that have touched your heart in your work in this role?

TK: Some of the moving stories or moments that really touched me in my work are people expressing their vulnerabilities and life stories with us and trusting us and our work. When we can change peoples’ perspectives, it moves me and really gives me hope to create a community free from violence and any form of discrimination.

SS: How has the pandemic affected the position of women within the community? What measures were taken by the WED to counteract these?

TK: I am sure the pandemic takes a toll on everyone with unimaginable crises related to health, economy, education, politics, and society. In terms of social crisis, violence against women is one of the prime factors that affect women differently.

Tsering Kyi At Work

Globally, it is indicated that the number of violence against women has increased in great amount during the pandemic, and I think the Tibetan community is not an exception to this. But we don’t have data at the moment to project the rise of violence against women in the Tibetan community. Still, we have a Tibetan women helpline operated by the WED in partnership with the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA).

Through the helpline, we learned about the prevalence of domestic violence in the Tibetan community and how it has been affected during the pandemic and lockdown. The Helpline team had helped the complainant according to their needs, and intervention was made based on the survivors’ needs.

In parallel, WED had recently launched guidelines on prevention, prohibition, and redressal of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. This guideline applies to all Tibetan communities living in India to Reduce Gender-Based Violence in the Tibetan community.

Tsering Kyi leading a women’s support circle in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh

SS: Moving forward, what is your hope with the WED and CTA? What goals would you most like to see accomplished for the development of the Tibetan community in India?

TK: In the future, I would like to see more Tibetan people care about and prioritize gender issues and be more receptive and less in denial towards this issue. If there is a shift in perspective, change is possible, and certainly, it will happen shortly.

SS: What do you enjoy the most about living in Dharamshala?

TK: Being surrounded by Valley and Mountains. Fresh air is a privilege you get living in Dharamshala.

Tsering Kyi helping out a colleague at CTA

As I hear Tsering Kyi’s words dripping with humility over her achievements and pride for her homeland and community, I can’t help but feel the same longing for Tibetan freedom as the people of this community. I thank my lucky stars for having been placed with CTA after the rigorous and exceptionally selective process of becoming an AIF Clinton Fellow. I realize the unique position I am in to assist WED and Kyi la towards improving the lives of women in Tibetan communities across India. And it is this realization that strengthens my resolve to give it my all.

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