In honor of International Women’s Day, I thought I would try to call some attention to the Shem Women’s Group [ch: 祥母慈善协会]. This organization, run by a group of four Tibetan women, encourages women to design, organize and execute development projects in their individual communities. Shem thus makes a direct impact on the lives of villagers by providing needed services such as water-works, solar electricity and plumbing.
Perhaps more importantly, however, Shem challenges Tibetan gender stereotypes. While Tibetan gender roles may not be as rigid as those in other parts of Asia, there are still deeply held ideas regarding the spheres of activity appropriate for men and women. Speaking generally, women are responsible for most household labor and chores, while men are responsible for taking care of the business side of things. In practice, this means that women do most of the heavy lifting, while men take credit for a family’s prosperity. Being female is widely regarded as an inferior birth, the result of negative karma, and women are generally seen as less capable than men.
By encouraging and enabling women to design and perform projects in their home villages, the Shem Women’s Group is forcing other villagers (particularly male villagers) to recognize that women are capable of undertaking and completing major projects outside the home. Last week, Lhamotso, one of the group’s directors, gave a talk about the group at UVA, and her experiences speak to the effectiveness of this approach. When she first started working with Shem she was ridiculed and her family was pressured to make her stop. After completing a few projects, however, she found herself the recipient of social acclaim and approval. Now, she reported, the village headman now comes to her house to speak with her. Another person told her father that she was, “better than a son.” Clearly the Shem Women’s Group’s approach to challenging Tibetan gender norms is having an effect.
For more information on this group, or to donate to their effort, please click here.
I’m sure the Shem Women’s Group is not the only group out there working on gender equality issues in Tibet, but having just attended Lhamotso’s lecture, it is fresh in my mind. If anyone reading this knows of other groups working on this, please let me know via the comment box below.