BY CAROLE SAMDUP (Montreal) - A few years ago while travelling by car across the Tibetan plateau, I was struck by the large number of brothels along the busy highways that brought supplies from China into Tibet. It was difficult at first to differentiate between the crumbling, graffiti-covered cement block structures that characterized the many truck stops along the road between Gormo and Lhasa. Brothels looked like any other small shop in the row, with a vendor sitting in the window waiting for customers to buy cigarettes, soap, or candy. We soon learned however, that the young women in some windows were, in fact, the very merchandise being sold.
Brothels, we came to understand, are a standard commodity along Tibet’s remote highways. Along with a bowl of noodles and a tank of gas, truckers could also avail themselves of a quick sexual encounter before heading back onto the long and isolated road to Lhasa.
As the days passed, my travel-mates made efforts to befriend the girls in the windows. Despite some language barriers, it was quite easy to engage casual conversations about the weather, road conditions and local lore. Such conversations sometimes opened the door to more intimate sharing about home, family, and plans for the future. It was often a personal and moving exchange between women from opposite sides of the universe.
Most of the girls we met in Tibet’s highway brothels were horribly young. Many were under the age of 18 (although most couldn’t say how old they really were). Almost all came from nomadic families in the area and had never been further than where they now sat. They had never lived with electricity, running water, or used a cell phone – in fact much of the highway we travelled was outside of cellphone access. Poverty was the most common reason given for leaving home for work in the sex industry – and poverty in Tibet’s nomadic communities was, we quickly learned, on the increase as both the size of yak herds and access to traditional migratory routes decreased.
We spoke with the girls about sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS and were dismayed by their lack of knowledge. They did not use condoms. There were no hospitals or clinics within access. In the case of illness, they used medicines recommended by local shop owners.
Upon reaching Lhasa, my friends and I decided that we wanted to speak directly with the truckers who regularly drove the long haul route from Gormo to Lhasa and who were the brothels’ primary customers. Our visit to a Lhasa truck depot late one night generated considerable curiosity from the drivers and it broadened our perspective on the issue of highway brothels.
We learned that that a significant proportion of the truckers were actually Tibetan, although many were Chinese. Sitting around open fires and drinking local beer, we asked them about their own life and work experiences. Many had also left nomadic communities in search of cash work. We asked them how common highway brothels had become in Tibet and they explained that they had become very normal. We asked about HIV/AIDS and the use of condoms as protection and we were discouraged to learn that the drivers shared the same lack of basic knowledge we had observed among the sex workers. There was little or no awareness that sexually transmitted diseases could be brought from brothels back to unsuspecting wives at home.
Concerned about the long term impact on vulnerable communities across Tibet, we could find only one western non-governmental group actively working in Tibet on the issue. That organisation was not able to collaborate with exile groups for fear of losing its permit to operate. In any case, the permit was soon cancelled in a general crackdown on foreign NGOs and the organization was forced to leave Tibet. Subsequently, we made contact with a Chinese NGO that eventually succeeded in placing community activists in Tibet where they were able to conduct a limited number of awareness and training programs for sex workers, albeit in the Chinese language. These, however, were soon deemed too risky and they ended abruptly. As far as I know, there is still no coordinated action or advocacy – either inside Tibet or from exile - to confront the challenges faced by sex workers and their communities in Tibet.
It was therefore a pleasant surprise to open my email this week and discover a new report by the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, highlighting some of the challenges faced by women in Tibet. Titled “In the Shadow of Development: Maternal and Child Health in Crisis in Tibet” the report confronts head on, one of the key challenges faced by sex workers in Tibet – the lack of sufficient healthcare.
Although focused primarily on maternal health, the report reveals that in the Tibet Autonomous Region only 33% of women and 41% of children receive adequate healthcare – “the lowest rates of care in the PRC and almost half the national average.” The report adds that healthcare is worst in rural communities.
The TCHRD report makes a number of useful recommendations including the decentralization of healthcare facilities in remote areas, ending the de-facto prohibition of foreign NGOs in Tibet; and allowing a visit to Tibet by the UN Special Rapporteur on Health, Mr. Dainius Pūras. To these, Tibet supporters in Canada might add a suggestion that our own government highlight its current policy focus on maternal health and the situation inside Tibet whenever it meets bilaterally with relevant Chinese officials.
Unfortunately, the TCHRD report makes no recommendations to the Tibetan exile community and its supporters who have, in our view, failed to adequately take up the myriad of challenges faced by women inside Tibet, sexual exploitation being just one. This is not to argue that other issues are less important, but when half the population is facing extreme immediate risks that will have a specific downstream impact on families and communities across the Plateau, something needs to be done. Perhaps this year – as we mark the 20th anniversary of the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing – it will be a good time to start.
In the Shadow of Development: Maternal and Child Health in Crisis in Tibet is available online at http://www.tchrd.org/2015/03/tchrd-report-documents-crisis-of-maternal-and-child-health-in-tibet/#more-3909