Nun or prostitute? Tibet's women face few
17 August 2005
SHIGATSE China (Reuters) - It's evening in Shigatse and the lights
are coming on.
In the Chinese district of the Tibetan mountain town, strings of
fairy lights flicker around rows of shopfronts where women perch
waiting for customers and men stumble out from backroom corridors.
"There are a lot of prostitutes here. They're all from the
countryside. Maybe they don't have parents to look after them or
anything else to do," says Jirga, an 18-year-old vendor.
Hundreds of kilometres away in a nunnery in Tibet's capital, Lhasa,
a group of young Buddhist nuns sit stitching yards of maroon cloth
into the robes that are the iconic uniform of the clergy.
"The life here is very good. If I wasn't doing this, I'd probably be
a farmer," said nun Ani La, 30, speaking over the din of a
thunderstorm that rolled in from the mountains.
The Lhasa nuns and the prostitutes of Shigatse may have little in
common on the surface, but both are part of the same demographic
group -- young, rural, Tibetan women -- and analysts say their ranks
As development draws herders and farmers to towns in search of wage
labour, Tibet's women find themselves with few choices and little
know-how for getting by in a market economy.
"Often where there is a concentration of nuns there is concentration
of sex workers. The same forces are drawing young women away from
villages," said Charlene Makely, a Tibet specialist at Reed College
in the U.S. state of Oregon.
Jirga, the vendor, shakes her head when asked how much schooling she
has had. The answer is none. Her parents run a small stall selling
jewellery and trinkets and she was raised to do the same.
At the Lhasa nunnery, more than 100 nuns live within the quiet
yellow courtyard filled with potted plants and the sounds of chanted
prayers, an oasis from the jumble of narrow streets of the city's
Of the eight children in Ani La's family, three are nuns and two are
monks. The others work on the family farm and one is a driver.
"This nunnery is popular because it's in the city, but the ones in
the countryside are pretty popular now too," she said.
The nuns say their numbers have grown by a third in the past decade
and would be higher if it weren't for government restrictions,
imposed as part of a series of controls to keep nuns, who along with
monks have a history of political activism, in cheque.
China imposed Communist rule in Tibet in 1950 and has faced periodic
unrest since. Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, led a failed
uprising in 1959 that led to his exile. Trouble flared throughout
the late 1980s, too.
Most famous among Tibet's activist women were the "singing nuns",
imprisoned for speaking out against Chinese rule and who became
renowned after secretly recording songs in prison. The tapes were
smuggled out and circulated underground.
The last of the singing nuns was released in 2004.
But in Tibet, where rural incomes are well under a dollar a day,
some young women don't make it as far as the nunnery in their
efforts to find security.
Their flight from village poverty ends in the sex trade.
"Men can go outside and look for work but for women it's not that
easy. They can't do that," said 19-year-old Da Wa Qu Zong, who lives
with relatives in Lhasa, looking after their son.
"PROSPERITY OF THE FEW"
Many grow up in remote villages or in nomad families, herding yak
and doing framework as Tibet's cities and towns experience a boom
fuelled by massive central government investment -- a boom critics
say benefits more skilled Han Chinese migrants at the expense of
"Tibetans are not only poorer, their extremely low level of
education makes their chances of getting a steady and lucrative job
in the cities as good as nonexistent," the Tibet Information Network
said in a report documenting the rise in prostitution.
"In Tibet, prostitution is not just a symptom of poverty, but is
triggered also by the growing prosperity of the few," the report
It's also a problem officials are loath to recognise, let alone
begin to address.
"There is no prostitution here," said Bian Ba Ci Ren, an official in
Shigatse. The government compound where he addresses reporters is
just blocks from the city's red-light district.
HIV/AIDS cases are below 100 in the region according to World Health
Organisation figures. But views such as Bian Ba Ci Ren's have raised
concerns the disease could spread, especially as the number of sex
The official's pronouncement will also come as news to the young
the shopfronts of Shigatse's euphemistically named "beauty parlours".
"I'm used to it by now," says one woman from the countryside when
asked about what she thinks of her city vocation.
She returns to watching the street, where groups of men stumble
drunkenly from shop to shop, leering at the women in the doorways.