Following our first round of presentations yesterday, I feel compelled to write about the experiences I’ve had so far in my placement for this course. I am with Stephanie at the Department of Health at the Central Tibetan Administration, otherwise known as the CTA, which is the Tibetan government in exile. The work, we were told, was to be centred around sexual health education, HIV/AIDS prevention, and substance abuse. I had been selected for this placement based on my experience in sexual health education and harm reduction initiatives in Canada. After spending this past week in my placement, I have begun to feel the weight of my biases on my shoulders, and I wonder whether my skills will actually be useful to the CTA.
Many of the preparations I had done were not applicable to the programming in Dharamsala due to difficulties in communication and cultural differences. For example, the sex-positive approach in which I was trained was not considered appropriate for the demographic nor for the framework in which we were working. We had originally thought our target audience was comprised of adults, but we learned instead that the initiatives were to be geared toward youth aged 13-18 years. The programming was to be focused on peer education as a tool to teach young Tibetans about puberty, body positivity, and sexual assault prevention in a culturally relevant way, meaning that abstinence was promoted exclusively, and condoms and contraception were not to be spoken of unless the question came up in discussion. We were asked to use our positions as Westerners to caution children on the effects of teen pregnancy, which I gathered to mean that the West is perceived here as having issues involving negative outcomes of teen pregnancy, premarital sex, and sexual promiscuity among youth.
I feel like I’m sitting in a pool of questions and questioning. On the one hand, the CTA staff work so hard to put forward useful and accessible healthcare initiatives. They have programming for consent and sexual assault prevention that we in Canada could only dream of, and they are incredibly progressive in the way they combat victim-blaming and promote body positivity. They have been extremely accommodating of our ignorance and biases, and I wonder if I am guilty of “Othering” their culture. On the other hand, I am finding it difficult to work from a framework that I believe to be ineffective. Then I turn back again, thinking, who am I to be criticizing anything? I have been asked to enter this space because I have a skills set needed to support their programming. I am not a member of this community, nor will I be, due to the short amount of time I am spending here. I am not here to design curricula or review information for accuracy, and if changes do take place, they will not be from my hands, but from activists within the community. My role is to support where I am needed. As a volunteer abroad, I acknowledge that there will be cultural differences and I may indeed find myself in disagreement at times. This does not mean that I cannot maintain my values or critically regard some of the differences I see. Part of becoming more interculturally competent is being able to navigate these exchanges and look at things from the perspective of a culture that is not my own, while still doing authentic and useful work as I am needed. When we are mindful of our biases as we participate in intercultural exchanges, we may move farther down a path of “thicker” global citizenship—volunteering abroad in a way that truly supports rather than harms.