Norlha and New Opportunities for Rural Women in a Tibetan Area

Women play a crucial role in the nomad economy of the Tibetan Plateau along with the heavy burden that is put on them from the time they marry. Marriages are typically arranged, and girls are married out to another family unless there are no brothers to assure its continuity in which case a husband will be brought into the family and bear its name.

Life is hard for a traditional nomad wife, or nama. Typically, she rises around 4am and performs various chores managing the herd, milking the dris, collecting dung, that often take her until midnight, especially in the summer. From June to November, she will be living in a tent with little shelter from the vagaries of weather tending to and herding hundreds of head of cattle, making sure they come home safely each night and that they don’t encroach on the grazing areas reserved for autumn or Spring. No wonder that any girl who has had schooling will do her utmost to avoid the pressure of a marriage that takes her back to the pasture.

Most women employed at Norlha started out as nomads, either helping out in their own family or marrying into another. Somewhere around the early 2000’s the market pressure made it such that smaller herds could no longer sustain a family’s growing needs. Norlha’s presence in Ritoma made it possible for these families to remain in the village, balancing their income with a few animals and one job at Norlha. After a few years, Norlha became an opportunity for a young couple with some schooling to lead a new kind of life, establishing a household and supporting their parents.

Jamyang Dolma, Norlha’s face, is one of those who benefitted early; she returned from middle school in Tso and was sent to help her brother and his family manage the family herd for over a year. She was unhappy and refused to be married into another nomad family. Her parents found her a job at Norlha, and a husband who also became employed there. Today, the family enjoys income from the herd run by Jamyang’s elder brother and that of the Norlha employed couple. The parents live with their daughter and her husband, helping out with the children and with the herd if need arises. Jamyang Dolma proved her aptitude as a tailor while her husband works in the felting section. She is also active in other areas; the basketball team, English lessons and the Yoga Club.

Notwithstanding other women like Jamyang Dolma, Norlha provides a path to a new life for divorced women, who has no place in a traditional family, young women who wish to defer marriage and control their own lives or young brides who want a chance to earn an income.

Ritoma is spread far and wide into eight hamlets and when we opened in 2007, men rode to work on their bikes while women were left to walk sometimes over and hour, summer or winter. Now women ride bikes too, bought with the money they have earned.