Women Doctors in Tibetan Medicine and the Modernisation of Health Care

This project explores the lives and work of professional female Tibetan medicine practitioners in three areas where the Tibetan ‘science of healing’ (sowa rigpa) is practiced in Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China, in Bhutan, and the Himalayas.

Central Tibetan valley. Photo: Meinrad Hofer, 2007

About the project

Much research in medical anthropology demonstrates that gender is a crucial factor in the delivery and outcome of health care and that the “production of health” by women worldwide is significant. This project explores the lives and work of professional female Tibetan medicine practitioners in three areas where the Tibetan ‘science of healing’ (sowa rigpa) is practiced in Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China, in Bhutan, and the Himalayas. The project focuses on their contribution to contemporary health care and how they have engaged with and opened up a new field of practice for Tibetan medical approaches to women and children’s health care, a field that was previously largely studied in terms of in medical theory and hardly applied in practice among hitherto predominantly male Tibetan medical physicians.

Background

Much medical anthropology research and literature shows that gender is a crucial factor in the delivery and outcome of health care and that the “production of health” by women is significant (Inhorn 2006). This “production of health” has tended to be ascribed to and studied among women in the household and midwives. However, as Cameron points out, the work by professional women in non-western medical systems and their contribution to health has gone largely unacknowledged (Cameron 2010).

This project seeks to explore the life and work of professional female Tibetan medicine practitioners, also known as amchi, in areas where the Tibetan ‘science of healing’ (sowa rigpa) is practiced: Tibetan areas of China, the Tibetan exile community in India, in Bhutan, Ladakh, the Nepal Himalayas, and in Buryatia and Mongolia. It is currently little understood how their increasing numbers have come about since at least the 1980s, what challenges and opportunities this growth has fostered for themselves and their patients, and what its health outcomes are.

Using a combination of historical and ethnographic methods, and a case study approach based on research in Tibetan areas of China, Bhutan and the Tibetan exile community in India, this project will document and analyse the life stories and medical work of modern day female sowa rigpa practitioners. The research will investigate and analyse the effect of amchi’s gender on patients’ well-being and overall community health, in particular through the opening up of a new field of women and children’s health care within sowa rigpa, where this was previously present only in medical theory and hardly in practice. The proposed project is firmly situated in the context of rapid modernisation of sowa rigpa in the interface with biomedicine, the privatisation of health care and the commercialisation and globalisation of Asian medicines.

The project also aims to identify important features of gendered sowa rigpa knowledge and practice beneficial to patients, and to chart transformations that are taking place through multiple modernisations of ‘traditional’ health care practices and patterns.

In understanding the links between the practice and increasing importance of professional female amchi and the modernisation of health care, the proposed project will make a highly original contribution to medical and social anthropology. It also has the potential to impact on future health care provision in the domain of community health and women and children’s health in the areas under study.

  • Cameron, Mary, 2010 ‘Feminizantion and Marginalisation? Women Ayurvedic Doctors and Modernizing Health Care in Nepal.’ Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 24 (1): 42–63).
  • Inhorn, Marcia 2006, , ’Defining Women’s Health:  A Dozen messages from More than 150 Ethnographies. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 20 (3): 345-378).

Financing

  • European Commission, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Research Fellowship

Start - finish

01.07-2012 – 31.12.2014

Published Oct. 8, 2014 9:17 AM - Last modified Oct. 8, 2014 11:16 AM