The atmosphere inside a popular homestay at the remote hamlet of Radhi Gewog in Trashigang is rife with excitement as remarks from discussions on the upcoming poll day and would-be local leaders fly about like invisible electric sparks.
A two-storeyed traditional building and an hour’s drive from core Trashigang town, villagers swarm here every evening to talk politics: often burning the midnight oil.
Tension is building up in the far flung villages of the largest dzongkhag in the country. One can feel it in the hushed whispers or firm arguments of the village-folks as they pitch for their nominees.
During the course of one such discussion, a respected village elder, 62-year-old Jigme Tshewang, revealed that the only female candidate in the gewog for the post of Tshogpa has almost the entire male community’s support, and that her “henchmen” are two from the opposite sex.
“I think it’s good if more women win,” he said, “Men and women can be equally capable or incapable but women possess the power to understand what goes on inside households-they understand domestic issues like managing home and children better and that’s a huge advantage.”
The sexagenarian says he would vote for a capable woman leader any day. His mitse is recorded in Dagana, which has a woman Dzongda, and for the past five years has had a female Gup who is re-contesting.
While all the people Business Bhutan interviewed said they were “more open” to the idea of being led by a woman compared to the past, reactions from them on female leadership were as ambivalent as their diversity in terms of age, occupation and gender.
Yeshey Choden, a 32-year old shopkeeper, is sure that only “a few” women candidates will win.
“It all depends on the woman candidate’s individual capability but as for me, I will support my own gender,” she said.
Meanwhile, Yenten Phuntsho, 27, a shopkeeper and Sherubtse graduate is of the opinion that “all the talk of gender equality is just ‘lip service.’”
“There’s this deep embedded notion in our consciousness that men are superior leaders and it will take at least another five to six years to change it,” he said adding however, that there definitely has been “a marked improvement” in voter attitude with regard to women leaders.
Yenten Phuntsho feels that if the LG elections tilt in favor of women candidates this time, “more women will be encouraged to take part at grass-root level politics in the future; on the contrary, dismal results for them will demotivate and demoralize women”.
Some feel that a majority of women contenders winning will be “precedent-setting,” as a Health Assistant (HA) at Radhi Basic Health Unit (BHU), Karma Choden, puts it.
Thirty-six year old Sangay Tenzin, who calls himself a “literate farmer,” believes that women are sensitive and empathetic making them better leaders.
“It’s just that our women haven’t had the opportunity to explore or express themselves.”
Pema Wangchuk, another HA at Radhi BHU, sees the need for quota system for Bhutanese women in Parliament and grass-root politics.
“This is because women hesitate to come forward and we need to give them impetus.”
Youth had a slightly different perspective on women leaders though. They said they would vote for the most capable – irrespective of gender.
Yog Raj Ghalley, a second year Rangjung Technical Training Institute student, from Samtse has already cast his postal ballot for the elections.
“I consider both men and women equal in all regards. And my vote will not depend on gender – it will depend on the candidate’s manifesto,” he stressed.
However, Dagana Dzongda, Phintsho Choeden, said female leadership is slowly but definitely picking up in the country for a number of reasons including support and advocacy by organizations such as the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC), Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), Respect Educate Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW) and Tarayana that are working toward women empowerment and providing opportunity to women to contribute actively to the family wellbeing which has resulted in their spouses and family members look at them through new lenses of respect.
“Another factor is the government providing opportunities through its gender neutral development plans and policies, and most importantly the support and blessings bestowed upon women from the Throne,” said Dagana Dzongda.
“There are few role models but adequate to begin with to impress and encourage potential younger females to follow suit!”
Dzongda Phintsho Choeden personally believes that female leaders are working hard and doing well and this is crucial to gain the confidence of the people.
“I also believe that level of confidence in women leaders is on the rise and I hope this will translate into desired results in terms of votes for the contesting females in the LG elections this time round.”
Trashigang’s only female Gup contestant from Khaling, Pema Choki, 37, is confident that she will win if the people’s increasing support for female candidates is anything to go by and also because “the majority of villagers in her community have been exceedingly encouraging.”
The mother of two, who has been a Non-Formal Education (NFE) instructor for the past 15 years, hopes to be a “trailblazer”.
Trashigang Election Registration Officer (ERO), Sangay Phuntsho, said that till now Bhutanese women have avoided leadership roles because of lack of support borne out of gender stereotyping and preconceived notions.
He mentioned that a woman’s participation survey conducted by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) in 2014 revealed that most voters were ready to elect capable women to power.
“But ultimately, what will prove a woman leader’s mettle is whether she will deliver or not.”
Trashigang has a total of 269 Local Government (LG) candidates for 2016: 28 female, and 241 male. The 28 female candidates comprise one each for post of Gup and Thromde Ngotshab, three for post of Mangmi and 23 for post of Tshogpa. Trashigang has 44,524 voters of which 21,532 are male and 22,992 are female voters.