Face to Face – BNEW: Advocating women participation in the elections

The Executive Director of Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), Phuntshok Choden talks to Business Bhutan reporter Dechen Dolkar on the challenges of women vying for leadership roles and how BNEW is preparing aspirant women candidates for the upcoming National Council (NC) elections.

Q.What are BNEW’s mandates? What role does it play in the elections?

Answer: BNEW is a registered Civil Society Organization that is working on strengthening the ‘Voice’ and ‘Visibility’ of women as agents of change in our society. The mandate we have taken up is, therefore, to facilitate as well as strengthen women’s participation and representation in governance and leadership in all spheres. In the long haul, we wish to make a significant contribution to the achievement of a ‘Bhutanese society where women’s leadership is the norm rather than an exception.’

In a sense, we are unique as our mandate has a clear focus on women leadership be it in governance and development in general or in politics and elections per se as they are all interlinked and speak to each other as it were, when we look at our country and society as a whole.

BNEW as a networking platform for women has had a greater emphasis on mobilizing, facilitating and building capacity of women at grassroots or community level, to ensure a better understanding of democracy, elections and women’s participation-representation.

We were able to make a modest contribution to enhancing women’s representation in the second Local Government (LG) Elections of 2016 by bringing it up from 6.9% (2011) to 11.59%. However, we also keep our eyes on national level and facilitate relevant dialogues/consultation at appropriate moments in an attempt to keep the movement moving forward for the positive policy / legislative considerations that still need serious reflection if we want to be true to everything we say, believe in and stand for when it comes to women’s empowerment.

For example, BNEW in collaboration with National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) organized the first national conference on women in politics in 2014, followed by the second conference in March 2017 together with other key partners such as ECB-BDD and WCYC of National Assembly. In both instances we had more than 300 participations from all stakeholders including the parliaments, government and CSOs.

Today, the facts and figures on women leadership are somehow contrary to most aspects of our Bhutanese character and a GNH nation where girls and women are ‘favored’, loved, ‘empowered’ and enjoy far more equality  compared to many other societies where blatant gender discriminations subordinate and suppress women in every instance one can think of.

Hence, through our work and efforts, BNEW aspires to change the predominant mindsets and subtle attitudes that do exist in our society so that our women can step forward with confidence to participate in leadership spheres equally with men, without feeling ‘less capable’ and harboring doubts about acceptance by society …as many do today.

Regarding a role in elections, BNEW has clearly no direct role. As a CSO, especially when it comes to party ‘politics’, BNEW will not be involved or engaged. That said, in the pre-election phases, given our mandate to strengthen women’s participation and representation in governance and leadership, we will be engaged in a certain activities that focus on advocacy and awareness raising on the importance of women’s participation-representation in leadership, as well as supporting women aspirants and candidates to prepare them better for the elections. Our activities will be strictly following the ‘apolitical’ spirit and on non-partisan basis following guidelines of ECB and in close consultation with the ECB. BNEW will be advocating for women aspirants in general, and not for any political party per se. To fulfill our mandate, BNEW will liaise with all political parties and the ECB-Bhutan Democracy Dialogue (a multiparty platform) when relevant and needed, and NOT be seen to be working for/with any single political party.

Q. The 2018 parliamentary election is approaching. How is BNEW preparing for it?

Answer:  Unlike the LG elections where BNEW was active in mobilization, motivation, building capacity as well as advocacy, in the parliamentary elections what we can do is a bit limited given as I explained earlier about the the Act & rules that govern CSOs. However, there are still some areas where BNEW can engage in order to contribute to fulfilling our mandate viz.

(i) Advocacy and awareness raising towards influencing societal mindsets and attitudes: from our experience in the 2nd LG Elections we realized the value of awareness raising and helping people understand the importance of having more women leaders. Unless there is greater acceptance of women leadership in the minds of our people at large, the most able of women candidates get rejected on poll day. Despite our best efforts given the limited time and resources we had then, to our utter dismay people many of our star-quality women (esp.Gup & Mangmi) candidates lost to their male opponents! The people of Bhutan also witnessed that happen in the 2nd Parliamentary Elections (esp. NC Elections) of 2013 when all five women NC candidates lost by narrow margins in some cases. Lack of understanding and awareness about the need for a gender balance in leadership led to these disastrous results, and we wish to prevent history from repeating itself …in terms of society lot accepting and voting out the women who braved their way in to try and make a difference!

(ii) Preparing women aspirants and candidates is another area in which BNEW will stay engaged in…..towards ensuring the quality of participation and enhancing confidence of the  women who (bravely) step forward. Similar to the programme on Gender, Leadership, Communication and Campaign skills that we just conducted for the women aspiring to partake in the 2018 NC Elections, we hope to implement the same for the women candidates from the five political parties too. We are continuously exploring to look for avenues to support our women who are going to participate in the 2018 elections as we want to ensure their success and enhance representation in the 3rd democratically elected Parliament  of Bhutan. Contrary to the disappointing results of 2008 and 2013 when women’s representation in the Parliament fell from 13.88 % to 8.33% (strictly taken from 8% to 6% elected women), BNEW is hoping for better results in 2018, perhaps 20% or more to be seen.

Q. How will BNEW advocate women participation in the upcoming elections as compared to previous elections?

Answer: To top up on the ground level advocacy and awareness rising towards 2nd LGE, we are relying and investing a lot on the different formats of media this time, having seen how the power of the media can influence mindsets in society at large. Given the coverage of BBS 1 & 2 and host of radio channels on which communities rely for latest news, updates and other information and tend to tune into, we are optimistic about the impact. To develop content and sensitive Journalists we did as follows:

(i) At the end of 2017, we launched a competition to develop a range of advocacy materials and the best of the lots have been selected and prizes awarded during our AGM 2017. Short films, Mascots, short stories and Lozaeys were developed with the aim of highlighting positive messages and images of women and their potentials to make great leaders of this country.

(ii) Also in November 2017, we conducted a gender training-workshop for some 50 Journalists with a specific agenda to teach gender-sensitive reporting in the media and promote the need to portray women positively in the news especially women candidates. Women being more private and emotional in nature tend to fear and get affected (and hurt) by negative portrayals in the media. All this often add to the list of things that discourage (and hinder) women from participating in the public sphere which still remains highly male dominated and an intimidating space for women!

Q. The number of women aspirant candidates for NC elections as of now is very less, comprising only about 5% of the total aspirant candidates. Why do you think that women are not coming forward?

Answer:  As I said earlier, both women and general populace still perceive the public sphere to be for male folks. Women and men have been socialized to think and believe it as such ever since we were young growing girls and boys. All mothers consistently reminded and groomed daughters to be ‘good women’ ie. docile, gentle, soft spoken, good caregivers, expert home-makers and best cooks while boys were encouraged to be rough, tough, independent, out-going and left on their own (rather sent out of sight) to learn the ways of the world to survive and be able to provide for the family (breadwinner) and dominate as the ‘Head of family’. Any boy or girl who dared to be different was made fun of as ‘sissies’, ‘tomboys’ etc and ridiculed. Due to all these daily realities bound by certain socio-cultural norms (defining / dictating male superiority over female) and more, that are geared towards making you a ‘good woman’ inside the four walls of the home as the expert in domestic affairs neither boosted her confidence nor equipped and prepared her for any kind of leadership roles in the public spaces. General overarching result in the psyche of most women and girls = low self confidence and poor self image. This is why so few women dare to voluntarily step forward and join politics. We’ve all seen that once women were successfully goaded, recruited and or appointed to be leaders, they excel and make best of leaders. However, being new participants of the big (wild) public sphere, about which women are still ‘finding out’, they will not step in unless they are absolutely about their own ability of perform and be (almost) perfect. Hence the fact of being a new entrant to the public spaces coupled with the deep seated low self-image and fear of failure are among the chief reasons. This will continue to remain until a critical mass (at least 33%) of women in leadership positions is achieved. It’s been well researched and documented that numbers (of women) are equally important to change the environment, agendas and build a culture of acceptance of women be it in parliament or other executive positions in government, civil/corporate/ private sectors. More women role models, more visibility of women at highest decision making levels will surely enhance active participation of women.

Also, the fact that the % of eligible women compared to eligible men is also quite low since until recently majority (80-90%) of university graduate were male. The small group of eligible women (with a degree and decent experiences) are career focused and started moving up the career ladder only lately so it’s not fair to expect them to drop and join politics.

Q. What are the challenges that women candidates face?

Answer:  Main challenges remain: women’s lack of confidence overall, their Low self image of themselves;

Not understanding the ‘norms’ of participation in politics and feeling certain degree of discomfort in politicking. In politics and campaigning individuals need to highlight and blow up (often a bit out of proportion) their achievements, skills, knowledge to promote and position themselves as the best candidates. Women have always been taught and trained to be humble, polite and modest (not to be bold, rough, tough) so they feel shy and embarrassed to boast about themselves.

The double and triple responsibilities that women have tied to being daughters, mothers and wives do not make it too easy and straight forward when it comes to the business of politics and campaigns esp when it means long treks, tours of communities and meeting people after dark. Door to door campaigns make some women nervous too. Women candidates in many cases are on their own with no family support during campaigns either for lack of family members to accompany them or because they are encouraged to join politics.

Q. How can these challenges be overcome?

Answer: Time will heal so will it teach. With intensive advocacy and awareness raising, negative attitudes and gender stereotypical mindsets will slowly shift in favor of becoming more supportive towards girls and women. With education and more and more women leader role models in civil service. Local government and parliament, people will become more accepting of women leaders.

Most of all, unless certain context specific affirmative actions or fast track measures are instituted, it’s going to be a farfetched dream …a ‘tall talk’ to achieve even our modest dreams of 20 % women representation in policy-decision-making levels and Parliament. No doubt, in this country women make up almost 51% of the population, but if the number of aspirants contesting in NC Elections 2018 is any indicator, we do run the risk of having below 5% representation in the NC of 2018-2023:-( Women make up only 5.5% of all candidates. NC of 2013-18 already had ZERO elected women.

For now, it is a bit of our ‘wishful thinking’ but in the long run we are hopeful that people and institutions with authority. Policy maker and law makers will realize the need for special measures to boost women’s representation (which would be temporary in nature) if we as a country are seriously about achieving gender equality at decision making levels. Until we achieve a 30-40% mark, certain rules and mechanism could be put in place.

(i) the electoral laws stating the need for gender-balanced aspirants in every constituency? Say, two NC aspirants for final round of elections – a male and female contestant not 21 or more men and 1 woman only as it is now.  Holding additional round of elections among men and women aspirants separately so men are competing with men, likewise women competing among women to arrive at the two final candidates in general round so people have a choice to elect a male or female representation. This could be useful for LG elections and NC.

(ii) For National Assembly elections, a mandatory clause for political parties has 30% women nominees on their lists and if possible similar previous proposal for LG and NC elections. Every party in every constituency should end up with a set of male and female candidates to give the choice to voters.

(iii) Certain percentage of seats be bagged for women only on a portation basis every five years, where only women get elected from those places irrespective of the party. This would take care of the concerns around merit and quality that everyone raises especially in case of women. (For men, quality and merit appear to be givens as it has never surfaced as issues.

(iV) Interested women civil servants be allowed to take leave to contest and resign if successful or return their jobs if not.