Political parties say getting women candidates is difficult

However, the ED of BNEW underlines that what political parties say is a standard excuse

Despite Bhutanese women having made tremendous progress in social spheres like education and health, they are hugely underrepresented in the political arena. The local government (LG) elections of 2021 did see a record number of women participating for various positions within the LG. But there is very little hope that more women will be visible holding leadership roles in both houses of the Parliament after the 2023 parliamentary elections as the number of women participants, as of now are low. While, political parties say that though they would like to have more women representatives, it is just difficult to get women candidates from the respective constituencies.

However,  Executive Director (ED) of Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), Phuntshok Chhoden, said that so long as ECB doesn’t institute an additional mandatory criteria for political parties to have a certain number of women candidates on-board, in order for them to be registered to contest in the elections, “this standard excuse of not finding women candidates will continue for eons”

Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), the latest new party to obtain registration from the election commission of Bhutan (ECB) to contest in the 2023 National Assembly Elections (NA) has declared only one-woman candidate.

The party declared Ugyen Dem, 30, as candidate from Khatoed-Laya constituency, Gasa. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Dzongkha and more than 5 years’ experience in teaching. 

In an earlier press brief, BTP’s president Dasho Pema Chewang said that it would be very good for a party to have as many women representatives as possible.

However, Dasho said that it is difficult to get women candidates. Dasho further mentioned that the party has few more women candidates. Dasho also added that even if the party faces difficulties in getting women candidates, the party is all inclusive.

BTP’s Ugyen Dem said that women may not be coming forward to participate in politics due to lack of confidence and support from the family and community. “Another factor is not being able to meet the requirements set by the ECB,” she said.

ECB has set a criteria for candidates standing for elections. It states that an aspirant should have served in public/private sector with exemplary conduct and performance for 5 years for the assumption of office in the National Assembly and ten years for the National Council. Besides ECB’s rule, political parties also look for community’s support at the grassroots level, including a candidate’s life skills and morality

Similarly, Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa (DTT) has declared only one female candidate. The party’s president, Kinga Tshering, said that despite the party wanting to have more women candidates, it is difficult to get one. Nonetheless, the party expects at least five-seven women candidates.

Susan Lama from Shompangkha constituency, Sarpang is the only female candidate DTT has declared so far.

.”Under-representation of women in public offices is not an issue only in Bhutan, but it is throughout the world,” Susan Lama said, adding that one of the reasons she joined politics is to learn and understand why this is happening in Bhutan. 

She mentioned that one reason is the fact that politics in Bhutan is male driven. Further, the challenging nature of work, which requires sacrifices, grit and dedication discourage women to join politics.

“But it is only a matter of time. I am sure that more women will come in the forefront soon. Like any other political party, the men-women ratio is highly uneven in our camp but we have noticed that the number of women joining our party has improved slightly,” she said.

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) places importance of women in the leadership sphere, their roles and the contributions that they would make in decision making processes. However, the general secretary of DPT, Sonam Tashi said, “Generally and statistically, it is true that lesser women join politics.” 

With the vision to have equal number of women in the party, the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) has approached many women to replace vacant constituencies. The party could secure just two women initially, but one had to withdraw pertaining to some pressing family matters.

The general secretary of PDP, Kuenga Tashi said, “It is challenging to get women join politics.” 

He said that decisions, such as contesting an election becomes more difficult for women, who have concerns over uncertainties of politics, which would impact their livelihood and the welfare of the family. “PDP as a party and the country as a whole must ensure women get equal opportunity in all aspects of life, especially in politics,” the general secretary said.

Druk Nyamrup Tshogppa’s (DNT) general secretary, Phurpa said the party does not have reserved seats for any gender and that there is no criteria based on gender base to be a candidate. “But we look for winnable (candidates) and those who can serve the nation,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Executive Director (ED) of Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), Phuntshok Chhoden said that having less women in decision-making level is an old universal excuse one hears everywhere, not just in Bhutan.

She said politics is perceived to be a male profession, occupation and domain. In reality too, she said that it is truly male dominated and it’s not easy for women to penetrate it nor feel comfortable and welcome. “It’s an old game for men, but a fresh field for women so it’s not so simple for the latter to knock and enter,” the ED said.

“So long as ECB doesn’t institute an additional mandatory criteria for political parties to have a certain number of women candidates on-board, in order for them to be registered to contest in the elections, this standard excuse of not finding women candidates will continue for eons,” the ED added. 

Phuntshok Chhoden pointed out that women make up 50% of society but the highest decision making and lawmaking body such as the Parliament doesn’t reflect this; women are a minority there and hence invisible and voiceless.

Nonetheless, BNEW hopes that the key players in-charge of shaping democracy will recognize the gender imbalance and gender blindness in due course of time and think of measures that fit Bhutan’s context to correct it, sooner than later.

Chief Program Officer (CPO), National Commission for Women and Children, Ugyen Tshomo said that women are viewed as home makers and not capable leaders by the society resulting in loss of confidence to participate in elections as candidates.  

“The gender division of roles are prevalent in our society leading to women shouldering the responsibilities at home and work, which demotivates most young women to come forward to stand in elections,” she said.  

“There are less number of women who qualifies to participate as candidates due to limited number of women at decision making level- with the required qualification and experience,” the CPO said, adding there are limited role models for women to come forward. 

She further mentioned that the working environment is not very conducive for women due to hard geographical terrain and long walking distance.

However, she underlined that NCWC recommends the political parties to make parties gender responsive, taking into consideration the differential needs of women candidates and encourage them.

“There is also need to engage with women’s organizations and agencies working (CSOs and grassroots organizations) with and for women to seek female candidates and carry out activities to enhance their capacities,” she added.  

Moreover, Ugyen Tshomo said that the agencies need to provide necessary support to female candidates and ensure the party workers and gate keepers are sensitive to needs of female candidates and promote a healthy and safe space for women candidates.

During the Eight session of the Third Parliament in November 2022, the Prime Minister (PM), Dr Lotay Tshering said that Bhutan does not have gender inequality. The response was made to question from the NA member of Khar – Yurung, Tshering Chhoden, who asked the PM, what the government is doing to achieve the gender goal of 50% women leadership representation by 2030. The NA member said that Bhutan has only 16.5% women representation in Parliament, 12.6% in LG, 39.8% in the civil service, and 18% at the executive level.

The PM replied that increasing women’s representation in leadership should be seen through capacity building and creating a conducive environment for women to enhance their participation or through the introduction of a quota system. The PM further mentioned that as women’s representation is increasing, there is no need for changes in the existing policies. The PM cited examples of other countries and said that those countries, which set quotas for female representation in leadership have not been able to achieve anything. The PM said that Bhutan is an exemplary country when it comes to gender equality.

Meanwhile, the LG elections of 2021 saw 463,040 total registered voters in the country, out of which 236,836 were women and 226,203 men. Looking at the figure and commenting on it, an observer said that what BNEW’s ED said is true. “I do not buy the reason that there are no women forthcoming to join politics. Political parties always look for candidates who can win and this is the reason women are filtered at the grassroots level itself,” he said. When asked what should be done, he mentioned that if institutions are seriously thinking about empowerment of women politically too, there should be a certain number of seats reserved for women. “You may call it quota system or whatever; but without doing this, we will not see more women in the halls of the parliament,” he added.

Sangay Rabten from Thimphu