The state of Bhutanese women

Justifiably the most important day for women, the “International Women’s Day 2024” was celebrated at Kabesa, Thimphu, yesterday, with the theme “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress. ”Bhutan’s political commitment was displayed by the fact that Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck graced the occasion. While Bhutan has made strides in gender parity, it still remains an issue and the most effective tool to achieve parity is to acknowledge the presence of the issue.

“We need not look far to observe the stark reality of women’s underrepresentation, which indicates that there are issues. There are just two women currently holding seats, regardless of their political affiliation, in the National Assembly,” Tashi Choden, a private entrepreneur based in Thimphu said. She added that Bhutan’s ranking of 131 out of 191 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women’s “Women in Politics: 2023” report underscores the magnitude of the issue. According to her, the main problem is non-acceptance that there are no issues. “It is hilarious. you see more women in meetings, in the fields, social events like weddings and even funerals. This does not mean that women have equal rights. We are made to take up these additional social responsibilities, thus making us work more and reducing the time for ourselves,” she argued.

On political representation, she said that more women will be elected if political parties nominate women as their representatives. “There is only one excuse. Political parties will say that women are not forthcoming, which is not true. The fact is that parties believe women will not win. This means they have no confidence in women, which is an issue.”

Karma Wangmo, another entrepreneur said that the glaring absence of Bhutanese women in the National Assembly because of the outcome of the 9th January 2024 general election, where only two female candidates, each representing the People’s Democratic Party and the Bhutan Tendrel Party, secured seats is testament that women issues exist. “But two women beat strong male candidates and both the women were new to politics. It indicates that if women are given tickets, they can triumph.”

Speaking along the lines of Tashi, she said that Bhutan is proud to claim that women issues are not there. “It appears to be absent because it is hardly discussed, except during occasions like today. And it is never on the agenda of discussions as those making the agenda are men,” she added. “If I am not mistaken, economic empowerment of women is in the pledges of both the government and the opposition. If there is no issue at all, why should women’s economic empowerment be a pledge,” she said rhetorically.

A corporate employee said that in Bhutanese society, women are still “teased.” “If I go for dinner with my male colleagues, everyone will say that I should sit near someone or the other. They will also comment on my dress, hairstyle and others. These are not compliments but acts of sexism and are very prevalent in Bhutan.” She also referred to the latest report published by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). “The Office recorded a 34.1% increase in sexual offence cases, reaching a total of 110 cases. Within this, 53% concerned rape of a child aged 12 and above, 15% were related to child molestation, and 14% were cases of statutory rape. The remaining 18% encompassed diverse offenses such as rape, incest, sexual harassment, and marital rape. Are these not issues?”

Tandin Wangchuk, a social worker said that while Bhutan is witnessing positive strides in women’s participation, achieving gender equality is a goal to be achieved. “Against the backdrop of interconnected challenges such as climate change, geopolitical tensions, economic uncertainties, and social disparities, it’s imperative to fully leverage the capabilities of women and motivate their early engagement in politics and other areas. The urgency to empower and include women in political spheres cannot be overstated, especially amidst the complex global landscape we face today,” he said. “And it is true that policy makers need to firstly agree that there is a problem. Another challenge is the topic getting due attention when there are other issues.”

Tandin further said that there is a notable lack of representation of women in key committees and decision-making bodies across various sectors and districts. “Consequently, gender-related matters are rarely addressed in senior management meetings. Furthermore, females frequently miss out on opportunities due to family responsibilities. The absence of gender-sensitive facilities and services, particularly in rural areas, poses challenges for females due to which some even resign,” he said, adding that a general lack of awareness on gender issues is also a problem.

In Bhutan, women representation in the civil service increased from 38.15 per cent in 2019 to 40 per cent in 2022. In the decision-making sphere (executive and executive specialist categories), women representation increased from 14 per cent in 2019 to 20 per cent in 2022.  However, the proportion of women in decision making remains far from reaching the critical mass of 33 per cent.

Additionally, the highest proportion of women in the civil service are in the Support Service Category (44 % of civil servants within the category) and hold secretarial jobs that are vulnerable to impact of rapid technological advancement. Women in Bhutan also continue to shoulder disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic responsibilities, which remain a great hindrance to their advancement.

When Bhutan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1981, its periodic report to the commission only highlighted subtle instances of gender discrimination. However, numerous studies later suggested that discrimination extends far beyond subtleties, revealing deeply entrenched traditional beliefs and cultural practices that impede women’s social and professional advancement.

By Sonam Lhamo, Thimphu