Bhutan’s Constitution treats men and women equally

Gender: Gender gap has never been officially recognised as an issue in the country. However, time may have come to do so.

Bhutan ranks a lowly 121st among 144 countries in Global Gender Gap Index 2016 released recently by the World Economic Forum report. Three years back in 2013, Bhutan ranked 93rd among 136 countries.

The report shows there is a significant disparity against women in health, education, economy and politics in the country. Bhutan stands only ahead of Pakistan, which ranks 143rd, in South Asia.

The report highlights that the country has seen a widening gender gap in female labour force participation, estimated earned income and wage equality.

On the positive side, however, there has been an increase in the number of women professional and technical workers in the country. Bhutan also has a smaller gender gap in literacy as compared with some of the countries.

Progress has been slow in realising the full potential of half of the population.

Only a handful of women occupy powerful positions in the country, among whom are the works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden and Anti-Corruption Commission Chairperson Kinley Yangzom.

There are two women serving as dzongdags (in Dagana and Tsirang) and as many gups (both in Dagana).

There are five women MPs excluding the works and human settlement minister. Two of them are in the National Council, both of whom were appointed by His Majesty The King as eminent members.

Bhutan has only one woman as party president – Lily Wangchuk of Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT).

The report also ranks countries in four sub-indices – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment – the combination of which gives the overall global ranking.

Bhutan ranks 99th in the economic participation and opportunity sub-index. This measures participation of women against men in economic activities, and their remuneration and advancement. The country stood 27th in this sub-index in 2013.

Bhutan stands 125th in the health and survival sub-index, which provides overview of the differences between women’s and men’s health. Three years back, the country’s position was 82.

Political empowerment measures the gap between men and women at the highest level of political decision-making through the ratio of women to men in minister-level positions and the ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions. Bhutan’s position is 132, down from 122 in 2013.

Despite apparent improvements in the gender gap in education, Bhutan’s rank in “educational attainment” has fallen from 116 in 2013 to 121 in this year. This decline could be attributed to faster improvements by some countries.

It captures the gap between women’s and men’s current access to education through ratios of women to men in three levels of education – primary, secondary, and tertiary.

National Assembly’s Chairperson of the Women and Children Committee, Tshewang Jurmi, said the issue merits discussion although the committee so far looks only into the social issues related to women and youth. “We don’t really have policies on gender,” he said.

Tshewang Jurmi said both men and women have equal rights in Bhutanese society, and that the society does not seem to look at the gender gap as an issue at the moment. “We have to look whether the society or the report is wrong,” he said. “No one has raised gender as an issue.”

Bhutan’s Constitution treats men and women equally.

Lily Wangchuk said that under the exemplary leadership and wisdom of our farsighted Monarchs, Bhutanese women have always enjoyed freedom and equality in all spheres of life, and that laws in Bhutan treat women and men equally.

However, she said Bhutan’s poor standing in terms of gender gap should be of great concern. Wide gender gaps, according to her, means women are lagging behind in terms of access and meaningful participation in all spheres.

“It is evident that women have not yet exploited or not given optimally the opportunities and rights open to them so as to take on productive responsibilities for nation building effectively and on an equitable basis,” she said.

Lily Wangchuk added that despite this established fact, the wide gender gap has never been considered an issue deserving attention as much as it is reflected on paper. “Bhutan should address the existing gender gap not only to improve our global gender gap standing but more importantly for our own growth as a nation,” she added.

Lily Wangchuk said the political climate as it exists today continues to be male dominated and is therefore perceived to be conducive to male participation. The situation is further worsened with gender-neutral laws, policies and approaches adopted by the government.

According to Lily Wangchuk, Bhutan has also promised to accelerate implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the 2030 Agenda gender equality goal where the country is required to achieve a ratio of 50:50 between men and women by 2030. “Bhutan therefore has the obligation to address the challenges that are holding women and girls back from reaching their full potential.”

Lily Wangchuck said that while Bhutan may have succeeded in reporting effectively on its efforts at international forums, it is evident from the country’s poor global standing that it is far from fulfilling international obligations and responsibilities towards women in terms of both policy and action.

“Rather than being in a state of denial, we will need to accept that gender inequality exists and recognise the importance of addressing it for our own sustainable growth,” she said. Acceptance, she said, should be followed by policies that address the complex social, cultural, economic and financial obstacles faced by women, and more significantly, the cultural barriers.

“We will need to move away from the current gender-neutral approach to one that is gender-responsive with stronger commitment and partnership at all levels and spheres.” She said Bhutan’s short and long term strategies could include passing new laws or strengthening existing ones; creating programmes to eradicate violence against women and girls, encouraging women’s participation in decision-making, investing in national action plans or policies for gender equality, creating public education campaigns to promote gender equality and more.

The Global Gender Gap Index was first introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006 as a framework for capturing the magnitude of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress over time.

MB Subba