UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia, Jean Gough talks to Kuensel’s Rinzin Wangchuk on opportunities and challenges of protecting children’s rights

Welcome to Bhutan again. We understand this is your sixth visit to Bhutan?

I keep coming to Bhutan, at least twice a year, and we admire the work that the government is doing in terms of improving child wellbeing.

Since your first visit, how have children’s rights changed in Bhutan?

For me, the realization of child right is progressive implementation. As part of Bhutan’s commitment to the endorsement of the CRC, the country tends to try and comply with this progressive realization of child rights. One of the good things I have seen is that primary education in Bhutan is accessible to a majority of children.

There is a small group that are still out because of disability issues. To make education inclusive to accommodate children with special needs is an issue that we have been working with the government and I am very pleased to see that Bhutan is one of the countries in the region where the issues of children with special needs are taken very seriously.

In areas where we see the gaps, we have been working with the government to ensure that early childhood education is available to each and every child. So far, this is still not a reality for a majority of Bhutanese children. So, this is something that the government has done an investment case with UNICEF. We are working together to make sure we get more investment dedicated to those early years.

The new government is supporting the mothers and supporting what we call the 1,000 days of a child. This focus on the mother and child is a great focus that the government has taken on, which will ensure that early education is also part of integration.

I always call it a transition – How do we ensure that a child from zero to three years and the mother gets support and are able to go to early centres to get the stimulation they need? Because it is not only about the food; their brain needs to be stimulated and how do we train mothers and fathers to get the brains stimulated?

The other phase occurs when the child completes primary education and transitions to secondary education. We lose children in this transition, so, we need to put more focus on those children. The other area that I see we need to do more on is young people and skills. Bhutan has a big hoard of young educated people, but the labour market is limited. How do we make sure that the skills and trainings are in line with the labour forces that allows them to do the job and allows them to learn the skills that really empowers them do things they like?  Parents want their children to become doctors, but their child may want to be an artist.

How do we value those other skills is something that we need to work with the government because in South Asia, the value of skills that are different than a higher-level university degree is not so valued. So, this is an area that we want to explore more with the government to make sure the skills young people have are – what they call one centric skills – analytical, communication, and collaborative. In general, in South Asia, we have seen that governments are not focusing enough on the analytical because the jobs of 21st century are not there yet.

Bhutan marks 30 years of signing and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child this year. What are some of the challenges you see in Bhutan in terms of children’s wellbeing?

I have mentioned some of them – about early childhood and investment in 1,000 days of a child’s life, which is something that we need to do across the region. Overnutrition and undernutrition is another area across the region that needs to be looked at. In Bhutan, we see obesity increasing. Children are not playing enough, are indulged with their phones. The other area that we need to work on is skilling our young people.

How does Bhutan fare among South Asian countries in terms of protecting child rights?

All countries have opportunities, are doing well in different areas, face challenges and for me each country is unique and comparing the countries is not a good thing. For me, it is about making sure all countries within their own context understands what their contributions are for the development of children. What I see is that Bhutan, compared to other countries, has a good development plan that you prepare and follow.  Some countries prepare a plan, but the implementation is sometimes not in line with the plan.

What are your expectations from the second South Asia Religious Leaders’ platform for children, which is being held in Paro?

I would like to see more engagement with religious leaders, who are a powerful force in making transformation in social norms. Dialogue between different faiths is very important to make sure that we leave no one behind and no one has the reach that of religious leaders. We want all religious leaders in the region to commit to one area where they would like to work for improvement. We will be looking at the action plans from each country and our country offices will be working with different religions to make sure they come together and support each other. To become a more tolerant society is something that we aspire to fulfil.

We are today seeing more child abuse cases being reported in Bhutan including one in Paro. What does this mean to UNICEF and Bhutan?

We don’t want to see such cases. Even one case is one too many and we need to get across the messages that children need to be protected and not abused. This is something we will continue to make sure to know the driving force behind these cases and try to raise the voices and alarm that it is not tolerated and that the victims should be given justice. We will continue to advocate with the judiciary to make sure that accountability is held. We also need to share the voice and the media has a role to play to make sure abuse and exploitation of children is a crime and against the culture.

Your thoughts on the way forward for Bhutan and UNICEF in terms of child rights?

UNICEF has a country programme of cooperation with the government and 2019 was the year we first started the plan, which is in line with the development plan of Bhutan. We will continue to implement the plan and support early childhood education and make sure the government progressively improves the coverage of early childhood in the country. It also looks at inclusive education and makes sure that children of special needs are given the rights they deserve and brought up to be equal with the rest. We will continue to look into the monastic institutions to ensure that water, sanitation and wellbeing of children are taken care of collectively.

We want to work with local governments to invest in social sectors and human capital. More investment in human capital means more investment in cognitive capital, which happens in the early years. The second opportunity comes during adolescence. The early decade and the second decade are most important for the development of the human capital of Bhutan.