Role of women in modern Bhutanese society

Tashi Dema

In a society of transition, the role of women is also in transition in Bhutan, but the farsighted leadership of Their Majesties the Kings has helped Bhutanese women progress.

This message came out strongly as three Bhutanese women, who worked closely with women, talked about their experience as important leaders and trailblazers for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Germany on the night of December 16.

The executive director of the Journalist Association of Bhutan, who moderated the panel discussion, emphasised how the appointment of women as eminent members in Parliament and at executive levels has helped achieve gender representation in leadership positions.

She also said that Their Majesties The Kings have prioritised women in developmental goals even before the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underscored gender representation. “The National Commission for Women and Children was established under royal command.”

The executive director of Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), Phuntshok Chhoden, also said the appointment of female eminent members in that National Council, the appointment of women secretaries, and as heads of constitutional bodies by His Majesty The King helped Bhutan achieve a better representative of women in leadership position.

“We have about 17 to 18 percent of leadership positions held by women,” she said. “Our women in leadership positions are good role models.”

The executive director of RENEW, a non-profit organisation that works towards empowering survivors of domestic violence and gender-based violence, Tshering Dolkar, said how women in the royal family, especially the queen mothers and the present queen, have initiated many social activities for women’s empowerment.

RENEW works with women who are vulnerable and survivors of domestic violence, gender-based violence, and sexual abuse. “Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck, as the patron of RENEW, has been a pioneer and brave enough to break the silence of violence in the society. Her Majesty did everything to achieve gender equality in so many areas.”

The panellists highlighted how Bhutanese women enjoy far greater social and legal status than women in some other South Asian countries, how matrilineal culture favoured them, how they are spared from many barriers and disadvantages that afflict women in society and enjoy political, economic, and social equality and play an equal role in all aspects of decision-making within the family.

The Constitution guarantees equal rights to women and men, electoral laws also provide equal rights for women in politics. There are many plans and policies on paper that commit to fulfilling SDG 5 to achieve gender equality and empower all girls and women.

However, there are concerns when it comes to the role of women in the bigger picture of democracy in the country.

Phuntshok Chhoden called it a work in progress and said that even after three parliamentary elections and on the eve of the third local government elections, political discourse remains superficial and politics is male-dominated.

She said that although 50 percent of the Bhutanese population is women, matrilineal culture dominates rural culture, and the girl child is the favoured and wanted child, there is gender inequality in leadership positions. “There is a myth of gender equality and the reality of the patriarchy. Patriarchal norms and values influence and dominate all spheres.”

BNEW plays a great role in encouraging women to participate in elections.

The executive director said the government, through the National Commission of Women and Children (NCWC), is putting efforts to mainstream gender issues, as Bhutan is signatory to many international conventions, including the convention of elimination of violence against women and the SDGs. “SDG goal number 5 is to achieve planet 50-50 by 2030 and Bhutan is nowhere near to reaching that.”

She said there has to be a temporary special measure to achieve gender equality in leadership.

A business and social worker, Sonam Wangmo, who has been involved in many social enterprises and charity projects in the country, said she and a group of women decided to offer their free service and create awareness on citizens’ responsibilities by not queuing. “If you want to volunteer, do it whole-heartedly.”

Meanwhile, the vice president of the German Bhutan Himalaya Society, Irmela Harz (PhD), who is an agriculturalist and worked in traditional medicine for more than 17 years, said not many women in Bhutan are in high positions and not many are involved in the politics of modern Bhutan.

“Many are multi-tasking, educating their children, and looking after the income of the family,” she said. “Rural-urban migration is high in Bhutan and many rural families leave their farms and live in small apartments in urban areas. I see many problems coming from that situation, as grandparents do not look after their grandchildren.”

She said that women in Bhutan are strong and will overcome difficulties.