Questions on legislations that protect the rights of women, children and the third gender were raised

Rights: The chairman of the human rights committee of the National Assembly was asked some tough questions by youth participants during a panel discussion held to commemorate Human Rights Day, in Thimphu, yesterday.

Following the panel discussion, a youth audience member asked the chairman if there is any legislation to protect the third gender in Bhutan as they face social stigma and discrimination, and therefore are a vulnerable group.

Chairman MP Pelzang Wangchuk said he was unaware of any legislation that protects the third gender. However, he added that there could be scope. “If it is necessary why not look at it,” he said. “If the society, if the culture in Bhutan allows it, in the context of course, in keeping with the international law, we’ll have to look at it but to be frank, at this stage, as the chairman of the human rights committee, I have no idea.”

Another youth participant questioned why Bhutanese citizenship is not immediately provided to the children of Bhutanese women who marry foreigners. She said that this law is discrimination based on gender and in violation of the Constitution. She requested the chairman to submit the issue to parliament.

MP Pelzang Wangchuk said he would keep the suggestion in mind and discuss it with his fellow MPs.

A member of Chithuen Phendhey Association, who was in the audience, asked the panel about a recent incident in which a letter written by the association was being shared online through social media. In the letter, the association alleges that an alcohol dependent woman who is also alleged to be HIV positive was having sexual relations with multiple partners and therefore required police intervention as per the law.

The audience member pointed out that while the incident showed that social media can be used to expose the woman and raise awareness, it also violated the rights of the woman.

In response, MP Pelzang Wangchuk said that if the allegations were in fact true, and the woman was infringing the human rights of others, then citizens had a responsibility to take action and report the woman to concerned agencies.

Another audience member, who disagreed with parliament’s recent decision to disallow financial institutions from publicizing loan defaulters through the media, said banks should instead be supported for using such a method.

It was pointed out that when clients avail loans from the banks, they sign a document agreeing to repay the loan on time, and informing the bank if they cannot. It was also stated that the clients also agree to allow the banks to take any action to reacquire the loan.

The audience member said that rights come with duties and as individuals, there is a fundamental responsibility to pay back the loan.

MP Pelzang Wangchuk responded by pointing out that even criminals are not revealed on national television. He acknowledged that while there is a legal agreement between the bank and the borrower, there is no clause that states that the bank has the right to publish a borrower’s identity and other personal details in the media incase of a default.

The MP added that even if there were such a clause it would still be a violation of laws. He said that there are other ways to recover loans. “Financial institutions cannot fiddle with the dignity and reputation of an individual,” he said. He added that only a court order would allow a bank to resort to such a move.

During the panel discussion, MP Pelzang Wangchuk also referred another human rights violation the committee had examined. He said that persons suspected of corruption were usually detained at odd hours and subjected to prison rules and regulations while in detention.

He explained that as the detainee was a suspect in an investigation with no court verdict having been passed yet, it was a human rights violation to treat a detainee as a prisoner.

However, he pointed out that such incidents of human rights violations are not intended but incidental given the lack of separate facilities for detention or laws on the issue.

“Therefore, we will take up this issue and propose appropriate proposals to parliament very soon,” he said.

But the chairman also highlighted that prison conditions in Bhutan are good. He said that the common mentality is that prisons are inhumane, degrading and associated with cruel treatment. “But if you go to our prisons, for example the open air prison in Dawakha and the development and rehabilitation centre in Tsimasham, our people are living in a place where there’s compassion, where they’re given a second chance … to be productive and responsible citizens,” he said. The chairman said that prisoners are provided the opportunity to learn skills like tailoring and weaving, among others, and that non-formal education is also available.

He said that some juvenile prisoners even attend classes in nearby schools. “In a GNH country, we cannot afford to treat our citizens otherwise.”

The Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy and the United National Development Programme organized the discussion forum.

Gyalsten K Dorji