Transformative change, not affirmative action alone, will uplift the state of women in Bhutan

“Transformative change’ is a common development jargon we often hear these days while talking about efforts to create conditions for women to enjoy a level playing field. Gender experts and development practitioners call for role-based transformative change. It’s said that handing out one-off solutions to increase women’s social participation does not result in the necessary structural changes. To use a cliché, the discourse has now shifted from handing out a fish to teaching how to fish. When we talk about women’s social participation, it is not only about passive engagement but also about giving them a space for their voice.

State of women in Bhutan

In Bhutan, women have often found it extremely difficult to break down the long-held structural beliefs and myths. For example, every male colleague I have had discussion about gender issues is ready to point out that ‘in Bhutan, we don’t overtly discriminate women’. They then talk about their powerful grandmothers who made every decision regarding family matters. But daughters of these ‘powerful’ grandmothers find it difficult to rise in life, especially in public affairs. Statistics says it all.

Despite the government’s effort towards a non-discriminatory labour market, unemployment rate for women stands at 2.2%, compared to 1.8% for men. Among the total unemployed, 60% are women. This skewed picture is probably partly explained by the finding of Bhutan Living Standards Survey Report 2017, which reports only 59% female literacy as against 73% for men.

The GNH Survey Report 2015 made a revelation of sorts when it reported that women in Bhutan were found to be significantly unhappier lot. The Report—A Compass Towards a Just and Harmonious Society—states that 51% of males were either deeply or extensively happy, as compared to 39% females.

In politics too women do not seem to be taken seriously. Only two dzongkhags—Mongar and Punakha—elected women recently to the National Council, the reason why His Majesty the King continues the balancing act through the appointment of eminent women personalities.

Studies on women in politics have indicated low participation and severe underrepresentation. This is often attributed to social responsibilities, low self-esteem, low literacy and education, and lack of enough role models. The 2013 parliamentary elections saw a meager 8% women elected into public office. We hope the figure improves this time around.

The tightest slap probably comes from the findings of the Labour Force Survey Annual Report 2016 that identifies 138,667 women as economically inactive against 76,912 men. It also reveals that 29.5% of women are economically inactive due to household/family duties against 2.8% men. This is an informal sector ignored by policymakers and economists who often churn out dismal figures for women’s labour force participation. The unpaid care work that these 29.5% women engage in at home is most times completely unaccounted for.

Affirmative actions are aplenty

There have been several affirmative actions from the government in the recent past. One such action is the six-month paid maternity leave for women in the civil service. Universal school enrollment of female children is another lauded milestone.

We have organizations that focus on women empowerment and equality. The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC), Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), and Respect, Educate, Nurture, Empower Women (RENEW) are dedicated organizations that have tirelessly worked towards women’s empowerment and emancipation.

We now have a gender equality policy, and umbrella legislation that will probably set new direction to narrowing the existing gender gap. Additionally, the NCWC has worked on several policies and projects to bring about the much-needed reforms and initiatives to foster gender equality. The 11thFive Year Plan also provided significant impetus to women empowerment and gender equality.The Election Commission of Bhutan is also doing its bit to woo more women in politics by holding electoral forums on the theme of women.

There have been encouraging signs in the civil service too. Women civil servants are on the rise. They account for about 36% of the total workforce in the civil service, although their representation in executive and specialist positions is still relatively low. A good number of women occupy constitutional posts.

And now for structural change

The quota system for women in politics failed to materialize. While many, including some women, saw this as a quick fix, the system, if implemented, would have given a wider space for women to demonstrate their abilities which in turn could have helped convince voters on women’s ‘equal ability’ to represent them in Parliament. The quota system could be gradually done away with as change begins to take shape.

A major structural change could happen by focusing not on what would work for women, but by looking at ways to end social entrenchments like male privilege. Simply defined, male privilege is social advantage and benefits of being a man, something many men feel they are entitled to because of being born as a man. History points at male dominance because men generally provided food and shelter for families. This doesn’t hold water in the modern context. Working women too earn bread and butter and provide shelter to their families. And yet male privilege persists. There are husbands who wait to be served first. There are men who wait for their clothes to be washed and ironed. And there are those big helpless babies who have to be attended to continuously.

Women are always multi-tasking. They work at office. They cook in the kitchen. They clean bathrooms. They wash clothes. They feed babies. They mop floors. They provide care to the elderly. They do dishes. They drop kids at school. They go vegetable shopping. They bake cakes. They tell bedtime stories. And they wake up with the first light of day. Only when men take up some of these responsibilities up could we expect structural change in societies.

In Bhutan, we still do not use gender-disaggregated data regularly. Often plans and policies are based on quick surveys and social assumptions. We must start using gender-disaggregated data to design appropriate strategies to achieve structural changes. We must find ways to evaluate and factor in women’s unpaid work into national accounting system.

We have now formally started the journey towards Sustainable Development Goals. These goals feature equality strongly. This becomes more challenging because of the way in which wellbeing and happiness have come up in the agenda, especially in Bhutan. That’s why the idea must be to ease tensions between competing and often opposing paradigms. The idea ultimately must be to not only increase women’s social participation but also end all forms of discrimination. Maybe then we would have achieved some sort of ‘transformative change’.

Contributed by 

Kabita Chhetri 

teaches business and economics at Royal Thimphu College.