Carrying babies on campaign trail or leaving them behind at home, being bullied by male party coordinators, often ridiculed, and personal questions hurled at them at meetings.

These were some of the stark realities that women politicians lived through in the last three elections.

Women who participated in the parliamentary and local government elections shared their challenges during elections at the third national conference on women in politics, leadership and governance in Thimphu yesterday.

Of the 10 women candidates in the last national assembly parliamentary elections, seven were elected.

Foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that despite Bhutan being a matriarchal society, women were constrained by social biases, structural barriers, and stereotyping.

He assured women of political will and every legislative and policy support.

The women candidates said that the voters were more interested in their personal lives than on knowing their professional capabilities.

A mother of two, who contested at the local government election, had to even pledge to the people that she would not bear any more children when most of her voters raised concerns over her efficiency in office as she has two children and could have more.    

Another said that candidates need money, experience and network to win elections.

If women representation in politics has to improve, much needs to change including the way women think about their kindred in politics. The poor representation of women in politics in the country is not about their ability but the mentality of the society, the candidates said.

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa’s vice president and North Thimphu candidate, Lily Wangchuk said she had joined politics to pursue the gender agenda.

She said she lost in the past two rounds of election because she was more focused on getting across the gender agenda.

“Over the last 12 years, there were many such sessions but there was very less success. The commitment from the government raised the hopes of women in the country,” she said.

A former Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party candidate from Dagana, Chador Wangmo argued that politics is not dirty but it is like a mirror.

Shongphu Mangmi Dendup Dema said that women leaders at the local government understood women issues better and were also effective in raising and solving their problems. “During negotiations, women were comfortable talking to me and I could resolve dispute for them,” she said.

Another gup contestant said that during the debate at the common forums, the voters said that she was the best speaker but all the votes went to the male candidates.

One of the former political candidates said that even the way women candidates dress matters. “No makeup or half kira,” Lhaki Wangmo said.  “It’s very difficult and we have to be able to digest the criticism. Most give up but lets not give up and be discouraged by the gossip.”

UN resident coordinator Gerald Daly said that the inclusion of women in political decision making is not just about women’s right to equality and participation in the elective offices but their potential to determine political and development priorities that benefit societies and the country at large.

“The key here is that we need to foster women’s potential by providing targeted support,” he said adding that unlike for men, there is no apprentice system for women in politics.

“We need to consider mentoring for women in politics, to provide them with the hand-holding support and on the job training that young men have historically received. This would make for more equitable representation in politics,” Gerald Daly said.

Organised by the National Centre for Women and Children and Bhutan Network for Empowering Women, more than 100 participants including members of parliament, civil servants, CSOs and political parties, among others, are attending the two-day conference.

Tshering Palden