It has been an ominous year for children in Bhutan. Perhaps it always was but 2018 stands out as the year of exploitation.

The election period exploited everything the Bhutanese hold dear and sacred. Communities were fragmented and regions divided along party lines. While the country was caught up in the whirlwind of dirty politics, something sinister was happening to our children.

We failed to protect our children.

Until the beginning of this month, at least one child was sexually abused every week this year. Of the 35 cases reported to date, 17 were in Gelephu alone. Last year, at least one case was reported every month.

November marks children’s day both at the national and international level, GNH day and the day for the elimination of violence against women. Contrary to the state of our children and women, most of these days are celebrated. We go blue and orange. We should go pale and be appalled and ashamed of the brutal reality of violence perpetuated against our women and children.

A society that fails its women and children cannot be considered happy. The pride of attaining high per capita income, higher living standards, better income and transitioning into a middle-income country is hollowed against the incidence of violence our children are exposed to.

What we are seeing today is the consequence of our complacency and inaction to deter and prevent any form of violence against children. Weak implementation of strong laws and weaker conviction rate have emboldened perpetrators to continue abusing our children. The issue we are confronted with is not so much about violence against children and women as it is about the collective responses or the lack of it from the society to tackle it.

There is an urgent need to initiate a study in Gelephu where the highest number of sexual abuse cases against children was reported. Either the reporting mechanism is better in Gelephu or the incidence of such crime is higher there compared to others. It could also indicate underreporting in other places.

Bhutan has laws, institutions and the political will to ensure that our women and children are safe and protected. Yet these and the commendable efforts CSOs such as RENEW are making remain challenged in preventing gender based violence. Our women and children are not safe in hospitals, schools and homes. Policies meant to ensure the safety of our children are exposing them to vulnerable situations. A 13-year-old girl was sexually abused in Gelephu earlier this month because she was dependent on the perpetrator for shelter to attend school. It is about time we took actions to ensure that one right cannot come at the cost of another right.

We have failed our youth. Now we are failing our women and children.