NCWC to be merged with the Pema Center 

MB Subba 

A child or young person, on average, experienced violence every 42 hours in the past four and a half years, according to data from agencies working with children.

Bhutan saw cases of violence against children increase from 168 in 2018 to 181 in 2019, which further increased to 184 in 2020. The number of cases spiked in 2021 to 345. This is according to data from National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC), RENEW, and Nazhoen Lamten.

Those in the non-government organisations working for children say that the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the increase.

Cases of neglect increased from 40 in 2018 to 65, which increased to 71 in 2019 and 2020. Last year, the number of cases shot to 112.

Neglect, or deprivation, is a type of abuse that occurs when someone with the responsibility to provide care for an individual who is unable to care for himself or herself fails to do so. 

Neglect includes failure to provide sufficient supervision, nourishment, medical care, or failure to fulfil children’s needs that they cannot provide themselves.

Experts said that neglect can lead to many long-term side effects such as physical injuries, low self-esteem, attention disorders, violent behaviour, physical and psychological illness, and can even result in death.

Bhutan has always placed children at the heart of its development process. Bhutan was among the first countries to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) without any reservation in June 1990 and ratify it within two months.

Immunisation and introduction of vaccines, improvement of sanitation facilities, empowering women through non-formal education, introduction of early childhood care and development programmes, development of Bhutan sign language and the enactment of the Childcare and Protection Act are some of the major achievements of the country has made.

On the 30th anniversary of the convention in 2019, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering signed the voluntary global pledge, renewing the government’s commitment to its full implementation.

However, law enforcement officials say that many cases go unreported.

A Nazhoen Lamten official, Samten, said that discrimination especially in the communities due to stereotypes and perceptions influences people to be afraid or ashamed to report cases, among other reasons.

Teachers and counsellors said that neglect is one of the major abuses against children. “There is a shortage of counsellors and victims face difficulty accessing the services they need.”

There are no counsellors in primary schools and some in middle and lower secondary schools.

Reintegration programmes, after-care services for children in difficult circumstances and those in conflict with the law have to be more dynamic.

“Not just a helping hand but they (children) need a bridge back into the mainstream society,” a primary teacher said.

But agencies say they have very little budget to fulfil the huge mandate.

Budget issues 

Various initiatives and programmes have been undertaken both at the national and local levels to address violence against children, according to the government.

However, initiating and implementing capacity-building programmes for volunteers and officials involved in child protection programmes has been a challenge due to budget constraints.

An official from NCWC said that there was no budget for training and awareness programmes due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy.

However, the official added that the Commission was carrying out activities like creating awareness through social media.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, who is also the chairperson of NCWC, acknowledged the shortage of budget, which affected programmes and activities related to curbing violence against children.

He said that the government had to allocate budget based on the country’s priorities and that activities such as travel could not be undertaken adequately.

“We can certainly do better if we have enough budgets,” he said.

However, the minister said that services would improve after the NCWC is merged with the Pema Center, which will be a 60-bedded hospital for mental health and well-being within the JDWNRH complex.

The Center is a Royal initiative of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen.

Various initiatives like the construction of homes for children and the establishment of women and children committees at the gewog level, he said, have been undertaken as part of efforts to address the issue.

Some of the activities that are being undertaken by the NCWC would be taken over by the education ministry, according to the foreign minister.

However, some sources said that the available budget must be used for the right purpose. 

The government has allocated Nu 8.927 million (M) for the fiscal year 2022-23 for programmes and activities to be implemented by NCWC.

The National Assembly has a “women, children and youth” committee, which can review and recommend amendments to the existing laws and policies relating to children and also propose new legislation. The committee can review and report to the House on the status of implementation of the resolutions.

However, sources in Parliament said that getting the recommendations implemented by agencies was a challenge. The decrease in the budget for Parliament in the fiscal year 2022-23 is also likely to impact the committee’s works.

The NCWC in its annual report 2021 stated that it is a “small organisation with a big vision and mandate” to address men, women, other gender, and children’s well-being.

“Although we are over a decade old, we still continue to face financial limitations and human resource shortage in the process of delivering quality services,” it stated. The report stated that the Commission does not have adequate office space, infrastructure facilities and human resources.

According to UNICEF Bhutan, about every 6 out of 10 children in Bhutan have experienced some form of physical violence.

Verbal sexual harassment is commonly experienced by girls as well as boys. Children’s exposure to pornography and access to internet also makes them vulnerable to online abuse. 

A multi-sectoral campaign was launched yesterday to end violence against children. The campaign is expected to address barriers that prevent children and youth from availing themselves of child protection services and raise awareness about the prevalence of violence against children.

Led by NCWC, the violence against children campaign will be implemented by a consortium of 14 governmental and non-governmental agencies over the next six months in Thimphu, Trashigang, and Samtse.