Women leaders, bureaucrats and policymakers met yesterday in Thimphu at a women leadership summit to discuss women issues and challenges and identify gaps for their advancement in the public and political sphere.

A declaration was also made, calling for gender-responsive policies, programme and activities.

But this is not the first discussion or declaration.

In 2015, the Terma Linca declaration was made, suggesting quota as a temporary measure to increase representation of women in politics.  The same year, Bhutan also pledged measurable action towards gender equality and promised to accelerate implementation of the Beijing platform for Action and the 2030 agenda of gender equality goal.  Then there was the Thimphu declaration in 2017, which called for 40:60 women representation in governance, leadership and politics by 2030.

How have we fared?  Have we lived up to the expectations and spirit of the declarations?  In fact, how seriously do we pursue the declarations?  The questions are many with few answers.

Women in Bhutan are considered fortunate.  There is no overt gender discrimination.  Women enjoy more social freedom and equality compared to those in the region.  Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to women and men, electoral laws also provide equal rights for women in politics.  Women enjoy political, economic and social equality and play an equal role in all aspects of decision-making within the family.

But global gender gap report 2020 ranked Bhutan 131 of 153 countries, the lowest in South Asia.  In 2018, Bhutan was ranked 122.  This shows Bhutan has not progressed but fallen by nine places.

Although 49 percent of Bhutanese population are women, there is only 15 percent representation in Parliament.  In local government, only two of the 205 gups are women.  In the civil service, 38.15 percent are women, but only 14 percent of women are in an executive position.

Meanwhile, gender-based violence increased in the last few years.  There are horrifying stories of violence against women.  A GNH survey in 2015 found Bhutanese women to be less happy than men.

Besides the lack of action on the declarations, audit report showed three key performance indicators of national key result area 13 were not achieved, which includes drafting legislation to ensure quota for women in elected offices, including parliament and local government bodies, increasing ratio of female to male in tertiary education and reducing female youth unemployment.

Women leaders identified gender biases, stereotypes, norms and attitudes deeply entrenched in our society as a barrier.  The declarations did not specify how to address these.

Women’s participation is important in public life to build and sustain strong, vibrant democracies.  Studies also indicate women’s political participation has positive impacts on communities, legislations, political process, and citizens’ lives.  It gives more focus to social issues.

Such summits and discussions are important to create awareness, but the declarations should also translate into action.  Let us not discuss women issues only on International Women’s Day.