Deputy Ambassador of Australia to Bhutan Sarah Storey talks to Kuensel’s Jigmi Wangdi about some significant developments in the Australia-Bhutan relationship

Could you tell us about your visit? 

It’s my first official visit to Bhutan. I arrived in New Delhi last December but the borders were closed at the time. I needed to come to Bhutan this year as it is the 20th anniversary of our official diplomatic relations. I wanted to see for myself, inspect some of our development projects, and continue the warm relations which exist.

While I have been here for just a few days, I have been fortunate enough to have conversations with your foreign minister, health minister, leader of the opposition, and several important stakeholders. So all this is just to reinforce the value of Australia as Bhutan’s most favoured education destination.


How has Australia been helping Bhutan in terms of gender issues? 

Australia is very strongly committed to ending gender-based violence and November 25 is the international day for the elimination of violence against women. It was incredibly moving for me to attend a ceremony officiated by Her Majesty the Queen Mother. That was where we were able to commend the work and see the respect given to our partner organisation in Bhutan, RENEW, and the work that they have been doing to try to rid Bhutan of violence against women.

This is not to particularly say it is a problem in Bhutan, this is a problem that is worldwide and after Covid-19, we have only seen rates of violence, particularly at the hands of intimate partners increase. So this is why the work of RENEW has been fantastic.

They are working with schools to educate young children and it is not just about the rights of girls and women, it’s about the rights of boys and men as well because gender-based violence has an economic impact as well on health and well-being. They are working to also provide shelters for women who have been subjected to violence, to assist them in counselling services and livelihood training so that they can turn over a new leaf.

I met the health minister on November 25 and with the World Health Organisation (WHO) we have partnered with Bhutan in its very ambitious and excellent efforts to rid the nation of cervical cancer. This is something that I feel has been excellent. In Punakha, we met the health centre officials and they mentioned they are implementing this drive and doing HPV screening across the community.


Have there been any tangible results from the partnership?

Absolutely. I would point to the water and sanitation that we have done under the ‘water for women’ project. That has enabled Bhutan to declare itself to have 100 percent improved sanitation just this month and to be free from open defecation is a remarkable achievement. So through the ‘water for women’ project and our partner SNV, we have been working in four districts again with communities. But part of this is adoption by individuals themselves.

These outcomes have meant that there has been an introduction of sanitation incentives, education and information but it has been the community members themselves who voluntarily take this up, which is excellent.

For many years we have worked previously on skills and vocational training. So this is the central pillar of our very flourishing development partnership with Bhutan. We are very grateful that so many Bhutanese families consider Australia to be their destination of choice for education. That in itself is a remarkable outcome because just in Bhutan’s Cabinet alone, you have seven members who are Australian alumni. The Prime Minister has been the beneficiary of graduating with a master’s in business administration from the University of Canberra through a partnership that we have had with the Royal Institute of Management.

We have also assisted with nutritional feeding programs some years ago. These are a few examples.


How will the support be going forward?

It’s imperative in a development partnership to emphasise that it is a partnership. We are very perceptive to the aspirations and the clear planning and initiatives of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

Coming from His Majesty The King, we are hearing a consistent signal of vocational skills and training and the need to assist the Bhutanese economy with getting back on its feet after the pandemic. So we will always be open to understanding the objectives and aspirations of the Royal Government and of the people.

We are very hopeful that we will continue our partnership on gender-based violence and women’s and girls’ rights. Also on water and sanitation. I am very confident that these will continue.

We are open to working with a range of partners, we have also been working with the World Bank on some hydro projects, so this is very important to us too because we know infrastructure investment is imperative for economic development.