Women make up 48-50% of the population but due to socially-historically justified differential access to opportunities to education, tertiary level in particular, and employment since Bhutan marched on the journey of modern development in the 1960s… the number of women in decision-making positions in 2023 is far from corresponding to that proportion. Definitely, contrary to our desire to see the situation change faster by leaps and bounds, it is improving incrementally and also fluctuating at the same time.

The latest figures show 18% of women in leadership positions in the civil service (after recent reforms and promotions), 3.4% women Gups, and 15.3% in the Parliament. Undeniably, the notion of leadership is masculine and hence the space is unquestioningly dominated by men. However, that there’s a lack of qualified eligible women in the market at this moment in time isn’t completely true as well. The gospel truth is that women do not feel as confident nor as comfortable to step forward voluntarily to contest elections as their male counterparts do. At the same time, public confidence in women’s leadership is also very low, being used to the norm of male leadership.

Once elevated to leadership positions through appointments by His Majesty the King or promotions in the CS or elected during elections, women have more than proven that they make the best of leaders – competent, confident, capable, and compassionate. Yet this critical mass of role model women leaders in Bhutan is still inadequate and not visible enough to achieve the necessary impact on changing societal mindset and attitudes towards accepting women as leaders more easily.

Based on BNEW’s decade of experience working to empower and support women with our goal to increase participation and representation of women in leadership and politics, we are convinced about the urgent need for other interventions at the strategic level to be able to boost and sustain the outcomes we could and can achieve. Transformation of societal mindset and attitude to be more open and to adopt greater acceptance of women as leaders is in dire need of a top-down approach which could be as major as a piece of law and minor as a policy tweak with the sole focus of increasing and sustaining representation of women in leadership. The swiftest route to bringing about the desirable change (if we are really serious and committed) is clearly through elections every 5 years for the Parliament and LGs, by instituting legal instruments or policy changes that favour women’s participation in politics. For example, if the Election Commission of Bhutan institutes a mandatory clause in the Election rules that every Political Party must have a minimum of 33% women candidates to be eligible for registration to contest in the elections, the Parties will make it their business to find the women they need. The voluntary quota of party tickets for women is always claimed and declared by Political Parties to appear to be gender-friendly, but that normally does not deliver the desired outcome. Without making too much effort the Parties declare that women candidates are not available or not forthcoming. Hence the need for a mandatory quota which does not leave room for making excuses.

Political Parties are the gatekeepers in politics and once they are compelled to let in more women to contest, voters are presented with the choices they need which will result in more women being elected. This has worked well and has been proven in many countries with legislated/regulated party quotas, rather than voluntary ones. This is less threatening than a reservation of seats in the Parliament which is yet another measure that ought to be considered in more progressive and enlightened times when the former instrument does not deliver as needed. The assumptions, the myth, misinformation and insecurities that the adoption of quota and reservation laws will result in incompetent, incapable women in leadership need to be busted and discarded. On the contrary, globally why and how do so many incompetent underperforming men keep getting there without anyone ever questioning their performance, competencies or capabilities? Women’s credentials and qualities are always doubted and they are scrutinized through the magnifying glass. Meritocracy is frequently harped on when it comes to women, while it’s enough for men to be just male! Standards set for women are higher. By the same token, being constantly judged and put under the microscope also makes women work harder and make better leaders perhaps.

Another gentle, not-so-threatening temporary special measure based on the latest rule introduced by the ECB could be reducing the number of years of experience required to be eligible to contest in elections for women to say 5 years (for NC) and 3 years  (for NA) against the new rule of 10 and 5 years respectively.

Yet another, could be to allow women leaders in the civil service to take leave of absence from work to partake in the elections and be made to resign only once elected. This would facilitate the process to enhance qualified eligible women’s participation in politics if we truly and genuinely want to see more women in the Parliament, Cabinet and LGs. The importance of women in leadership, politics and governance needs no explanation now, especially in a gender-egalitarian and GNH country like Bhutan. So, the focus of this spontaneous piece is on why no women and what must be done …..

In LGs too, unless a reservation of sorts ranging from 15 – 33% in the number of Thrompoens, Gups, Mangmis and Tshogpas is creatively instituted, the representation of women will keep fluctuating and run the great risk of having no women elected too (eg. No female Thrompoen yet and not a single woman could be elected to NC in the 2nd Parliamentary election in 2013). With BNEW’s efforts to consistently mobilise, build capacity and advocate, the trend of women’s participation and representation in LGs has struggled to maintain an upward trend, even if, very incrementally from 6.9% (2011) to 11.6% in 2016 to the latest 12.6% since third LGE in December 2021.  The number of female gups rose from 1(in 2011) to 2 (in 2016) and we can boast of 7 today after 3rd LGE (3.4%). Without a policy or law to ensure and protect a minimum representation of female leaders in LGs, the socio-politico-economic environment is not yet as optimally-enabling as perceived or projected generally.

If the political will exists, across all leadership arenas – be it in government, politics, or corporate Boards and Committees, it is also possible to institute a rule or policy that representation of neither gender should be allowed to exceed 60% nor fall below 40%. This will take care of the fear and sentiments often expressed (lightly and seriously) that someday women may take over power by becoming the majority if special measures favour them. In reality, “at the current rate of progress, it may take close to 300 years to achieve full gender equality”, states “ Progress on SDGs: The Gender Snapshot 2022”.

To conclude,  my own wish would be for another landmark Royal Decree similar to the one issued to the then National Assembly of Bhutan, by HM the Fourth Druk Gyalpo in 1998-1999… the essence of which was to convey His Majesty’s dissatisfaction with the absence of women in the NAB and the urgent need to do everything possible to ensure that more women representatives (then called ‘Chimis’) are there. In response to the Royal Decree, women representation shot up to 14% overnight in the session of 1999-2000 as a result of concerted efforts by the Dasho Dzongdags to mobilise, motivate and encourage women to contest for posts during local-level elections held to send people’s representatives to the national assembly.

In the absence of specific gender-responsive laws and policies to address the gap in women’s representation in leadership, and given the disappointing responses to our tireless efforts to engage with key stakeholders to advocate, train and gender-sensitize, my only hope lies in a benevolent Royal Decree. Rest will follow. The transformation will be unstoppable. A truly gender-balanced leadership will be the outcome. Women’s leadership will become a norm, rather than an exception.  This is my fervent prayer.

Contributed by 

Phuntshok Chhoden

Bhutan Network for 

Empowering Women