Bhutan, a country that has always taken pride in being a matriarchal society, now seems to be failing its women. Of the 188 candidates in the 2018 National Assembly primary elections, only 19 are women (10.1%). This is a decrease from 31 in the last 2013 primaries. Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party has the highest number of women candidates with a meagre seven; Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa feature five women apiece, and People’s Democratic Party has only two. The question is, why?

All over the world, politics has proved to be very inhospitable terrain for women. In every political system, women’s presence in the political process is marginally low, except in some Nordic countries. In Bhutan, women continue to remain invisible and marginalised in decision-making bodies.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women is presently considering the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals agenda. Progress in women’s representation and empowerment is on the agenda for attention, along with further strategies to achieve gender equality in leadership. 

In Bhutan, despite advances in women’s levels of education and participation in the paid economy, women have made little significant progress with respect to their representation in national politics. The World Bank reports that in 2016, 98.8% of eligible girls attended primary school compared to 97% for boys. However, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, ranks Bhutan 124 out of 144 countries, mostly due to its economic participation and political empowerment indicators. One report published in 2013 stated that gender gaps in labour markets and job quality was identified as one of the main areas of gender gaps in Bhutan. The report stated that one of the main constraints for women in the work force is the responsibilities for household chores and childcare. 

A recent news outlet from the Philippines wrote an article about challenges faced by female candidates up for election and the role media plays in the fight to combat the stigmatisation of women in politics. The female candidates interviewed claimed that the prevailing attitudes about gender roles limit the participation or act as hindrance for women in politics. This brings us to the point of how gender ideology strongly affects the number of women in national legislatures. 

Yvonne Galligan,- of Queen’s University Belfast (UK), observes the effect of ideology is substantially stronger than the effects of political variables, such as the presence of a proportional representation system. In addition, the effect of ideology is robust in the face of variety of regression diagnostics and a variety of alternative specifications of the model. Low levels of female participation in the legislature are thought to result from two factors: the ‘supply’ of female candidates and ‘demand’ for female candidates. Supply is determined by structural factors. Political elites are pulled disproportionately from the highly educated and from certain professions. Thus, if women do not have access to educational and professional opportunities, they will not have the human and financial capital necessary to run for office. 

As noted above, access to education for girls isn’t a constraint in Bhutan. This leaves professional opportunities. The World Economic Forum’s report indicates that women in Bhutan are spending more time on household and caregiving activities, while men are enjoying relatively more leisure time- time that can be spent, for example, engaging in local and national politics. It is our cultural norm that is defining who does that task. 

Over the last two decades, more and more women have gone to work, thus switching from the typical Bhutanese family from a ‘male bread-winner’ model to a ‘dual bread-winner’ model in our society. But despite the divided income earning responsibility in a household, the women have always taken or had to take the responsibility of housework, to the extent that women scale back their career ambitions in order to focus on domestic matters- this inequality at home perpetuates inequality at work. To achieve greater gender equity in the professional spheres- as well as politics- men will need to reallocate their time toward housework and caregiving activities so that women can gain more time for working for pay or pleasure. Men need to take active responsibility not only in workplace to fight for equal pay and against discrimination, but also in the home. 

Women’s participation in the political process is important for strengthening democracy. If women are to be empowered, it is imperative that they be in the corridors of power so that they can represent their problems in a better way and negotiate a better deal. Empowerment of women in the political field is not only crucial for the advancement of women, but also for structuring a just and equitable society. The absence of women or lack of enough representation in political decision-making has a negative impact on the entire process of democratisation. Without the perspective of women at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development, and peace cannot be achieved. The Constitution enumerates a number of fundamental rights extended to women, including the right to full and equal political participation. However, this right has yet to be fully realised. And while there is always a room for stronger policies that support and encourage women in politics, the root of gender disparity starts at home.   


Contributed by Kesang Wangmo 

The writer is a lecturer at the JSW School of Law