Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu, is a Buddhist monastery and seat of the Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan’s civil government. Of the 72 MPs elected in last month’s elections, only five are women—down from 10 in the country’s first general election. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Wikimedia Commons)
Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu, is a Buddhist monastery and seat of the Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan’s civil government. Of the 72 MPs elected in last month’s elections, only five are women—down from 10 in the country’s first general election. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
(Wikimedia Commons)

Bhutan Beat | Bhutan faces unofficial gender gap

Lack of role models, influences from an increasingly globalized and digital media erode women’s confidence

Thimpu/Bhutan: Officially, there is no gender divide in Bhutan. Traditionally, women in this mainly matriarchal society have inherited their parents’ property and husbands often move into their wives’ homes after marriage. Constitutionally, women are guaranteed equal rights. And yet, says Lily Wangchhuk, the first and only woman president of any political party in Bhutan, in practice, there are “huge gender gaps".

Wangchhuk, 40, single and professionally successful, quit her job as the first executive director of the Bhutan Media Foundation to lead the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa party. She says her decision to contest the elections was part of her “pact with God" after she had overcome a personal battle with cancer.

Her party, however, failed to win a single seat and was eliminated in the first round of elections itself, getting only 6%.

Yet, says Wangchhuk, she has no plans to quit politics. “During my campaign, my male opponents said, ‘how can a woman assume such an enormous responsibility?’ If I quit now I will be proving them right."

Of the 72 MPs elected in last month’s elections, only five are women—down from 10 in the country’s first general election.

“Women in Bhutan are simply not seen in leadership roles," says Wangchhuk. Ironically, 70% of agricultural land is owned by women. The overall sex ratio of 110 males per 100 females is certainly better than that of India.

The reason for the paucity of women in leadership roles isn’t hard to find. “When modern education was introduced in 1951, very few people sent their daughters to school because the terrain is rugged and there were few roads," says Wangchhuk. As a result, leadership in government and business is dominated by that generation of educated men.

Earlier, speaking at the first day of the Mountain Echoes literature festival, Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck told festival director Namita Gokhale that “in Bhutan, we have no gender problems". She spoke about her own upbringing in Bhutan in a family where there was no discrimination of girls. “The women of our village had a reputation for being strong and independent," she said. After their marriage, her father came to live in her mother’s house and, in fact, she said, she was delivered by her father who cut her umbilical cord with a sharpened piece of bamboo and then nursed her mother back to strength with warm baths twice a day.

But even the Queen Mother could not help noting, “I hope to see more and more women take on leadership responsibilities in every aspect of Bhutanese life."

Women too are keen to embrace leadership roles, finds a 2012 study commissioned by the country’s National Commission of Women and Children. The report found that 57% women in the world’s youngest democracy were keen to join politics but were held back by constraining factors such as the lack of education and training as well as limited involvement and skills in decision making. The report found that 61.7% of women surveyed felt that their household responsibilities prevented them from taking a more active role in public life.

The lack of role models is another constraint. Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, executive director at the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, says that even though women in Bhutanese society have traditionally enjoyed a very powerful role both as decision makers and as the heads of their households, it is newer influences from an increasingly globalized and digital media that is eroding this influence. “There is a pressure to conform that is eroding the natural confidence of Bhutanese women," she says.

Close