Gender parity still long way off for Bhutanese women

By Dawa Gyelmo

(Xinhua): As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8, women from various organizations came together and organized a three-day workshop in Bhutan’s capital city Thimpu to raise awareness of some of the pressing issues concerning girls and women of Bhutan.

Following the second general election in 2013, female politicians, social workers and female activists came together and started demanding a quota of 30 percent female representatives in parliament.

A proposal was also planned to be incorporated in the Election Act of Bhutan should it be amended, however the National Assembly decided not to amend the act. The majority of male politicians did not see the quota proposal as viable and it remained as just a proposal on the table.

The country’s first and only female minister Dorji Choden told national media that the female quota doesn’t mean in terms of numbers alone, like most people perceive. The emphasis is on “promotional activities” towards female empowerment and capacity building, to boost confidence so that women can take part in politics.

Some female social activists held the view that should the female quota come into effect, women would take a lead in governing the country. That could be hard for men in general to digest, considering the long history and notion of men being superior to women.

Christina Carlson, a UN resident coordinator in Bhutan stated that Bhutan is not immune to the pervasive global problem of violence against women and girls. “Bhutan already has many change-makers who challenge gender stereotypes through their own actions. Yet, we need more than a few brave individuals to stand up for gender equality,” she stated.

Women should stay home and look after children, farm and cows, was a notion that almost every Bhutanese held about three decades ago. But when the country became constitutional democracy from an absolute monarchy, women have tended to not just open up, but have started raising their voices against abusive men and are also demanding gender parity. There are many fatherless children born out of either wedlock or young girls being forcibly impregnated by working men.

Up until a decade ago, there were no female leaders, but the country now has six female representatives including a minister serving amongst the 74 parliamentarians within two houses. But the representation is still very low going by percentage.

According to the civil service record 2015, for the first time, the country appointed its first and only female dzongdag (governor) compared to 19 male dzongdags. Women are well represented as civil servants and account for 36 percent of the total, with at least 6 percent at an executive level, and a few female judges.

Women are also underrepresented among government officers with field postings to manage regulatory affairs, advise local governments, deliver extension services, or teach in the schools. This means that few women are in the decision and information feedback loops about local needs and the suitability of programs.

A study on the ‘Situation of violence against women in Bhutan’ (2013) by the NCWC states that about one in three women are likely to experience at least one act of violence during their lifetime. Domestic violence occurs in both rural and urban areas, and across all levels of education and wealth. The main challenge lies in changing the social norms and the mindset of people that continue to undermine efforts to eliminate violence against women and young girls.

The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) in 2008 pointed out in a study the unequal status of women and that their lack of equal opportunities are often taken for granted and are considered normal. The gender inequalities in Bhutanese society are deeply rooted in families, communities, and females’ individual minds remain largely invisible and underestimated.

The survey found that family habits, the behavior of community leaders, interpretations of religious beliefs, institutional practices, popular images and advertisements, are among the many other ways in which messages about gender roles are absorbed by young and old of both genders. Gender-related social norms and practices influence the expectations and behavior of both women and men.

The study by ADB also stated that the gender gap is evident in educational outcomes and unemployment. A number of analyses consider household and community factors that affect girls’ participation and performance, including housework responsibilities and the incidence of early pregnancy, stated the study report.

The much slower movement for women than men out of agriculture reflects the constraints faced by women. Around 37 percent of women are still working in agriculture compared to 23 percent of men.

The 2010 Bhutan Multiple Indicator Survey resulted in some disturbing findings about women’s experience and tolerance of domestic violence. Among women aged 15 to 49 years old who were currently or formerly married, 24 percent had experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence by their husbands or partners.

An even more disturbing finding was the extent to which women condoned domestic violence. In most cases women themselves believed that a man is justified in beating his wife or partner, stated the study.

A Gross National Happiness (GNH) assessment has also found that women in Bhutan are less happy than men. Although the constitution makes a strong statement on the equal rights of all citizens, regardless of sex, and the principles of state policy include a commitment to the creation of a state free of discrimination, and to take measures to eliminate discrimination against and exploitation of women, women are less happy than their male counterparts.

To help protect girls and women, a domestic violence prevention act also came into effect in 2013. Subsequently in 2015 domestic violence prevention rules and regulations were also endorsed by parliament.

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