Bhutan’s first female minister: engineer, equality warrior and former civil servant

Dorji Choden
Dorji Choden

What’s it like being a civil servant in one of the world’s happiest countries?

Bhutan is a Buddhist nation of 740,000 people that wants its agriculture to become totally organic, that measures happiness as well as economic growth, and wants to bring its citizens into the 21st-century while retaining its traditional culture. It was also, until recent victories moved it 46 places up the league, a country with the world’s worst football team (its Fifa world ranking was 209 – out of 209 teams).

Being a civil servant in this country is a unique challenge. Moving from a 20-year civil service career to becoming a government minister – and becoming the first democratically elected female minister of the country in the process – could be seen as even more of a challenge, but it’s one that Dorji Choden has taken on with ease. For Choden, an engineer by training, being in the service of her country is something she is glad to take on – and it beats the year she spent doing a master’s degree in Syracuse, New York state, where she was desperately homesick.

“My background is in engineering,” explains Choden. “I started my work as an engineer in the same ministry where I am now, working on infrastructure development, water and sanitation.” Choden then became an anti-corruption commissioner as Bhutan readied itself for a move to parliamentary democracy. But what made her cross the divide and become a politician?

“It was a call from the throne,” she explains. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who became the Bhutan ruler in 2006 when his father abdicated, felt civil servants like Choden had a big part to play in the new democratic system. “I think I served well enough in the civil service to understand the country’s issues. And I took it as another platform to serve people,” she says.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. In the first election of 2008, Choden’s People’s Democratic Party did not win, so instead of becoming a politician, the former civil servant did several years with the United Nations Development Programme , looking at poverty and unemployment – a rich experience, she says, that has added valuable knowledge of social policy to her technical background. In the second election of 2013, her party gained power and she became minister of the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement.

Bhutan, which famously measures gross national happiness in addition to GDP, has some way to go on gender parity in its new government. “I must tell you our first election was better,” says Choden. “The percentage of female politicians was close to 14%. But somehow that dropped last time. It’s now only 8%: six women out of 72 parliamentarians.”

Operating in such an overwhelmingly male environment is not a problem for Choden. “Ever since the time I took a technical education, I was so used to working with male colleagues,” she explains. “During my whole career in the civil service I worked with male colleagues, so I do not find this any different. It only requires you to work hard and show your competency.”

But it is something Choden wants to see change, in both the civil service and politics. “Development in Bhutan is fairly young, so the first batch of students who went out for [civil service] training were mostly men and boys. That was in the 1960s, so now most senior civil servants are men.” That’s beginning to change as girls take a full role through the whole education system. Choden also chairs the national Bhutan Commission for Women and Children, which is setting up programmes to promote women into more leadership roles. “We start in high school with training and we go round the districts and think about the local government elections as well,” she says. “We are working through local government to bring in women who are interested.”

There are still barriers. Choden says women and girls in Bhutan are respected and don’t face direct discrimination, but that women still need to develop greater capacity and confidence to take part in public life. “The whole development approach is based on gross national happiness, which is still very strong and a principle that guides us,” says Choden. It is notoriously hard to measure national happiness.

The Bhutan government looks at indicators like the vibrancy of communities, spiritual wellbeing, the conservation of nature and the value of tradition and culture – and women have a part of play in all those areas, she points out. “We want to build that capacity, so women can feel they should take part and not just on women’s issues. It’s a holistic approach.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *