By Saraswati Sundas
THIMPHU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sonam Zangmo endured abuse at the hands of her husband for two years before finally walking out on him after the birth of her daughter.
“He used to lay his hands on me at every opportunity,” said the 28-year-old Bhutanese woman, who is now bringing up her daughter, 6, alone.
She is happier as a single parent, she says, even though she earns just $100 a month working at a resort in Bumthang district in central Bhutan, popular for its ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries.
“There were no better options,” said Zangmo. “I want my daughter to have a good life.”
But without drastic changes in attitudes toward women in the tiny Himalayan nation wedged between China and India, it is likely her daughter will also suffer domestic abuse.
A national health survey in 2012 revealed 74 percent of women in the majority Buddhist country had been victims of physical violence.
Another survey from Bhutan’s National Statistics Bureau revealed that 68 percent of Bhutanese women believe a man is justified in beating his wife if she neglects the children, argues with her husband, refuses sex or burns the dinner.
The findings were a wake-up call in a society that enshrines non-discrimination in its constitution, and through its Gross National Happiness Commission prioritizes the happiness of its citizens, taking into account factors other than economic well-being.
“It is surprising and shocking,” said Karma Tshiteem, secretary of the happiness commission, formed in 2008. “The attitude is totally inconsistent with Buddhist teachings.”
Another victim of violence at home, retired schoolteacher Mewang Zam, 49, left her husband after 20 years of marriage.
Her husband was a jobless alcoholic and would hit her and her children regularly. She decided to throw him out one night after he threatened to beat her with an iron rod.
“I lived with him in the hope he would change but he never did,” said Zam who now lives with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in the capital, Thimphu. Her husband has tried to convince her to take him back but she has refused.
‘FUTURE OF OUR DAUGHTERS’
Since the non-governmental organization Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW) was established in 2004, more than 4,000 cases of gender-based violence have been reported. But many more go unreported in the country of around 780,000 people.
RENEW’s more than 2,400 volunteers work across the mountainous kingdom to raise awareness and offer information about domestic violence and sexual health, and provide support and shelter to families who have suffered abuse.
“Violence against women is a serious health, mental and human rights issue,” said 28-year-old Rinzin Lhamo, a teacher who works as a RENEW volunteer in the commercial hub, Phuentsholing.
“We must stand up together now to secure the future of our daughters.”
Apart from giving counselling and providing protection, Lhamo teaches victims of domestic violence tailoring, baking and bamboo basket-making to boost their incomes.
Another volunteer, Ambika Neopaney, herself a victim of domestic abuse, has worked with RENEW for more than 10 years.
“There are a lot of women out there who need help,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We help them come forward and get counselling and legal assistance,” she said, adding at times they also help couples to reconcile.
The NGO says it receives half a dozen complaints of violence against women every day, due to growing awareness of the problem. It deals with cases of assault, sexual harassment, child labor, sexual exploitation, physical abuse and rape.
In 2014 alone, RENEW referred more than 50 cases to the high court, and the group currently houses 132 domestic violence victims in shelters.
“Many women know about the service we provide, and many are coming forward,” said RENEW’s director, Pema Gyelsten.
He said the most common complaints are physical abuse, including wife and maid battery, followed by emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment and extra-marital affairs.
The National Commission for Women and Children and the women and child protection unit of the Bhutan police, established in 2007, have introduced an emergency number for reporting violence.
Speaking at an International Women’s Day event in Phuentsholing this month, the queen mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck, founder of RENEW, told the audience: “It is your duty to show and tell your sons that women deserve respect and love and should never be abused.”
The influential mother of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck said sexual and gender-based violence were on the rise in Bhutan, with children bearing the brunt of the abuse.
Prime Minister Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay has promised strict implementation of the 2013 Domestic Violence Prevention Act, as well as increasing representation of women in parliament, and promoting women’s participation in society, economics and politics.