As a country in pursuit of harmony and happiness, gender equality has lately become an issue in Bhutan. From cultural and traditional stereotypes to the marriage act to women’s access to inner sanctum of lhakhangs and dzongs, Metho Dema explores what issues of concern underpin gender debate.
There is a popular story about a minister, who once said to a foreigner that ‘there is no poverty in Bhutan’, which sparked a lot of debate. Then, there is another popular proclamation that ‘there is gender equality in Bhutan’, which some feminists strongly refute.
In the social institution and gender index, Bhutan ranks 64 out of 102 countries and stands second out of the seven south Asian countries, which means it is easier to be a woman in Bhutan than in other south Asian countries, except Sri Lanka. “When I look at the oppression faced by women in other Asian countries, I am glad to be a Bhutanese,” said Tshering Choden, 22, a recent graduate. However, according to staunch feminists, although Bhutan is a gender-friendly nation in legal terms, there is a subtle form of inequality in the form of culture and tradition. This, they say, is more ominous than the more prominent form of gender inequality evident in other Asian countries like Afghanistan.
Statistics show that, although primary education enrollment is high among girls, most of the girls drop out after completing class X or class XII. Only about 30 percent of female makes up the civil service, and only 5.37 percent of the female civil servants has reached the executive category.
Women are also under-represented in the decision-making process. According to the National Plan of Action for Gender, despite the enabling policy environment, women are still under-represented in the decision-making process. Balancing work with family life is still considered a woman’s issue in Bhutan, and the impact of this may contribute to low representation of women in public decision-making, especially at the higher levels of governance.
A consultant once said, “Even though sexist remarks like ‘a woman’s rightful place is the kitchen’ are out of belief now, there are stereotypical roles that a society assigns to women that can adversely affect her economic and social development.” The phrase pretty much sums up the situation in Bhutan.
When it comes to making choices, a women’s decision is greatly affected by societal norms. “During my research, I found out that a family doesn’t easily accept a girl’s decision to become a nun, but if a boy decides to become a monk, it’s acceptable,” said a lecturer at Sherubtse College. “When I was a little child, my mother was offered a job in the US but she stayed back due to family objection and expectation,” said Sonam Wangmo, 23. This, according to Kencho Pelzom, an assistant lecturer at Sherubtse College, who does a lot of gender- related research, is due to the psychological make-up of a woman. “If a woman gets a career-advancing opportunity that requires her to choose between her family and her career, she will definitely choose the former. That is happening a lot in Bhutan.
It happens because women were brought up to think that way. Here, the psychological aspect of how a society grooms a woman’s thought and attitude comes into the forefront,” said Kencho. However, there are also policies like the need to name the father of the child for census registration, which reflect the age-old notion of how a ‘woman is incomplete without a man’.
Dr Rinchen Chopel, the Executive Director of National Commission for Women and Children, in an earlier interview to Observer, talked about how single mothers faced difficulties during census registration of their children. He said, “If the mother is a Bhutanese by birth, there should not be a need for the father’s name for the child to be registered as a Bhutanese citizen; the child is a bonafide Bhutanese.”
However, his views are far and wanting in a society that has a very large number of single mothers whose children are not ‘registered Bhutanese’ owing to the lack of a male’s name in the census registration form.
Some women say that denying women access to certain parts of lhakhangs and dzongs also show the patriarchal nature of the Bhutanese society.
Researchers use matrilineal systems of inheritance in Bhutan as evidence to support the fact that Bhutanese society is largely matriarchal and that the above practice contributes greatly to economic well-being, social status, and empowerment of women in rural areas.
However, a research by a student from the University of East Anglia throws a different light on this issue. He concluded that ‘land may not necessarily be perceived as the most significant asset that a woman might possess’ as it restricts and limits a woman’s choice, acting to women’s ‘disadvantage in keeping them tied to the land while men seek opportunities elsewhere.’
However, it is not to say that male counterparts are better-off. According to a lecturer in Sherubtse College, men are also subjected to gender bias due to stereotypical notions. For example, Bhutanese men are considered to be bad fathers as evident from the child custody law that is existent in the country. Existing law, the marriage act, states that, no matter which parent is at fault, the mother automatically gets custody of the child under nine years of age. After that, the child has the right to choose which parent he or she wants to stay with. “Even though I want to get a divorce, I can’t do that now as I will not get custody of my only child, and I don’t think I can live without my child,” said a 28-year-old father, who requested anonymity.
“Another issue that is harder on men than women is homosexuality,” said the lecturer. “Our society is more open towards lesbians than gays,” she added.
According to Phuntsho Wangmo, a journalist, who did a story on the gay population in Bhutan, it was really difficult to find gay sources. “I have found out that most of the gay people are bisexual as they need a female partner to keep up the front. My sources told me that the gay community is guarded and secretive as it is afraid of coming out for fear of repercussion,” she said.
Source – Bhutan Observer