Gender, as known in Bhutan is a term that has given rise to much confusion. Even now, most people around us will respond that “gender means women.” As such it is important to understand this highly misunderstood term – Gender. In Bhutan, the journey has not been an easy one. While considered as a country where women enjoy relative freedom and equality in many spheres of life, the Bhutanese woman is not without her share of problems.
An Introduction to Gender
Gender, as known in Bhutan is a term that has given rise to much confusion. Even now, most people around us will respond that “gender means women.” As such it is important to understand this highly misunderstood term – Gender. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles and responsibilities of men and women that are created within our families, our societies and our cultures. The concept of gender also includes the expectations held about the characteristics, aptitudes and likely behaviors of both women and men (femininity and masculinity).
1975 was the year when women’s issues were placed on the global agenda for the first time - it was declared as the International Women’s Year by the United Nations General Assembly. Subsequently, the observation of the United Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) was a world-wide effort to examine the status and rights of women. In 1979, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This entered into force in 1981 and set an international standard for what was meant by equality between women and men. Bhutan ratified the CEDAW in the same year without any reservations, which indicated the strong commitment of the Government in ensuring the rights of women. In 1985, the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women was adopted which was to be implemented by the year 2000. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) in August 1995 gave further impetus to the empowerment and advancement of women, including the right to freedom guaranteeing them the possibility of realizing their full potential and shaping their lives in accordance with their own aspirations. In the world, there has been important progress in achieving gender equality. Many Governments have enacted legislation to promote equality between women and men and have established national machineries to ensure the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in all spheres of society. International agencies too have focused greater attention on women's status and roles.
In Bhutan, the journey has not been an easy one. While considered as a country where women enjoy relative freedom and equality in many spheres of life, the Bhutanese woman is not without her share of problems. The status of women in Bhutan is influenced by socio-cultural perceptions that generally hold women as less confident, capable and strong and sexually more vulnerable than men. This has influenced access to education, employment and public decision-making and presented a greater challenge as it is to do with the more subdued and indirect forms of gender bias.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008 provides the overall legal framework for women’s empowerment where in: fundamental rights are equally bestowed on men and women; fundamental duties mandate every Bhutanese not to tolerate abuse of women; principles of state policies intend and guide actions to eliminate discrimination against women and children; and it also recognizes ratified international treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as deemed law of the Kingdom.
The enactment of specific legislations like the Child Care and Protection Act 2011, the Child Adoption Act 2012 and the Domestic Violence Prevention Act 2013 provides platforms for women and children rights to be protected. Emergence of such laws, is a translation of the strong political will and enabling environment existing in the country.
The philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is integral to Bhutan’s growth process. In practice, GNH strives to create an environment wherein every man, woman and child is included and benefits from development and growth.
The growing strength of civil society organizations in Bhutan has become a driving force for change. Our CSOs have played an important advocacy role in advancing legislation or mechanisms to ensure the promotion and protection of women and have become the catalysts for new approaches to development. The important role that CSOs play and the need to work together is being increasingly recognized and formed one of the key areas of discussion in the preparatory consultations leading up to the formulation of the 12th Plan Guidelines.
In the recent presentation of our country report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women on 27th October 2016, while the Committee commended Bhutan on the various initiatives taken, they also cautioned us on the critical areas of concern that remained and possible gender gaps that would emerge.
Progress towards gender mainstreaming has occurred slowly. Currently, there is uneven mainstreaming of gender issues across policies, plans, programs and projects in the country. While there are several provisions in place, they remain either ad hoc, or with inadequate accountability or monitoring approaches. This can be attributed to the absence of clear policy directives at the national level in the form of a Gender Equality Act or Policy which translates the provisions of the Constitution of Bhutan 2008 (fundamental rights (Article 7), fundamental duties (Article 8), Principles of State Policy (Article 9)) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which the country ratified in 1981 without any reservations. While the National Commission for Women and Children was established in 2004 to promote and protect the rights of women, besides the existence of a Government Order, the organization lacks the legal teeth to fulfill its mandate effectively. As such, an overarching legislative and policy directive to address the formal approach to equality and towards guaranteeing substantive equality by accounting for women’s particular needs and addressing existing gender gaps and inequalities, is crucial.
The above is in line with the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation 25 which states that “it is not enough to guarantee women treatment that is identical to that of men.” The Committee emphasized that “a purely formal legal approach is not sufficient to achieve women’s de facto equality with men, which the Committee interprets as substantive equality.”
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008 provides an overarching framework and foundation on which gender equality is ensured. However, despite guarantees of formal equality, structural and cultural norms continue to pose barriers to the broader realization of gender equality in the country. Bhutan ranks 124 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2017 (dropped by 3 places), which uses indicators of political participation, health, education and economic empowerment to assess the extent of gender parity. The country scores poorly in political empowerment, followed by economic participation and opportunity and educational attainment and fares well in health and survival.
Every policy in Bhutan requires to be screened using the GNH Policy Screening Tool, which has gender equality as one of the parameters in rating a policy and also the requirement in the Policy Protocol to review policies from a gender perspective. This has curbed gender blind policies and led to the development of a number of policies that are gender sensitive and responsive.
In Bhutan’s five year plans, beginning from the Fifth Five Year Plan, the approach to address gender issues evolved from a ‘women in development’ perspective, to that of ‘women and development.’ It was only in the Tenth Five Year Plan (2008-2013) that a major shift towards gender mainstreaming and the collection of sex-disaggregated data was experienced and a ‘gendered’ approach was taken with the adoption of the National Plan of Action for Gender (NPAG). The NPAG was the first time that the country set out a clear framework with interventions to achieve gender equality through a gender transformative or mainstreamed approach.
The 11th FYP (2013-2018), included a National Key Result Area specifically for gender equality, “Gender Friendly Environment for Women’s Participation.” In 2012, the Gender Responsive Planning and Budgeting (GRPB) initiative was launched and piloted in three key ministries. The inclusion of mandatory gender equality indicators from the 2016-17 Annual Performance Agreements of all the sectors in the Government, is also an important step taken for mainstreaming gender issues.
Gender and Good Governance
Gender equality principles are complementary to the principles of good governance namely equity and inclusiveness, accountability, responsiveness and participation. In the 11th Five Year Plan the thirteenth National Key Result Area “Gender friendly environment for women’s participation” under the Good Governance pillar, has indicators such as a legislated quota for enhancing women’s participation. While quotas form part of ‘temporary special measures’ that countries could put in place to ensure women’s representation in elected offices, in the Bhutanese context, this may not work.
In terms of women’s political participation, the Constitution provides the right to vote and to participate in any lawful profession as a fundamental right of every Bhutanese citizen. Women’s representation in the Parliament has not been encouraging, the percentages have declined from 13.8% in 2008 to 8.3% in 2013 and 15.3% in 2018; and at the local government level there was an improvement from 7.8% in 2011 to 11.3% in 2016. However, women’s representation is still poor and reaching a critical mass of 33% remains a distant dream. According to the GNH Survey 2015 women were less happy than men in all the domains with the most gaps in good governance, education, psychological wellbeing and community vitality.
Bhutan’s 8th & 9th Combined Periodic Report was presented to the UN CEDAW Committee in October 2016, and the Concluding Observations that followed strongly recommended the use of Temporary Special Measures (TSM) 4 and for the country to “implement, sustained policies aimed at the promotion of women’s full, active & equal participation in decision making and all areas of public and political life.” Through all the periodic reports, the adoption of TSM has always featured as a recommendation from the Committee.
The possibilities of instituting TSM was discussed at length and consultation meetings were held at various levels from 2013 to 2015 which led to the development of the National Plan of Action to Promote Gender Equality in Elected Office (NPAPGEEO). The NPAPGEEO contains recommendations for TSM in two parts:
Part A - Identifies and prescribes ways and means of creating a demand for women’s participation (at the nomination level) in the Local Government, National Council and National Assembly elections.
Part B - Focuses on a number of interventions to ensure that a consistent and adequate number of women contest the elections. The interventions include creating awareness, mentoring, building leadership capacities and providing the required support to create a level playing field by eliminating inequalities resulting from gender differences.
In 2017, women comprised 36.43% of the total civil servants in Bhutan, an increase of 6.67% from 2016, however a further disaggregation reveals gaps in higher level positions for women pointing towards the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomena seen across many other countries. Women in executive positions make up only 8.8% (11.6% with the inclusion of Specialists). The recent civil service data also reveals a high attrition rate among women. The Bhutan Civil Service Regulations, 2017 prescribes several conditions to enable women’s participation in the civil service, which help to support a positive enabling environment for women to enter and remain in the workforce. These includes extension of the maternity leave from 3 to 6 months (implemented since 2016), increase in flexi time for mothers, increase in paternity leave and strengthening of sexual harassment institutional mechanisms.
Another important initiative was the implementation of the Internal Framework for Addressing Gender Issues at the Workplace – which institutes a Committee and procedures for addressing sexual harassment and sensitization on the issue, promotes the appointment of women in decision making committees, promotes the setting up of breast feeding rooms and child care crèches. Further, women’s representation in decision making positions in other professions is equally low – women comprise 14.5 % of the judges, 2.9% of CEOs in State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and 9.9 % of the corporate board membership.
In the current scenario, while TSM in the form of reserved seats or quota is a highly controversial topic and gives rise to questions on meritocracy and undermining of capacities, an increase in the representation of women in elected offices and decision making levels is most unlikely in the near future. The need for TSM to close the gender gap is inevitable. Many countries in the world have adopted TSM in varied modalities to suit the country context and have been successful in increasing the participation of women in governance. Bhutan is in need of role models at leadership and decision making levels and rigorous awareness raising in order to break through socio-cultural perceptions and stereotypes. As such, the adoption of TSM is critical to address gender inequalities in governance, leadership and politics.
Gender and Economic Development (focus on employment and agriculture)
According to a 2012 OECD study, an increase in female labour force participation or a reduction in the gap between female and male labour force participation results in faster economic growth. Increasing the household income controlled by women also changes household spending in ways that benefit children. However, women continue to have lower labour force participation rates as compared to men. Further, women are more likely to engage in low-productivity activities in the the informal sector and be wage workers and unpaid family workers. Socio cultural stereotypes that view women as economic dependents and better equipped to look after the domestic or private sphere add to the many challenges faced by women.
The unemployment rate is on a declining trend which stands at 2.4% in 2015, with 2.9% female unemployed against 2.1% male. Youth unemployment (15-24 years) rates are a cause for concern at 10.6% with female youth unemployment at 12.9% and the male youth unemployment at 9.2%. Statistics reveal that the labour force participation rate (LFPR) for women is lower than that of men at 52.2% and 73.1% respectively as per the PHCB 2017. The LFPR is higher in the rural areas and the female LFPR in rural areas is 60.3% compared to 37.5% in urban areas.
Women have much lower participation in regular paid employment (25% as compared to 41.3% for men) and casual paid employment (female 4.7% and male 15%) and a more substantial engagement in own account (female 55.8% and male 33.8%) and unpaid family work (female 12.7% and male 6.6%). Similar to other countries in the world, women’s unpaid and domestic labour goes largely unrecognized.
The nature of work for the female and male differs where women are more inclined towards underemployment and low earning groups. More women than men work in vulnerable, low-paid, or undervalued jobs. Given the low female participation in the employment sector, it is also vital to change the attitudes and management practices through awareness programs.
Gender inequalities in time use persist in all countries. Women also bear a disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work. Studies have found that women devote 1 to 3 hours more a day to housework than men, 2 to 10 times the amount of time a day to care for children, elderly, and the sick. 25% of women report care and other family and personal responsibilities as the reason for not being in the labour force, versus only three per cent of men. This directly and negatively impacts women’s participation in the labour force. In almost every country, men spend more time on leisure while women spend more time on unpaid housework. The Gross National Happiness Survey findings in 2015 indicated that women were less happy than men and working hours were more for women than men with men spending more time on leisure than women.
While the agriculture sector is recognized as the major source of income, employment and food security to most Bhutanese (the World Bank 2011) given that 62.2% of the population is dependent on agriculture, (of which 38.4% are women and 23.55% are men), the approach to agriculture has mainly focused on enhanced production and productivity. As per the PHCB 2017, 43.9% of employed persons are engaged in agricultural activity. There are more females than males engaged in agricultural occupation at 59.3% as against 34.2% of males. In the rural areas, many women depend on small-scale farming for their livelihoods which are almost always informal and often unpaid. Some of the key objectives, SKRAS and strategies such as enhancing food and nutrition security, improving rural livelihoods, promoting sustainable management and utilization of resources are adopted by the Agriculture sector. However, in many of the strategies there is an emphasis on provision of inputs such as seeds and farm machineries/equipment, but at the level of inputs or activities there are no gender disaggregated targets.
There are programmes which deal with capacity building, formation of farmers groups, technology and improved quality of data where there is scope to include gender specific indicators and approaches. Even in programmes where women farmers outnumber men farmers, such as in the formation of farmers’ groups, men often play the role of group leaders.
As such, there is a lack of sex-disaggregated data in the agricultural sector, which makes it extremely difficult to identify and address gender issues and concerns. Research needs to be conducted on the extent to which rural livelihoods have improved for men and women, and also on designing and identifying ergonomic tools for women. A comprehensive and targeted approach could be adopted to organize women Self Help Groups (SHGs) for marketing in collaboration with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). In addition, in order to enable more women to take up empowered roles, the programme for formation of groups could strengthen the component to build leadership skills and confidence. Another key area for intervention is improving women’s access to micro-credit through the adoption of facilitative and equity (special) measures.
Gender and Education and Training
The education sector has witnessed impressive achievements in terms of girls’ participation rates with an Adjusted Net Primary Enrolment Rate of 98.9% for girls as compared to 98.7% for boys, according to the 2017 education statistics. Similarly, the Gender Parity Ratio was also in favour of girls with 103 girls for every 100 boys at the primary level. The survival rate for girls at the primary level stands at 95.3 exceeding that of boys at 86.5%. In terms of percentage, girls’ make up 50.5% of the total school enrolment in the school education system and unlike in the past years, the most recent enrolment figure show equal representation of girls at the higher secondary level including private schools, owing to improvement in girls’ enrolment at the lower levels of education in the past years.
Despite such improvements, the technical and vocational fields, and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in particular see larger gender gaps. Females make up 45% of the total enrolment at the tertiary level in Bhutan. One of the factors contributing to this could be limited access to tertiary education and programme diversity within the country. The Bhutan Gender Policy Note, 2013 indicates that factors such as academic performance due to household obligations and early pregnancy also limit girls access to tertiary education.
The 11th FYP gender focus of the education sector was principally on gender friendly infrastructure and access to tertiary education. Given the 11th FYP focus on inclusive social development, a need was felt to disaggregate and monitor achievements in educational attainment from a gender equality perspective. This would not only look at issues of inequalities in access and achievement between boys and girls, especially at Higher Secondary and Tertiary levels but also differential literacy achievements across Dzongkhags, resulting in the development of more targeted intervention so that there is a level playing field for all.
The following are some of the key concerns in this sector:
Gender and Health
Gender issues within the health sector point to critical areas of need, with high percentage of teenage pregnancies at 10% (16 years and below) and 32% (18 years and below), and as high as 30% of girls getting married before the age of 18, high divorce rates, the growing issue of HIV (among the youth), and the feminization of HIV. The access and quality of health services that cater to women’s specific sexual and reproductive needs greater attention as it impacts all aspects of their lives. Women in rural Bhutan in particular face vulnerabilities and lack of opportunities. The government should enhance the healthcare infrastructure and develop targeted programmes towards economic development of the rural population, a large portion of whom are women.
The following are some of the key thrust areas:
Gender Based Violence
Studies in Bhutan have revealed disturbing facts about the high levels of tolerance of VAW, with recent data showcasing as high as 74% levels of acceptance. The Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA), 2013 serves as a legislative measure that recognizes women’s vulnerability as survivors of violence, defines the act of domestic violence and its scope, with the establishment of appropriate procedures and services that are required to adequately support the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable.
As per the recently conducted Violence Against Women and Girls Study 2017, 13.9% of women faced physical violence from intimate partners in their lifetime and 5.1% in the past 12 months; 12.5 percent experienced Physical Violence by non-partners (2.5 % in the past 12 months); 4.5 % experienced Sexual Violence by intimate partners in their lifetime (2.3 % in past 12 months); 15.8% had experienced Emotional Violence in their lifetime (8.6 % in the past 12 months); and 10.9% of the women faced economic abuse in their lifetime and 6.7 in the last 12 months. More than two in every five women (44.6.%) of the ever-partnered women had experienced intimate partner violence(IPV) in their life time (30% in the last 12 months) and the prevalence rate in rural areas was higher at 40.4% as compared to 25.2% in urban areas. The findings also indicated that when violence occurred it was often the more severe forms of physical and sexual violence.
While Trafficking in Persons (TIP) is still not evidenced as a grave issue in Bhutan, instances of TIP related to overseas employment through unregistered employment agencies, are emerging. In recent months about seven women have been rescued and repatriated. It is important for all the key stakeholders to work together to establish an effective preventive, protective, response and prosecution mechanism. The finalization of the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for TIP needs to be expedited so that timely, effective and sustainable services are provided. Much more targeted awareness and capacity building programs need to take place.
The following are critical areas for action on addressing VAW:
Going forward, the draft National Gender Equality Policy is being finalized, which will provide policy directives for promoting gender equality and strengthening coordination and accountability. Simultaneously the development of a Strategy and Action Plan will take place. The review (detailed assessment) of the National Plan of Action to Promote Gender Equality in Elected Office (NPAPGEEO) will take place in the beginning of 2019 in order to come up with equity measures for increasing women’s representation in the parliament – this would also consider the introduction of temporary special measures. Efforts will be made in strengthening the creation of an enabling environment for women through efforts to increase women’s representation in decision making positions, establishment of gender friendly facilities at the workplace including child care crèches and strengthening the protection system for women and vulnerable groups who need care and support.
The first national study on the prevalence of Violence Against Women and Girls is underway; the development of a Central Management Information System (CMIS) to house all information on protection issues related to women and children including case management has been operationalized; the Toll Free Helpline 1098 has been pilot launched; and training on the SOP on case management and referral system for Women and Children in Difficult Circumstances (WCDC).
Putting in place a sustainable and effective protection system in the country is of high priority. The establishment of a Women and Children Welfare Committee (WCWC) at the national level; Dzongkhag and Thromde Women and Children Committees (D/TWCC); and appointment of Protection Officers and Probation Officers has recently been approved by the Cabinet. However, while these are as mandated by the 3 Acts for which the NCWC is the Competent Authority, the implementation is difficult especially when actions require additional resources both human (numbers and capability) and financial. As such, there is need for Parliament to monitor the implementation of Acts that are passed.
“Equal consideration for all may demand very unequal treatment in favor of the disadvantaged” (Amartya Sen)
National Commission for Women and Children
 Under the formal approach to equality, biological, social and cultural differences between men and women including social perceptions and their impact on women are ignored. Men and women are seen as similar or same, and therefore provided with the same treatment.
 Substantive Equality ensures that women are given an equal start (equal opportunity) and are empowered by an enabling environment to achieve equality of results. It is not enough to treat women as identical to men but to consider biological, socially and culturally constructed differences into account which may require non-identical treatment to address those differences.
 An approach that emerged towards 1969 that called for integrating women’s issues into existing development initiatives to increase productivity and earnings of women.
In the 1980s the Gender and Development approach attempted to use gender analysis to discern gender relationships and the way in which men and women participated in the development process.
 Gendered approach to development relates to reflecting or involving gender differences or stereotypical gender roles.
 Transformative approach refers to addressing underlying causes and structures of gender inequality.
 Temporary Special Measures (TSM) refers to positive action, preferential treatment, or quota systems to advance women’s integration into education, the economy, politics, and employment (CEDAW Article 4).”