Moving Towards Gender Equality in Bhutanese National Politics
Sanya Srivastava, Advocate, Women for Politics
Sanya is an aspiring public policy professional with a Bachelor’s in Economics Honors from Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. She is currently working with economic research and policy consulting firm in the capacity of a Research Associate and is passionate about issues in the domain of public health and socio-economic empowerment.
In the year 2008 the king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, declared that Bhutan would transition to democracy after years of monarchy. This move invited a plethora of emotions ranging from enthusiasm to a feeling of abandonment from the citizens. This decision opened up space for women to move out of their lives in domestic spheres and join politics to enter public life.
Women constitute about 48%, nearly half of the country’s population (National Statistics Bureau:2013) (1), and with that women have great potential to contribute to the overall governance of the country. However, it is, of course, no surprise that the conservative population prefers a patriarchal government where women’s political status is not recognised. Moreover, under the monarchy, no women were invited to become ministers and they remained excluded from this space for over 100 years.
Socio-Cultural and Patriarchal Order
Bhutan has a male monarch and follows patriarchy, which is also prevalent in the society and culture which is not supportive of women’s participation in public decision-making and politics majorly. Even at a local governance level women only hold four per cent of leadership roles and at a national level, the narrative is entirely about how women should continue to stay in the domestic arena and not seek to participate in politics in the newly developed democracy (2).
In electoral politics, the capability of the candidate is seen as one of the top characteristics of a probable contender. With a traditional view that ‘women are homemakers and that society has less confidence in them for public positions’ (3), women are often not perceived as capable candidates. More so, other factors such as the absence of confidence and illiteracy contribute to women’s limit to break these shackles to participate in politics. This implies that women are seen as only passive agents of democracy and are made to believe that their priority is providing basic services for their community over their individual rights as a woman. Gender equality seems far from reality in such a patriarchal and conservative context. Most women continue to remain in the domestic sphere with participation in low skilled labour at 42% as opposed to 77% for men in urban areas, and a much higher contribution especially for agricultural labour of 69% in rural places (Helvetas 2010, ADB 2014). The prevailing perception about women’s role as bodies for reproduction and the social conditioning about gender and sex continues to act as barriers to women’s participation in roles that are not considered feminine. (Sonam Chuki 2017, Women and Politics in Democratic Transitions: The Case of Bhutan.)
Towards Equality: Women’s Political Participation and Representation
When Bhutan moved from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy it had only 6 women out of 25 members in the National Council and 4 women out of 47 members in the National Assembly in its first cohort of parliamentarians (4). In Bhutan, there are only a few women holding leadership positions in the male-dominated public domain but they are forced to obey to masculine benchmarks for their work and practice a feminine modus operandi. Unsurprisingly, these women politicians are often mostly handed over “soft” subjects related to social affairs to reinforce orthodox beliefs. This highly resonates with the Buddist Philosophy: ‘equal but different’. This principle embraces the idea of the presence of equality by recognising traits such as ‘masculine as skilful’ and ‘feminine as wise’ equally (5). However, parliamentary seat reservation appears to be a way forward to improve women’s representation in the Bhutanese parliament and the state efforts seem progressive towards this end.
Through the new democratic structure, women ventured into parliament with the support from key male counterparts and irrespective of their low representation managed to convince male colleagues to pass critical bills related to women and children’s issues. Over the last ten years, parliamentary democracy has raised the importance of women as key players in politics with Bhutan appointing its first female minister, Dorji Choden in 2013 and Bhutan’s Minister of Health, Ms Dechen Wangmo in 2018, who was also felicitated by WHO for her public health achievement in reducing the prevalence of Hepatitis B to less than one per cent among five-year-olds in 2019. All around, women politicians, party workers and supporters, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, academic and civil society workers have exhibited their abilities to advance women’s issues and have displayed principled professional values with true commitment. Also on the other side, about 51.8 % of the total cast votes were from women while men contributed only 48.2 % of the same votes (Sithey and Dorji. 2009), this clearly reflects that women are exercising their political agency and are concerned about the political process. and eager to participate.
I concur with Sonam Chuki’s analysis which looks at the importance of women in the governance structure. This analysis has two key outcomes: Justice - as equality is visible through the presence of women in the parliament and the recognition that they have an equal right to participate and the second is an advancement for women’s participation - as it gives legitimacy to the institutions by ensuring that all members of the society are represented and able to contribute to the process of policymaking (6). In Bhutan, women are forging a path of change by breaking barriers and advancing towards gender equity in national politics. However, there are many aspects such as access to equal education and employment, which are pivotal for women to gain entry to the public realm in general and politics in particular. With the opening up of political spaces for women, there is hope for equal political representation of Bhutanese women even though the challenges are many.
1) Chuki, Sonam (2015) Women in politics in democratic transition: The case of Bhutan
2) Dorji et al. 2012, as cited in Chuki, Sonam (2015) Women in politics in democratic transition: The case of Bhutan
4) Turner et al. 2011, as cited in Chuki, Sonam (2015) Women in politics in democratic transition: The case of Bhutan
5) Rinpoche 1994, as cited in Chuki, Sonam (2015) Women in politics in democratic transition: The case of Bhutan
6) Ross et al.2012, cited in Chuki, Sonam (2015) Women in politics in democratic transition: The case of Bhutan
This article gives the views of the authors, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics. Photo credit: National Assembly of Bhutan