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Status of Women in Bhutan



The section of society most notably excluded from the process of all-round development of Bhutan  in terms of both the beneficiaries and the contributors - is women. Women population, which comprises almost half of the total population in Bhutan, has been so far neglected, discriminated and exploited. They have been deprived of most of the opportunities including access to business and industry, gainful employment, skill development training, education, health etc. They do not have access to education, gainful employment, economic resources, political process and decision-making institutions. Their representation at the policy and decision making bodies is negligible.  In total, the status of women is very low in Bhutan.


The social attitudes, traditional practices and outlook against women have contributed to the exploitation of women.  This has made Bhutanese women lacking in confidence in handling the issues generally affecting themselves even in their day-to-day life. The situation in Bhutan  is such that majority of women are not even aware of their basic rights.


The practice of discrimination, gender-inequality and exploitation of women are not sudden emergence in the Asian societies. These are the legacy of the past feudal societies. Bhutan is still a feudal and autocratic society. Therefore, the presence of discrimination, gender in-equality and exploitation of women in one or other form is the main characteristics of feudal society of Bhutan. Bhutanese patriarchal system reflects male supremacy making women subservient to men.


Government has made no efforts to protect and promote women’s rights even though it has ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Participation by women in national life is almost nil. Women have least access to higher post in the government. They have never been appointed as Ministers, Judges, Chief District Officers, Ambassadors or to other senior important posts.


Women comprising around 49 % of the population have least access to gainful employment. They do not have economic autonomy. More than 95 % women are illiterate and are engaged in traditional agricultural farming. The government has done nothing  to improve their lot. Less than 0.5% women are employed in the civil service (bureaucracy). They are mostly employed in lower level jobs like, telephone operators, typists, clerks etc. Less than 0.5% women are engaged in business. Around 0.2% are engaged in other occupation and 3.5% of women have no identifiable occupation. The plight of rural women is worse. They are most neglected lot. Sexual exploitation, illiteracy, superstition, disease, child mortality and ignorance are rampant in the rural villages.


The real condition of women do not come to the light of the foreigners. Bhutan does not have newspaper, its only weekly bulletin is owned by the government. The external media is not allowed to Bhutan. Whereas, the government churns out glossy picture of the economic indicators in the international forums. They are only meant for the consumption of international community without reality.


Bhutan tops the list on women’s sexual exploitation among Asian countries. But hardly any information reaches the world outside. Women are treatrd as an object of consumer goods. They have no dignity and continuously humiliated by the males. Behind the government rhetoric  of good governance, wide spread incidents of female abuses and their sexual exploitation are hidden.


Women constitute 49 % of the total population of Bhutan. Bhutanese refugee women and children constitute around 49% and 40%  of the total refugee population in exile. Hundreds of women were raped during the army crack-down after peaceful protests in 1990. While male members were jailed for joining the peaceful rallies, women folk were abused, tortured and terrorised to flee the country. A number of reports prepared by the International human rights  organisations, like, Amnesty International, IMADAR, Japan  depicted cases of torture, dishonour and rape of Bhutanese women by the security forces.


Sorry saga of women and children in Bhutan


The Marriage Act

The government of Bhutan  simultaneously introduced the new Marriage Act which had an even larger content of discrimination  against Lhotshampa women and their children. The Act declared all  foreign wives of the Bhutanese citizens as non-citizens, even though most of them were granted citizenship under previous citizenship laws. In contravention of all international norms and civilised behaviour, the Government  denied several thousand  children (born out of marriages  between Lhotshampa husbands and Nepali speaking wives from Nepal or India) of their right to nationality. They were evicted along with their parents. This Act was only enforced against the


The Marriage Act  was enacted in 1980 and was  forcefully implemented in 1988 to especially target the wives of Lhotshampas.  This discriminatory  law imposes a number of denial of benefits to those who married  non-Bhutanese wives. The Lhotshampas who married non-Bhutanese wife did not have the right to vote in (became ineligible for election to) the National Assembly (Parliament) elections, they were denied promotion in civil services, denied training and fellowships and medical treatment abroad, they were also denied business and agricultural grants and loans given by the government and could not avail of government supplied fertilisers, seeds and farm machineries  on subsidies. They could not get jobs in the Foreign Service and Armed Forces. This posed enormous problems for the Lhotshampas.


There are many reasons as to why the Lhotshampa chose foreign wives of their own ethnic groups  from Nepal and India. Some reasons are enumerated as follows:


Bhutan stepped out of its isolation in the mid-sixties. The government did not encourage cultural socialization of various ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups were not allowed to own properties in the ruling Ngalung dominated areas. Even in-country migration was restricted. In-country travel was also restricted for some ethnic groups. The transport and communications were also not developed.  This led to the cultural isolation of various ethnic groups. Thus, each ethnic group developed their own intra-ethnic group matrimonial alliances. Lhotshampas had a wide ethnic area in Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal to choose their spouse from. As a result many Lhotshampas got their spouses from their own ethnic groups from  these places.


The most important factor that prevented the encouragement of inter-ethnic group matrimonial alliances is culture. The Lhotshampas are by and large Hindus. Culturally and traditionally, the Lhotshampas are entirely different from ruling Ngalung ethnic group. Their language is a dialect of or is derived from  Sanskrit, the oldest language. They prefer to live in the hot climate of the southern foot hills.  The Ngalungs are nurtured in Drukpa Kargyupa Buddhist culture. They speak Tibetan stock Dzonkha language which is entirely different from Nepali. They wear robe like dresses and prefer to live in cool climate of the north.


While strict cultural values of the Lhotshampas triggered the search for wives from outside Bhutan, limited domestic society and geography also facilitated such marriages. The lack of communication and infrastructure within Bhutan were also factors which made Lhotshampas get their wives from neighbouring Indian states and Nepal as it is easier to travel to neighbouring countries than to visit other districts of Bhutan. Because of the lack of roads, Bhutanese are required to  travel through  India  to reach from east to west in the south and south to north. Darjeeling district  had excelled as a centre of education during the British rule in India. It is still regarded as the best place for education in the entire  region of Bhutan, Nepal and Northeast India.


Jesuit fathers and Christian missionaries established the best schools in Darjeeling. Due to the absence of good schools and colleges   throughout  the sixties, seventies and  the eighties in Bhutan,  the  government used to send young Bhutanese for studies to Darjeeling  on Indian government scholarships. Most Lhotshampa students married with their schoolmates of their own ethnic community from Darjeeling, Sikkim  and Nepal.. Bhutan does not have enough colleges to cater to the need of students. Its only college is affiliated with Delhi University. Therefore,  Bhutanese students have no alternatives but to go to Darjeeling as it is less expensive to study in neighbouring Darjeeling than  in Delhi or Calcutta.


As a consequence of  increasing  developmental activities after 1960  more opportunities were being created for educated people in the government services and in the private sector. Bhutan has a very low literacy rate. The available manpower was not sufficient to meet the demand. As a  result, educated Lhotshampa took educated and conscious wives of their own ethnicity from neighbouring countries, who could  work in the offices or do businesses  and earn money. There was neither a Marriage Act or Citizenship Laws forbidding a Bhutanese marrying a foreign wife then. The laws were enacted later with retroactive effect. Had there been such laws, probably no Bhutanese would have married a foreign spouse. The Royal Government’s  senseless action of implementing these laws shows its irresponsibility and indifference  towards its citizens’ difficulties. It is  a well-planned conspiracy to depopulate southern Bhutan. In any case, marriage is too personal a matter for the state  to  intervene.


Both the Citizenship Act and the Marriage Act are racist,  biased and discriminatory  against Lhotshampa women of southern Bhutan.  Moreover, the law is also implemented in a discriminatory manner; very rigidly against the Lhotshampas and not at all against Ngalung/Drukpas, who for example have a Chinese, English, Italian or American wives. For example, Mr. Ugen Tshering, a Drukpa married to an Italian wife in the early eighties has today been promoted as Foreign Secretary.  Similarly, the then Chief Justice of the High Court was promoted even though he had an English wife.   Today, of course, aside from bringing about a denial of benefits, marriage to non-Bhutanese wife has resulted in the very denial of citizenship rights to the Lhotshampa husbands.


Both the Citizenship Law, 1985 and the Marriage Acts have stripped several thousand Lhotshampas of their nationality. As a consequences of not granting citizenship to the foreign wives of Lhotshampa husbands, more than 60,000 children were deprived of their rightful claim to Bhutanese citizenship. This is more than 20 percent of the total children population of Bhutan. Refugee children constitute about 10 percent of the country’s total population of  around 767,000 of Bhutan.


More than 10,000 Lhotshampa wives are deprived of their right to  nationality. The government must repeal the discriminatory Citizenship Act, 1985 and the Marriage Act. It must enact new citizenship and marriage laws  conforming to the international standards, and protect the right to nationality of all its citizens

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