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
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
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 Lhotshampas.
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
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