Keynote Address Delivered by Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay during the “2nd National Conference on Women in Governance, Leadership and Politics in Bhutan with a regional dimension” organized by RENEW as the lead partner; and a joint effort of National Commission for and Children (NCWC) and Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW) in collaboration with Women Child and Youth Committee of National Assembly; Election Commission of Bhutan; and Bhutan Democracy Dialogue International Women’s Day celebrations on 8th March, 2017 at Terma Linca.

Your Majesty the Queen Mother, Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck;

Excellencies;

Dignitaries;

Ladies and Gentlemen;

A very happy International Women’s Day.

I want to ask you a straight forward question. When you die, what happens?

In Bhutan we believe, for most of us, we are reborn; hopefully as human beings.

The question I want to ask you, fellow Bhutanese, and guests from abroad is; if you were reborn as a human being, would you prefer to be born as a man or as a woman.

It used to be by and large, that it really didn’t matter in Bhutan because you see, in traditional Bhutan, maybe fifty years ago, as recently as fifty years ago, men and women were largely equal, not fully equal. But by and large, we were an equal society.

In many parts of Bhutan, if not most parts of Bhutan, the woman in the household was the head. We were a matrilineal society. Inheritance, property went from mother-daughter; not from father to son.

In most of Bhutan, men moved into their wives homes. Now as you can imagine, that provided a safe environment for our women because the man had to adopt a new family. It was the woman, the woman’s family, the woman’s property, that the man was working in.

Being born in Bhutan, we carry our own name except for our beloved Royal Family. In traditional Bhutan, we did not have a family name.

So when a child was born, whether the child was a boy or a girl, the child was given his or her own name; not the name of the place, not the name of the father or the mother; no caste; no creed; just the baby’s name. And that child carried that name throughout his or her life; which means that when a woman got married, she didn’t have to change her name. Or rather traditionally we didn’t change our name. The woman did not become the property of the husband.

So all these considered, I would have imagined that in traditional Bhutan, it really would be good, to be born, reborn as a woman in Bhutan.

Now life would have been difficult then. Poverty was rife, social progress was limited, but if it were difficult, it was difficult for all; not just for the women.

With modernization, our country developed; and developed fast. We have enjoyed a great deal of social progress and economic growth. However, the work place changed. Women, in the changing world of work, became an invisible issue in Bhutan, fifty years ago and that started with the education system.

It could be that we were overprotective of our girls and so we didn’t want to send them to school; or it could be that we were just biased. We thought that boys should be given this opportunity for they would excel and they would do a better job; or that only men and boys could handle the changing world of work, at that time.

Regardless, as recent as forty years ago, only 2% of our students were girls. As recently as 1989, only 38% of our students were girls.

That had far reaching consequences, because without education, without equal education, our girls could not compete equally with the men, with the boys and could not avail opportunities in the changing world of work provided for our citizens.

As a result, today, our civil service is still dominated by men. Only 35% of our civil service is women. Now, civil service is one of the most sought after job opportunities and therefore, having only 35% as women working there, is a disservice to the 50% of our population.

But it gets worse. In the civil service, of the Specialists, only 13% are women. And of the Executives, only 8% are women.

The bad news continues. As a result of our inability to cope with the changing world of work, unemployment, it’s a women harder. Today while the overall unemployment is, by international standards not a big issue, for us it is an issue. But for men it is just 1.8% where as for women it is 3.1%.

For youth, unemployment is a bigger issue. 8.2% of our boys are unemployed compared to 12.7% of our girls.

In the Labor Force Participation rate, we see that, where as 71.2% of our men, their contributions to the economy are acknowledged as participating in the Labor Force; only 55.9% of the women are seen to be participating in the Labor Force; this in spite of the fact that we have many many many more monks than nuns. And our men and women in robes are not counted as the part of the Labor Force. In spite of that, where as 71.2% of the men participate in the Labor Force, only 55.9% of the women are seen to be participating in the Labor Force.

For Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is not just a guiding philosophy; is not just a development philosophy; it is public policy; to ensure that public policy is delivered; and the results are measured. We conduct a GNH Survey every 5 years.

The last GNH Survey was conducted in 2015. The results of the survey are interesting.

Overall, the Happiness Index of both men and women increased. Overall, the happiness of women increased more than the happiness of men. But overall, the happiness of women lagged the happiness of men. So while gender gap in terms of happiness levels have decreased; the happiness levels of women still lag the happiness level of men.

To quantify it, the GNH index for men was measured to be 0.793, whereas the GNH index for women is 0.730, well, statistically significant difference.

Going into the details, there is a lot of data that we can use to further narrow the gender gap. And one reason why, our women are not as happy as men is that 12% of women say they are not free from discrimination based on the gander; and 13% of women say they do not have the right to equal pay for equal work.

33 indicators are measured in the GNH Index, men fed better than women, in almost all of them except when it came to positive emotions. Women fed better than men when it came to compassion, tolerance, patience and these sorts of positive emotions.

In the area of politics, women, more women participated in zomdus- these are our local village meetings. More women participated; in fact 53% were women versus 47% men. But women hardly spoke at the zomdus. 43% of the men who attended spoke at the zomdus; whereas only 14% of the women who participated in the zomdus managed to speak, managed to get their voices heard at the zomdus.

Obviously, a cause of concern, which is directly reflected in our Legislature. Today, of the seventy two (72) Members of Parliament, only six (6) are women and that too because two of the women were appointed as Eminent Persons by His Majesty the King. So, only 8.3% of our Parliament is women.

That National Council (NC), in the first Parliamentary Elections elected two (2) women as Members of Parliament. Two (2) out of the twenty (20) elected members were women. In the second Parliamentary Elections, zero (0). In the first Parliamentary Elections six (6) women participated in the National Council elections; in the second Parliamentary Elections only five (5) women participated; less women participated in the second National Council Elections.

The National Assembly didn’t fetch any better. In the first Parliament, the National Assembly had four (4) women. In the second Parliament the National still had only four (4) women. We saw only a slight increase in participation rates. Whereas in the first Parliament ten (10) women participated in the National Assembly elections, only eleven (11) participated in the second National Assembly Elections that was conducted five years later.

This is the highest Legislative body we are talking about. In the National Council elections we have five (5) women participating; in the National Assembly we have eleven (11) women participating. At this rate, it is going to take many decades to achieve gender equality in our Parliament.

But there is good news.

The recent Local Government elections fed better. In the first Local Government elections in 2011, there were 110 women who were elected to Local Government posts. Of the 110, 1 was a Gup. In last year’s Local Government elections, 154 women were elected to Local Government posts of which two (2) were Gups.

In terms of percentages, in the first Local Government elections, we had only 7% women; in the second Local Government elections 11% were women. No way near satisfactory but an improvement nonetheless. There was a marked improvement in participation rates; because in the first Local Government elections only 225 women participated, whereas, in the second Local Government elections 428 women participated.

Participating is very important because unless more women participate, the future is going to continue to be bleak. So today I am delighted to see here in attendance, members of our Local Government, women members; but specially women who participated and didn’t get through. You didn’t fail. You just didn’t get through.

It is good news in the Legal front. Since signing the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Violence for Women in 1980, Bhutan has been making steady progress in fulfilling our obligations to the Convention. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 helped. Our domestic laws are also being strengthened.

We have the Domestic Violence Act; the Child Care and Protection Act which provides direct support to our women. Legislations that needed to be revised, to further empower women have been revised and they include the Marriage Act and the Penal Code.

But it is our Constitution that is very very clear about gender equality in our country.  Our Constitution has pronounced at the Fundamental Rights, ‘equal pay for equal work’; declares as   Fundamental Right that ‘all citizens, including women will enjoy equal access and opportunity to join the public service’.

And then it states very very clearly that ‘the state shall take appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination and exploitations against women including trafficking, prostitution, abuse, violence, harassment and intimidation at work, in the public and private spheres. So our Constitution, our Mother of Laws, doesn’t mince a word when it comes to gender equality.

Still more good news and that is work that is being carried out by our CSOs. RENEW, BNEW, BAOWE and many others have been providing good services to provide opportunities, to network and to empower our women.

Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck as Founder, Patron, President of RENEW, has provided services that are extremely valuable for our women. Women who are subjugated to discrimination, and especially violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse are provided counseling by Her Majesty’s RENEW; are provided legal aid, free legal aid; and for those who are not safe at home, Her Majesty provides shelter; Her Majesty has provided vocational training; provided micro-credit; and provided jobs to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. And most importantly, Her Majesty and RENEW has provided a system, has developed a system, Community based Support for survivors of these violence. So, on behalf of all here, and on behalf of all our fellow citizens I would like to offer our humble gratitude to Her Majesty the Queen Mother.

In the government, it is the National Commission for Women and Children that is the overall coordinating body of public policy to do with woman empowerment. The good news is that the NCWC under the leadership of Lyonpo Dorji Choden has been doing a lot of good work. Their work has already translated to public policy including extension of the maternity leave for public servants to six (6) months a year; establishment of crèches throughout the country; establishment of Early Childhood Care Development Centers throughout the country.

And the big good news is in the education front; today we have more girls in school than boys. 50.5% of the students in school today are girls. In colleges, we have made big progress because already 44% of the children in Colleges are girls. In the Non-Formal Education sector, the Non-Formal Education is what we provide to farmers who stay back our villages; there are three times more women who participate in non formal education than men.  This is important because it clearly indicates that our women have vigor to learn and to excel, much more so than their male counterparts in the villages.

And then we have women taking up what would be considered earlier, jobs that were traditionally dominated by men. Today we have 209 women taxi drivers and it is a pleasure to meet women driving taxis and succeeding in the profession. We have two (2) commercial airline pilots; we have contractors who are women. Some of Bhutan’s most successful contractors are women.

In the government we have Dzongdas, Ambassadors, and for the first time a woman as a Minister. But it is His Majesty the King, who has constantly provided leadership in all areas of gender equality. And it was last year when His Majesty the King awarded a ‘Gyentag’ in lieu of patang to women. The ‘Gyentag’ is a symbol of authority that can be wielded equally by women; a symbol of trust and confidence that His Majesty places in the leadership of our women. But more importantly loud symbol that should go to all our people, men and women, that women in leadership position are far and few by the way and that we need to nurture, we need to cultivate many more of them.

Our women can contribute in the changing world of work. In fact, in the changing world of work, our women are doing more that what their male counterparts are managing. As an example, the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources has been sending youth abroad to work. So far, 74% of those that are sent are women, not men. More women are choosing to work outside than men. Working outside Bhutan takes courage, takes determination, takes perseverance, and we have more woman working outside, not just working outside, but really succeeding outside.

As a society, as a country, we have come a long way since the first development plan in 1961. All of us have come a long way. Unfortunately, we have to accept, we have to acknowledge, that men have come further than woman. Now it is time to ensure that women also enjoy the opportunities that are provided in this century equally as men. If you want to achieve our target of Planet 50-50 by the year 2030, we have a lot to do. We have only 17 years, in which we must take respecting our women seriously; educating our women seriously; nurturing our women; empowering our women; renewing our faith in women; renewing the potential of women seriously.

This is important. This is important throughout the world; but this important especially important for Bhutan because we have only 750000 people. It is imperative that we use each and every one of them to realize our national objective; and each of every one of them includes the 50% that are women.

I am delighted to see that National Conference on Women in Governance, Leadership and Politics is taking place. This is timely, because we have only fourteen (14) months to the National Council elections; and we must have more than five (5) women participating in the next National Council elections. Otherwise it is our collective failure. We have only twenty (20) months left before the next National Assembly elections; and if we have only eleven (11) women participating in the next National Assembly elections, it is our collective failure.

So I wish the conference success. And we, all of us together must sit down and commit ourselves to creating an environment that is safe and supportive for our women to also participate in the elections. It goes without saying it is understood the world over that women make better lawmakers. They are more compassionate; they are more patient; they are more consultative; they are more deliberate. On the other hand, men are a lot, bigger risk takers. And as such we need women as law makers. But the process of the elections requires risk taking and this is where, it is difficult for our women to participate; and this is where all of us must come together to support our women, to take part in elections.

Why women? Because the laws we make and the decisions we take will define how we grow as a nation. How we grow as a nation will depend not just on public policy; not just the work of the government; not just on civil society but also on individuals.

Critically, it depends mostly on the family units. And within the family units it depends on the behavior of the husbands. And today on International Women’ Day, as we celebrate the achievements of our women, I wish to call on all husbands and fathers, to commit to providing the leadership necessary within the family; to promote welfare of our women and children.

In conclusion, I will leave you with one question. Where would you like to be born? Would you like to be born as a man or as a woman? And remember no amount of good merit will ensure that you will take a birth in either gender. And because of that uncertainty, it will do us well, to create and bequest to the future generations a country and indeed a world that is at least gender equal. So that when we take our rebirth, especially if it is as a woman, we will not regret that we did not make use of the opportunities while we had them.

Thank you and Tashi Delek.

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