Bhutanese Women and Leadership Challenges

There are women coming forward to lead, but there are certain cultural challenges that hold them back. Fast-track interventions are necessary to increase female leadership in the country.

By Namgay Zam Photos by BNEW

There are things I miss even as a journalist. For instance, I missed the photographs on social media of our first female Dzongdag Ngawang Pem performing the Marchang ceremony several years ago. She became the Dzongdag of Tsirang in 2012. It is not wrong to say she would have been among the first women in the country to perform the usually male-dominated ceremony. I did not suddenly discover this in 2017 by chance. I found out for the first time in my life that our women have been performing the ceremony even at the local government level through the annual general meeting (AGM) of the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW) that took place late December!

I happened to be co-facilitating the AGM that saw the attendance of more than 180 women, directly or indirectly related to local governance from all over the country. It was during a discussion on gender roles that a Mangmi from Chhukha stood up and shared her first experience of performing the Marchang ceremony. She said the people of her village were initially dead against it. They said women have never offered Marchang, and it would be sacrilegious to do so. They warned she would suffer from ill health and the village would be affected by calamity if she were to perform the ceremony. She was troubled and spent sleepless nights pondering her decision to offer Marchang. She finally went forward with the ceremony and confessed she was extremely relieved when no misfortune fell upon her or the village. The country’s only two women Gups, both from Dagana, have also performed the Marchang ceremony as have a few of the other women leaders.

The sharing of experiences including those that challenge gender stereotypes is encouraged by BNEW, not for rebellious subversion, but for women to free themselves of patriarchal cultural shackles and rise as leaders. The women at the AGM mentioned the crucial role BNEW has played in emboldening and making leaders of them. They shared that female leaders in the past and the almost 4,000 women in the network are helping them prove to society that “Women Can!”

Such conversation and a network like BNEW are so important for our women, especially at the grassroots. I say this because I am being re-educated. I listened to so many articulate and confident women during the three day AGM, wondering why we do not see more of them on television, hear them on the radio, or read about them in the papers? I was also a bit ashamed about the media’s failure in providing these women an adequate platform to celebrate and share their leadership experiences. We are struggling in Bhutan as everywhere else in the world when it comes to fair gender representation in the media. But we can do better. If the visibility of women leaders increases, we will see a greater support for female leadership. The media can play a significant role in normalising female leadership. Women leaders will cease to be a minority if the media stops portraying them as such.

Female leadership in Bhutan, especially in governance, is difficult because of certain cultural barriers. In the second Local Government (LG) elections, two equally capable female candidates contested for the post of Thimphu Gup, but the competition was thorny. Both of them had to overcome the cultural challenge of the once again male-dominated annual “Pazap” tradition. People would not hear of a female Gup because of the belief that only male Gups could participate as Pazaps at the annual Punakha Dromche. BNEW and the media, particularly BBS, made concerted effort to address this misconception. People were informed that Gups could have stand-ins as Pazaps. A man called Natoe even confirmed having been a stand-in for a Gup on BBS. The central monastic body and the Department of Culture clarified as well. But the women lost.

This one story among many others makes me believe we need fast-track intervention so more women may become leaders. When democracy began in Bhutan, I was among those who were against quota for women in politics. I believed that women would have to work twice as hard as men to prove ourselves if we clinched seats through reservation, that it would be a double-edged sword. How misguided I was! I listened to these women and their stories and how despite being capable, a local government post was not theirs to have. There were also stories of resilience. There are women who have failed, tried a second time, failed again, and still want to try until their dream of being in local governance is realised.

The second LG elections did see a greater number of women contesting and getting elected, but it is a far cry from equitable gender representation. In 2011, a total of 166 women contested in the LG elections, of which 76 were elected. The majority were Tshogpas at 97. There was only one female Thrompon and Gup. In the second round of LG elections in 2016, the number of women contesting almost quadrupled. Of the 579 women, 2 were elected as Gups, 1 as Thrompon, and 135 as Tshogpas. The number of elected Mangmis however fell from 42 to 24. Although there was an overall increase in the number of elected female leaders, it is only 173 women among the 1,499 LG leaders.

For women in local governance or LG aspirants, it is not about shattering a glass ceiling. It is about first freeing themselves of the chains that immobilise them. We have no dearth of women who can lead and inspire. But we have the scarcity of an enabling environment. Fast-track interventions like reserved seats in parliament, local governance, and in party politics are absolutely necessary. Increased paternity leave, women-friendly policies and laws will help too.

The media can only make visible what exists. For women leaders to exist, laws must bring them into being first.

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