Bhutan is traditionally a matriarchal society
Women are the decision-makers at home, but something is keeping them from public life.
In Bhutan, women get to be the boss sometimes.
The country is traditionally a matriarchal society; the women are the head of the family. They make the decisions.
At the local and national levels, both women and men have a role in decision-making, but at the grassroots level, you find female involvement to be as high as 70%.
One former governor of a district remarked that when he had meetings with the rural folks, he preferred to speak to the women, as the men did not make instant decisions.
In Bhutan, women don’t have to deal with institutionalised discrimination, unlike in many other parts of the world.
For one, Bhutanese women inherit the property. Women account for nearly half of the landowners in Bhutan, even up to 60% in rural areas.
Furthermore, it is common to see the bridegroom move into the bride’s house. Upon marriage, the women do not take their husband’s name. Daughters do not take their father’s name at birth either.
In the highlands of Bhutan, nomadic women might even take more than one husband. Usually, the husbands are brothers.
As you can see, Bhutanese women are empowered. They often work alongside the men in the field. They hold managerial positions in the public and private sectors. It is common for married women to generate as much income as their husbands, on top of caring for the home. Many women are even the breadwinner of their families.
One might trace the empowerment of women in Bhutan to the nation’s Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism views men and women as equals, which influenced the Bhutanese way of life.
But it’s not a bed of roses for the women
That said, Bhutan is not without gender inequality. For starters, this is reflected in the attitude towards women in leadership.
Lily Wangchuk was the first and only female president of a Bhutanese political party. Her party, Druk Chirwang Tshopa, was eliminated in the first round of elections where they won only 6% of the votes. During her campaign, a male opponent had said, “How can a woman assume such an enormous responsibility?” Of course, her comment on the incident was, “If I quit now, I will be proving them right.”
(Lily Wangchuk finally retired from politics in 2021.)
While women are involved in decision-making at every level, they still lag behind in economic and governmental participation. There are fewer women than men in the civil service workforce; women make up only 8.5% of the national assembly and 24% of the national council.
There are two main reasons behind this. Firstly, Bhutanese women are historically less educated than Bhutanese men. When the country first began the push for national development, Bhutanese sent more boys than girls to school. In 1970, for every 50 boys, 1 girl went to school. The concern was the girls’ safety.
Furthermore, women are thought to be the caregivers and guardians of the home. This presumption has been a stumbling block to Bhutanese women's professional development.
A study in 2001 showed that in 80% of the rural households, women were responsible for all the cooking and cleaning. The figure was even higher in urban areas, where 90% of the households left the upkeep of the home to the women. A separate 2012 study showed that approximately 62% of women surveyed felt that their home life kept them from participating in public life.
Moreover, Bhutanese women are given 3 months of paid maternity leave, which is great, but abortion is illegal in the Kingdom. This sends Bhutanese women across the border to India in search of abortions, albeit unsafe ones. When one group of people don’t have autonomy over their own body, you know that’s the beginning of inequality.
The good news
Nonetheless, Bhutanese women have made large strides!
In 2016, the enrollment rate of children in school was 97% for boys and 98.8% for girls, a definite improvement from 1970.
Perceptions about gender roles are certainly changing for the better too. One proof of this is the increase of women in positions of power. In 2012, Bhutan elected its first woman Dzongda (District Governor). The first woman minister was elected in 2013.
In the 2016 election, there was a 68% increase in women’s participation. On top of that, more and more women are participating in international sporting events.
The number of female representatives at the national level is only increasing. In March 2019, Namgay Zam was appointed executive director of the Journalists Association of Bhutan.
When asked by the International Federations of Journalists about Bhutanese women’s participation in media, she said, “It can definitely be better. So far, only one media house in the country has a female chief editor. There are many (women) who are capable but are not in leadership positions. I think top-level management needs to rethink gender representation in the workplace. Women also need to believe in themselves more.”
It’s a work in progress. But Bhutan knows the right way forward.