Dialogue  January-March, 2011, Volume 12 No. 3


Bhutanese Women: A Socio-Economic Study

Madhu Rajput

Bhutan a country in South Asia offers an interesting study as far as gender relations are concerned. A close look at its society and social structure compels one to marvel at the positive attitude towards women (The girl child in particular, which makes Bhutan a very different country from other South Asian nations). The participation of women is omnipresent both at home and workplace. They are pillars of strength and they enjoy better position than their counterparts in South Asia and gender bias is not a common feature. The monarchs of Bhutan and the government have kept women at the forefront of country’s development enterprise. In this country with Buddhist religion equality seems to be not only in letters but also in reality. A similar view has been expressed by a Dutch Anthropologist Reiki Crins. She states, “Social relationship in Bhutan between men and women are marked by gender equality unique in South- Asia.”1

Women who constitute 47.7% of the kingdom’s population have traditionally held a place of honour in the society. No overt discrimination exists in the country and in general Bhutanese women enjoy a high status in society and have full and complete equality under law. Instances of female infanticide, malnutrition, dowry deaths and other discriminatory social malpractices are virtually unknown and unheard in Bhutan.2 Overall, parents do not have a preference for sons and give as much care to girls as to the boys. This is reflected in the overall sex ratio which is 110 males per 100 females.3

The theme of women development has figured as an integral part of country’s Five Year Plans and the government has worked to ensure that equal opportunities are provided to men and women alike to participate and share in development. Bhutan has also ratified the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and has unconditionally accepted all the provisions contained in it.

However, in this paper I would like to analyse the current situation and the data which is available in education and training, health, employment, violence against women, ageing, mental health and disability and the strategic measures which have been taken to promote” general main streaming. Gender discrimination may not be visible, even distinctions are seldom relevant but this is not to state that there are absolutely no differences. Nature has made two sexes differently, endowing each with separate attributes and biological functions stemming from biological. and physiological differences men and women have in advancing family and community, survival and progress has come to specialize in certain roles which are most suited to them.

In Bhutanese society which is traditional yet changing there are both common and separate roles for men and women but there are no rigid agreements. They can be altered depending on the situation and in any event. The consensus seems to be unspoken and unwritten between a man and a woman. 

Education and Training

The development of modem education started in Bhutan in 1960s. Earlier traditional monastic education was  given but today there is an extensive network of schools throughout the country. Most of them have boarding schools and the enrolment to Nursery begins when the child reaches the age of four.

In Primary schools the enrolment of girls and boys is equal and in some cases girls outnumber boys in some of the dzongkhags. Bhutanese parents have taken education seriously which is free and sponsored by government. Earlier hardships like remoteness of schools are a thing of past when parents found it more convenient and safe to keep their daughters at home. Enrolment of girls in early years was very low but since 1995 the situation has improved and it is continuously showing an increase. More schools have come up, hostel facilities have been introduced and improved road communication has (enhanced mobility reducing the mental dread of distance. However the Government of Bhutan in its tenth Five Year Plan has  targeted to make the net enrolment in primary level to 100% by 2013 which at present is 88%.                        

The proportion of girls attending schools tends to be higher in urban areas than in rural areas. This may be correlated with higher cash incomes in urban areas which allow parents to provide girls the opportunity to attend the schools. But in secondary education there seems to be a fall in the number of girls due to reasons which are not attributed directly to the education system but due to factors like socio-cultural factors such as early marriage, teenage pregnancy (which is in sizeable number in Bhutan), imperatives on domestic and subsistence labour and parents’ assumption that girls need more social security .


Dzongkhag   School/College                        Total Students  Girl Students

Mongar          Mongar Lower Secondary                810                     420

                        School Wangdue Chholing              50                       26

                        Primary School, Singor                                                

Bumthang      Lower Secondary School                  954                     504

                        Higher Secondary School                 494                     243

Punakha         Khuru Middle Secondary                 1093                   554

                        School, Khuruthang                                                    

                        Higher Secondary School                 673                     329

Thimpu          Lungtenzampo Middle                       1157                   650

                        Secondary School                                                        

                        Lower Secondary School                  1400                   701

Paro                Goepel Lower Secondary                  08                       06


Chukha          Phuentsholing Lower                         2023                   1143

                        Secondary School                                                        

Statistics from Schools/Colleges in Bhutan Collected from 01 Jun-26 Jun 10.4 

Enrolment level for girls is about half of that for boys from pre-primary to grade VI. From grade VII- VIIl it drops to less than 40 % and in grade IX and X to roughly 26% and 17 % respectively. 5

The dropout rate at the secondary level is reflected at the higher level also. Only when the enrolment at primary and secondary level increases, the figures will go up at the higher level.


A majority of women in Bhutan are employed in agriculture sector. They are significantly underrepresented in higher skilled and higher paid jobs. Women labour force participation is lower than that of men particularly in urban areas. Similarly the unemployment rate is also very high for females in comparison to males. In 2006, women unemployment rate was 3.8% however male unemployment rate was only 2.6%.6 There is a high proportion of females who are employed but are unpaid family workers. Employment of underage girls as domestic workers is also a rapidly growing problem of urban areas.

Women’s disadvantage in the area of employment mainly has been attributed to Bhutan’s late starting of modem education for women in particular. Women’s traditional ties to the land, prevailing inheritance patterns, cultural stereotypes and perceptions and lack of urban sector skills in an increasingly urbanized society constitute other barriers to opportunities for women for paid and skilled employment.

Following table presents finding of a study on what parents feel about future job preferences for their daughters.

                   Table 2: Future job preference for Girls7
            No Plans Farmer Teacher Administration Health Army Others

Thimpu Town                4              -           1           -             5             -           2

Thimpu                            7             7           -           1             -             -           -

Chukha                            3             4           -           4             3             -           -

Shemgang                       13           1           3          3             3             -           -                  

Perna Gatshel                  -             -            -           -             -              -           -

Samdrup Jongkhar         -             -            -           -             -              -           4

Total                                27           12         4          8             11           -           7

The above chart shows the parents’ preference of jobs for their daughters in 1989. I n west and central Bhutan and some parts of east the family system is matrilineal and land is inherited by daughters. 60% of rural women hold land registration titles. Mother or the eldest daughter may become the head of the household. Earlier lack of education limited them to homes but today the scene has changed completely. There is a desire in women to utilize their talents for upliftment of society and nation and to help their families to acquire higher living standard.

The recent survey which was carried out by me in June 2010 sees the reversal of the above figures. Most of the educated girls told me “My mother was a farmer but she gave me education and helped me in becoming what I am today.” This testifies that women have blessings and moral support of elders who encourage them to seek career in other professions.


                Table 3: Job Preference by Educated Girls8

Business Government Private Technical Business & Govt. Both

Kanglung                        3             3           4          -             -             3

Mongar                           1             3           7          -             -             2

Bumthang                       1             3           8          -             -             1

Punakha                          4             3           0          2            2             2

Thimpu                            5             2           4          3             -             8

Paro                                 6             3           4           -             -             -

Phuentsholing               13           2           6           -             -             1

Total                                33           2          23         5             2            17


The chart shows that a large number of women prefer working in government jobs for it gives them security as ‘Nell as fixed working hours compared to the private sector where the working conditions are more severe. The presence of large number of females in almost all the commercial places has not necessarily resulted in it being their preferred choice of career. In most of the markets the shops are run by females. Some are independent and others take care of their family business. Technical education is still in its infancy and women are not much charmed by it. An almost negligible number of women engineers display women’s least inclination towards technical jobs.

Bhutan’s newly inducted constitution has given women the right to equality although there was never discrimination between men and women. Trend shows that development and enlargement in the field of women education has led to increased employment opportunities in urban sector. In Article 7 (8), the constitution provides Bhutanese citizens with equal access and opportunity to join the public service, while Article 7 (6) affirms the right to vote and to exercise adult franchise. These provisions are reinforced for women by Article 9 (17), which outlines the responsibility of the State to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against the exploitation of women in the public and private spheres. Article 25 (4), meanwhile, directs the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) to ‘endeavour to ensure that civil servants render professional service, guided by the highest standards of ethics and integrity, to promote good governance and social justice in implementing the policies and programmes of Government.’ 9 

There are some other legislations also such as the Election Bill enacted in 2008 which do not differentiate between women and men and no seats are reserved for women in National Assembly. The political parties are not required to have certain proportion of women members or candidates.

Women representation in politics at national level  is inadequate and low. In the present parliament there are only 4 women members in National Council and 3 in National Assembly. There is not a single woman minister in the cabinet. Till now there has been no female District Administrator (Dzongda). During my survey in Bhutan from 1-26 June 2010 when I asked “What stops women  from coming into politics?” out of250 women 13 .5% said it is because of the family circumstances, 18.25% held the attitude of the political parties responsible for their absence from political arena, 2.24% opined that there were not many opportunities but overwhelmingly 46.03% said that they were not interested in coming into politics.

The Royal Government of Bhutan is giving attention to increasing women’s participation in development activities and in public decision making. Here also women remain under represented.

In judiciary barely 6% are women. The data provided by the Royal Court of Justice shows a proportionately higher representation at the lower grades. For studying for law degrees government scholarship is required which needs high pass marks in Dzongkha. The number of female lawyers is not even 10. There is a lack of interest in women for postings outside Thimpu.


        Table 4: Female Representatives in the Judiciary

                                             Female: Male Ratio      Proportion of Women

Drangpon (Judge)                           0.03                                      3%

Drangpon Rabjam                           0.04                                      4.2%

(Assistant Judge)                                                                          

Registrar (includes                          0.30                                     30%

Registrar General & Deputy                                                         

Registrar General)                                                                          

Source: Royal Court 01 Justice, December 2008.

Although there is an increase in women’s representation in civil services but still it falls short. In 2006 women accounted for 28% of civil servants (40 females for every 100 males). This is up 3% points from 2002 and 12% points from 1996. Women’s representation is lowest at the top levels (Grades 1-3), accounting for only 5% of civil servants; this can partly be explained by the late participation of women in the education process. At the same time, women’s representation in the civil service is highest, 32% in the category of Grades 9-13 appears to indicate that younger women are entering the civil service or are on their way up to higher grades.10


         Table 5: Proportion of Female Civil Servants by Grade

Grade          Female: Male Ratio of Civil           Proportion of Female Civil

                                    Servants                                          Servants

1-3                                   0.05                                                   5%

4-8                                   0.34                                                  25%

9-13                                 0.47                                                  32%

14-17                               0.37                                                  27%

Total                               0.40                                                  28%

As on June 2008 women constituted 29.5% of civil service. Women comprise 12.5% in specialist category, 5.3% at executive level, 30.33% at professional and management level and 31.71 % in supervisory and support category and 19.86% of the operational category.

In times to come their talent, labour and competitiveness is going to be an asset to the society. Bhutanese women have emerged self confident and a number of reasons can be attributed for their preference to commercial fields.

Present conditions in society have made it easy for them to step out and now sky is the limit for them. High standard of living and sharing husband’s responsibilities have become the propelling force. They want to utilize their time in such a way which is productive and economically beneficial. The spread of higher education as well as professional education is now helping them to hone their talents and materialize their am bi tions.

Women’s household responsibilities and lack of education is becoming a thing of past as they are now entering new areas fully equipped with required knowledge.

In my opinion three factors stand out for their working outside home -

         a) Family circumstances.

         b) Ambition and self-satisfaction.

         c) Utilization of time.

Economic independence has further enhanced their social status and helped them change environment around themselves. This quest takes them out of security of homes - to work places. Earlier they worked in low-skilled and low paid jobs in informal sectors i.e. at home as weavers, but now they are visible in all spheres. They are in large numbers in Teaching, Nursing and Fine Arts.

Working women are entitled to three months of maternity leave with full payor one month with full pay in case of a miscarriage. On completion of maternity leave they may resume their work without loss of seniority, turn of promotion or any other opportunity. Male civil servants are entitled to 5 days of paternity leave which may be combined with other forms of leave. There is a term called flexi time allowing them flexibility of work hours “to attend to personal needs during a normal working day.” Scope thus exists for breastfeeding mothers to use the flexi time arrangement after their three months of maternity leave.


      Table 6: Opinion on Duration of Maternity Leave11 

Dzongkhag                Maternity Leave               MaternityLeave

Surveyed                       Sufficient                               Insufficient

Kanglung                            15                                             18

Mongar                                11                                             28

Bumthang                            10                                             34

Punakha                               15                                             11

Thimpu                                20                                             16

Paro                                      19                                             17

Phuentsholing                    12                                              8

Total                                    102                                           132


Urbanisation has necessitated that educated women should come out and augment the family income, but the joint family system which was deeply ingrained in the social structure of Bhutan is now giving way to nuclear families and most of the working women have to face the consequences how to bring up small children till they can go to school. 56.41 % women feel that the present duration of maternity leave is not sufficient and it will be of great help and an indication of sensitiveness towards women’s role as mothers on the part of administration if it could be increased to six months. On the other hand the administration gives its own reason for maintaining the status quo on the issue, stating that they do not have replacements easily available and they are not in a position to allow long absence of professional women.

Industrial Employment

Very little can be said about the participation of Bhutanese women in the industrial sector, since industries are not highly developed in the country. In 1986, as indicated by the Department of Industries and Mines, there were 349 manufacturing and mining firms licensed, of which 14 were public owned. 285 of these firms employed less than ten workers, 21 had workers numbering about 10-19, 16 employed from 20-49, while 18 had more than 50 workers. Figures indicating the number of female employees in these industries are not available but the number at present is unlikely to be large since the total labor force is still quite small.12 Even today the scene has not changed much as industries have not yet developed in large number.


In growing urban centers, women serve in the private sector mainly as managers of shops and small-scale enterprises. Almost all shops in these urban centers are managed by women whose husbands are not involved in government service. Occasionally in both urban and rural areas, women who know the art of weaving earn substantial income to supplement the regular income of the family. They either weave materials on their own or arrange for hired laborers to assist them in producing traditional materials required for making the national costumes. These woven materials are profitable. Similarly, women who know knitting organize hired laborers to assist them in producing woolen sweaters or jumpers for winter. Women also earn from their embroidery and cane basketry expertise. These activities normally keep women busy and bring them additional income. Indeed, these skilled housewives often earn more than their husbands. Government servants’ wives are permitted to organize such home-based cottage industries.13

Tourism has also offered them a lucrative business as many Bhutanese families have turned their homes into guest houses which are comparatively cheaper and provide house comfort, for example in Bumthang there was a small guest huse which was owned by a family. It was run by their daughter while the father looked after the farming, mother did weaving and the brother was being educated at Geddu College of Business Studies. There are umpteen examples of such cases in Bhutan. Here the government can provide assistance to unemployed youth whose number is on rise now, training can be imparted to them and they can be a part of the professional tourism.

Women in Traditional Sector

Agriculture is the major activity on which the rural population is dependent. Except in Lhotshampa group, land is owned by women in both Ngalops and Sharchops who follow matriarchal family system. Women inherit agricultural land and associated properties. They have a more central role in the family. They have access to livestock also. The control of income is in the hands of the women and henceforth the decision making powers concerning household expenditure. Against a backdrop where women have hold over land and home in rural areas, there is no clear distinction or division between the roles men and women have. Though these views are not shared by Uni Wikan who says that there is a division of task between men and women but her observations are largely from western Bhutan.

Females as well as males can weed and transplant, harvest, thrash and winnow, and either can look after the animals. But in practice it is said to be rare for males to weed and transplant, mainly women do it. But only males cut grass, dig the earth and plough and sow; it is said that should women plough, the oxen would cry.......only women, by contrast pluck the seedlings, feed the pigs and cows, milk the animals and perform all operations connected with manure: collecting, carrying and distributing. It is said should a man come into contact with manure his brains would deteriorate ..........thus only an uneducated woman can handle manure.14

Her discussions with women led her to make the following observations:

The (effective) head of the household should be a man, and the husband will be regarded as the locus of authority even when the farm on which the couple resides is the wife’s property.......likewise the coordination of task and the allocation of duties to the household members will be in the hands of a stronger and more active male...... This does not mean that women do not participate in family decisions and have no voice ...... in some families a woman may indeed dominate by virtue of her stronger personality or intelligence but in some cases her dominance is muted and standard role appearances maintain that male is the decision maker.15

She acknowledges that gender roles differ in different parts of Bhutan and agrees that in eastern Bhutan there is greater equality in gender rules both with respect to child care and authority within the household.

Marketing patterns seem to influence the control of income within the household. Women seem to frequent market with poultry, butter, cheese and vegetables and the income generated from these products is generally kept and used by women for their own expenditure as well as to run the household. Men or women who sel1 milk to local markets generally have control of the income for their own use. Households sel1ing milk to cooperatives tend to use their income for family rather than for their personal use.

The Department of Agriculture has established several training projects for women in various districts. The regular farmer training programmes also try to involve women trainees in Khangma of Tashigang district of Bhutan. Several training courses for women focus on child health care, improved method of food processing and preservation, kitchen gardening, knitting, tailoring and weaving. Subjects such as personal hygiene and environmental sanitation are also introduced during these short term training courses.

Although the traditional role of Bhutanese women is not different from that which earlier prevailed in the world like house keeping, animal husbandry and cotton industries, they worked for survival and contributed in meeting their basic needs for food, clothing, housing and health care. Since inception women have contributed in agriculture sector but education along with new opportunities has worked as a catalyst. It has not only developed their personality and rationality but also qualified them to utilize certain economic cultural opportunities and thereby improve their socio-economic status.


Marriages in Bhutan are more a matter of convenience than conviction but it is the most important institution affecting the role of women. Both men and women enjoy freedom to choose their partners. Love marriages are common in urban areas but arranged marriages also take place. In Lhotshampa ethnic group women join their husband’s families after marriage but in Ngalops and Sharchops there is no rule that women have to move to their husband’s house. Often the couple moves to the woman’s house. But the increasing trend today is that the couple lead an independent life but continues to keep very close ties to his/her natal family. Divorce is socially and religiously wel1 accepted and divorce rate is very high.

The percentage of married population is found to be the highest in the middle age group. The divorced and separated population is found to be the highest among women in the age-group of 30-34 years followed by that of 25-29 years at 7.3% and 5.7% respectively. The widowed population constitutes a small proportion, or 4.7% of the total population consisting of 3.2% males and 6.2% females. Remarriage of divorcees and widows is also common practice. The law prohibits polyandry but there are a few cases among the Brokpas of Mera-Sakten where if brothers mutual1y agree they can share one wife among them.

Motherhood and fertility are valued highly. Parents are usual1y looked after by daughters in their old age in Ngalops and Sharchops ethnic groups.16


                   Table 7: Registration of Marriages and
                        Divorce Cases in the Districts (1982-1988)

Dzongkhags              Registration of Marriages          Number of Divorce                                  

                                                                                            Cases referred to the

                                                                                               District Courts

Samchi                                            23                                            956

Chukha                                          301                                            77

Tashigang                                     700                                           150

Mongar                                         480                                            44

Lhuntsi                                          327                                            25

Pema Gatshel                                 25                                            368

Samdrup Jonzkhar              Not Available                         Not Available

Source: Women 111 Development: Bhutan, Country beefing Paper, November 1989.

This table is a clear indicator of how Bhutanese view marriage as an agreement between two individuals and if the relationship is not smooth there is no pressure from the society or stigma attached for living separately. In recent times the number of cases of divorce is on rise and registration of marriage has been made compulsory.

Land Inheritance

Traditional practices of matriarchal inheritance system still apply in most of the families and many women in western and central Bhutan inherit land. 60% of rural women hold land registration titles. This is based on the belief that women need more economic security to enable them to take care of their parents and children. The gender pilot study conducted by Family Planning Commission also has the same views. Mother or eldest daughter becomes the head of the household. One reason which is often given why men are not given land is that they move to monastic establishment and authorities in public place. In these areas they have predominance. Generally it is required that at least one male child from each household will enter into monk body which is their source of livelihood. Buddhist teaching does not discriminate between men and women either in  Bhutan or elsewhere; currently in the country there are about 250 nuns.17 At the monastery level the life of women is very different.

The monastry was founded by men, monks occupied it for a long time, and at present it serves as a school for lay religious practitioners (gomchen) where girls are strictly excluded. Outsiders invited to perform ceremonies are invariably monks, and the religious dances of the annual festival are traditionally never performed by women but always by men.18

The significant presence of women participants in some surviving bon rituals suggest that women had prominent positions either real or symbolic based on religion and ritual.

Bhutan is a Buddhist nation and religion in this country is not just a means of perpetuating faith. It defines a way of life and enforces the gender determined role and conduct of its followers. In the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism male and female are considered equal. The Sutra says “There is no difference between sexes on the road to enlightenment.”19 The doctrine of Karma gives the women an elevated status; more so since there are many female deities such as Tara, Saraswati, Dorji Phagmo ..... who are worshipped in this religion.”20 

Violence against Women

Bhutan has committed itself with the Vienna Declaration of 1983, United Nation’s General Assembly Declaration on Elimination of Violence against Women and Beijing Platform of Action 1995. The government is working to remove this social problem. According to National Consultation on Violence against Children, April 2005, violence is of four types: violence at work places, in schools and institutions, in homes and families like physical beating of domestic servants, violent behaviour amongst parents and violence in communities such as the issue of night hunting (where men enter village houses at night to have sex with young girls, although this practice is on decline now) and alcohol ism (Bhutan has highest cases of alcoholic violence).

According to Kuensel as on December 2008, of 28 victims of sexual abuse in Thimpu 08 were minors, the youngest victim being a three year old girl. (Records from Royal Bhutan Police, Thimpu). The data indicates that the reports of assault against women and children have fluctuated since 2000. Data also reveals a total of 71 reported cases of domestic violence in the capital in 2005, out of which 34 were registered and 37 withdrawn. There are various reasons why women deter from reporting violence against them as police and judicial officials may not know how to deal sensitively with victims of violence. Lack of awareness among women and the limited number of women in police and judiciary is another reason. As on August 2008 there were 170 women in Royal Bhutan Police Force with female: male ratio of 0.05.


        Table 8: Royal Bhutan Police Force, August 200821 

Category                          Number of                Number of           Female:                       

                                           Females                    Males                  Male Ratio

Officer                               9                                 126                       0.07

Constables                       114                             1631                     0.07

Non-Commissioned        13 (upgraded)          1916                     0.07


Recruits in Training        34                               94                         0.36

Cadets in Training          Nil                              4                           0

Total Police Force           170                             3771                     0.05

Women Organizations

Non government organizations are encouraged to playa big role in the upliftment of women and children. RENEW is one such organization which is working to create awareness about domestic violence. It has conducted surveys with educated working women, wives of Armed Forces personnel and educated working men that provide preliminary information on how domestic violence is perceived in Bhutanese context.

One such survey conducted in 2007 reveals that 77% of women interviewed suffered physical abuse, 54% emotional torment and 23% forced sex. Alcohol was found to be the triggering factor towards violence. Although domestic violence is perceived as consisting of physical, financial and mental; emotional and spiritual violence may include any member of the family but it is seen that physical violence is mainly between spouses.

Data compiled by Forensic specialist on wife beating cases reported to the hospitals in 2005 to 2006 provide useful insight into the problem of domestic violence as confirmed by RENEW study.22 A total of 81 and 57 cases were of wife beating, the majority of victims were of age 20-30 (61 % in 2005 and 47%in 2006). The majority of the female victims of beating were unemployed (54% in 2005 and 65% in 2006), while the majority of husbands were employed in civil service (44% in 2005 and 39% in 2006) or the private sector (24% in 2005 and 19% in 2006). The two main reasons given for wife beating were infidelity (or suspicion of infidelity) and intoxication. While arguing over financial matters was found to be the cause of wife beating in 26% of cases in 2005, it was true for only 4% of cases in the first half of 2006. It is notable that these three reasons were also most cited during the focus group discussions on domestic violence conducted by RENEW. In only about 60% of the cases reported to the hospital had the incident also been reported to the police. Moreover, it was found that in about one-third of the total number of cases, the reported incident represented the fifth to tenth episode of wife beating. These two last findings clearly indicate under-reporting:23 

There are many other NGOs on women. National Women Association of Bhutan established in 198 I is based on the resolution passed by 53rd session of National Assembly headed by Her Majesty Ashi Sonam Choden Wangchuck. Its aim is to uplift socio-economic status of women specially in rural areas.

Youth Development Fund established in 1999 by Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck, aims to enable Bhutanese youth to realize their full potential as productive citizens of this world through sustained financial support.

Tarayana Foundation established in 2003 by Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck aims to help the poor rural communities become self-reliant and self-sufficient through the initiation and establishment of income generating activities. 

RENEW which has been mentioned above means ‘Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women’ and was established in 2004 by Her Majesty Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck. It deals with violence and tackles major issues facing contemporary Bhutanese women. Its aim is to provide relief and empowerment to disadvantaged women and girls. They have established Happy Homes for women who have no place to go.

National Commission on Women and Children an autonomous agency was established in 2004. It aims to fight for the rights of women and children. In 2004 during the first National Assembly a Women and Children Committee was established as one of the standing committee of National Assembly. It is headed by Hon. Karma Lhamo. It aims to empower women by scrutinizing existing policies and legislations directly affecting women and children. The key functions of this organization are to co-ordinate and monitor periodic country reports to treaty bodies ‘Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women’ (CEDAW) and ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (CRC); build and strengthen relationships with organizations working for women and children within and outside the country; monitor implementation of activities under CRC and CADEW and other international and regional conventions signed by Bhutan and to assist in the mobilization of resources for agencies working for women and children in the country. The current projects include ending violence against women, protection and promotion of rights of women and children in Bhutan and moving forward on gender empowerment and protection. The motto of the organization is “Working together, Working Better” for women and children.24

All these organizations' goals are to support vulnerable individuals and to achieve greater social equality.


The Government of Bhutan’s commitment to provide free and accessible health care to all women and men in Bhutan is reinforced by Article 9 (21) of the constitution which states “The state sha11 provide free access to basic public health services in both modern and traditional medicine.” Today Bhutan has 29 hospitals, 178 Basic Health Units and 519 outreach clinics.*24  As a result of improved health conditions the life expectancy has increased from 37 years in 1960 to 66.1 years in 2000, with a very small difference between men and women (male 66.0, female 66.2).

The total fertility rate among women of 15-49 year age decreased from 4.7 in 2000 to 2.5 (2.1 urban; 2.7 rural) in 2005. The general family rate also fell from 142.7 in 2000 to 86.4 (75.3 urban; 92.5 rural) in 2005. The age-specific fertility rates for 15-19 and 20-24 year-olds have decreased significantly between 2002 and 2005. One area that requires further improvement is pregnancy among young girls. In 2005, II % of all births were among 15-19 year-olds and 10.2% of all 15-19 year-olds reported having at least one chiIJ.25


Table 9: Percent of 15-19 Year-Olds with Children
Percent with child ever        Percent with live          Percent of all live 

born                                        birth in last year           births in last year

                                                                                        from 15-19 year-old

Both Areas                        Both        Urban Rural      Both    Urban    Rural

                                            Areas                                  Areas                     

10.2%                                 3.6%          2.2%    4.5%     11.0%    8.0%     12.3%

Source: Office of Census Commissioner (2006), Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (2005).

Reproductive health services are a vital component of the country’s primary health care system. High priority has been given to maternal health. Fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Her Majesty the queen Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck have been at the forefront to ensure the improvement in this sector. According to Annual Health Bulletin of Bhutan 2007 there are 8 maternal deaths reported in 2006. Most of them have been because of postpartum haemorrhage. 41 % of these deaths occurred at home, 50% of the deliveries were not attended by health workers and 72% of women were younger than 30 and 38 did not have adequate Anti-Natal Care (ANC) attendance.

In 2005, 70% of pregnant women visited ANC clinics four or more times during pregnancy indicated of high service use by pregnant women.26 

Government has demonstrated strong commitment towards family planning since 1971. The fourth king in his Casho in 1984 to the Director of Health outlined the commitment towards population policy. He said, “Though our country is very small in size there is no problem of overpopulation as our population growth and birth rate are very low, we understand the problems other countries face due to over population. There is no doubt that over population will retard our development process since couple of years the death rate has drastically decreased while the birth rate has increased. Besides the development of our country it is important to properly plan child care and find ways of controlling birth rate, therefore all our youth should collectively help and support the family plannmg programme. You should promote and Implement the family plannmg programme to insure that our people are happy with maximum development in the country while at the same time controlling population explosion.”27 

In the National Health Survey 2000 it is indicated that 95% women in the reproductive age group had heard of family planning.


The first HIV case in Bhutan was detected in 1993. Since then the number has been on rise. The cumulative figures of infected cases in November 2008 total 156 people, an increase from 77 cases in 2005 and just 2 cases in 1993. In 2004 alone 23 new cases were reported. The first mother to child transmission was detected in 200l. As of 2006 there were 11 such detected cases. The government policy is to prevent mother to child transmission as an integral part of HIV/AIDS prevention and control. In 2007 the proportion of women detected is 50%. Unlike many other countries where infected women are in larger number in Bhutan the number is equal to that of infected men.

The National Health Survey (2000) reveals that among all women with children younger than one year, breast feeding was practiced by only 42%. There was need to draw importance in this area. The National Assembly ratified and adopted the SAARC Code for the Protection of Breastfeeding and Young Child Nutrition on August 11, 2003. The main purpose of this code is to create awareness among the health workers and public about the benefits of breastfeeding the infants and to regulate and control the marketing and promotion of other supplementary food and related products that are harmful to the health of infants. The countries that are signatory to this code must make policies, laws, mechanisms and guidelines on the basis of this code and implement them.


A study of socio-economic status of Bhutanese women is a study in contrast. In South Asia gender discrimination at every stage of female life circle creates sex- selected abortions, dowry deaths, rape, prostitution and trafficking in women. They are consistently being denied inheritance rights, adequate food, freedom of expression and mobility. Participation in community activities is not by their personal choices and preferences. All matters related to their life such as what education they will have, to whom they will marry, the number of children they will have to professions, are all dictated by family and society. They are denied a meaningful role in decision making and are not in a position to have access to education and health care facilities or political or financial institutions nor own assets and resources.28 In short we can say that they do not have social, political and economic access to what society has to offer them. But it is an established truth that without bringing women into mainstream of development no country could realize its aim of sustainable development. As stated by Mr. Kofi Annan, 70th  Secretary General of United Nations, 2001 Noble Peace Prize, “When women thrive all of society benefits and succeeding generations are given a better start in life.”

The picture in most of the South Asian countries is similar. However, the two countries which are an exception are Srilanka and Bhutan. What we see at present in Bhutan is largely due to the past systems and traditions which were very carefully and painstakingly nurtured by their forefathers. Even when the modem development started it was kept in mind that all those problems which had caught up with other societies will figure there also, therefore strict vigil has been kept on the social environment. There is a lot of appreciation for modem changes and technology but a determination is also there to preserve Bhutan’s social values and identity. In the field of education the lower enrolment rates and high drop outs of girls has been taken very seriously. Among the many solutions which have been implemented are expanding boarding facilities for girls, curriculum and faculty development and distance education. In field of health emphasis is given on inculcating the importance of women’s health and life.

Bhutan’s emphasis that economic development will come along human development is being projected as Gross National Happiness; a philosophy which lays lots of emphasis on mental and spiritual development of human beings. As half of the population of Bhutan is women the government has to develop this resource to its full potential and mobilize it effectively for the cause of community and national benefit.

The scene is changing fast and in 2008 Bhutan had its first beauty pageant. The focus was not only on beauty but brains and traditional dress also. The man behind this whole initiative Karma Tshering who is also the first movie director of the country said, “This was to provide a platform for Bhutanese women to showcase their ability and the essence of womanhood and also to bring out a role model for Bhutanese women.” A new women’s magazine ‘Yeewong’ has been brought out which is an opportunity for educating on the subjects that directly and indirectly have a bearing on Bhutanese women’s lives. It mostly concentrates on stories related to women of Bhutan. It is hoped to be developed as a platform to create awareness on rising concerns which effect women’s status .

Bhutanese women are no longer confined to homes. They are successfully trying to manage time, home and children. They are positively responding to the present challenges attempting to balance their dual responsibility of home and work and have emerged as indispensable in the progress of society and nation.


    1.  Crins, Reiki: Religion and Gender Values in a Changing World, The Spider and Piglet, Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Bhutan Studies, ed. by Karma Ura & Sonam Kinga, Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2004, p 581.

    2.  Tenth Five Year Plan 2008-2013, Main Document,Vol-I, Gross National Happiness, Royal Government of Bhutan, p 80.

    3.  Bhutan at a Glance 2009, National Statistical Bureau, Royal Government of Bhutan.     

    4.  Collected during my survey in Bhutan from 01- 26 June 2010.

    5.  Women in Development:  Bhutan by Lhadon Perna, November 01,1989,
P 6-7.

    6.  Labour Force Survey 2006, Ministry of Labour and Human Resource, p1.

    7.  Education and Gender in Bhutan: A Tentative Analysis, Joke Buringa and Lham Tshering, Thimpu, July 1992,p 41.

    8.  Collected during my survey in Bhutan from 01- 26 June 2010.

    9.  National Plan of Action for Gender 2008-2013, Gross National Happiness ‘Commission, National Commission for Women and Children, Royal Government of Bhutan, p 18.

  10.  Ibid, P 20.

  11.  Collected during my survey in Bhutan from 01- 26 June 2010.

  12.  Women in Development: Bhutan by Lhadon Perna, November 01,1989,
p 6-7.

  13.  Ibid.

  14.  Uni Wikan, The Situation of girl child in Bhutan, mimeo, Thimpu, Bhutan 1990, P 19.                

  15.  Ibid.

  16.  Opcit, ref 12, pI6-17.

  17.  Francoise Pornmeret, Introduction to Bhutan (Hongkong: The Guidebook Company Limited, 1990).

  18.  Martin Brauen, ‘A Village in Central Bhutan, in Christian Schicklgruber and Francoise Pommaret (eds), Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods (Delhi: Bookwise (India) Pvt Ltd, 1997), P 93.

  19.  Upreti, Sonia: Status of Women in Bhutan, Bhutan:Society and Polity, ed. By Pamakant, Ramesh Chandra Misra, Indus Publishing House, 1996, p53.

  20.  Gender Focal Point, Royal Bhutan Police (RBP), Thimpu.

  21.  RENEW (2005), Focus Group Discussion on Domestic Violence” an Analysis.

  22.  National Plan of Action for Gender 2008-2013, Gross National Happmess Commission, National Commission for Women and Children, Royal Government of Bhutan, p136-137.

  23.  Brochure, National Commission for Women and Children, Royal Government of Bhutan.

  24.  Ministry of Health Bulletin of Bhutan, 2008.

  25.  Opcit, ref 22, p 85-86.

  26.  Opcit, ref 22, p87-88.

  27.  Portrait of a Leader, Mieko Nishimizu, Centre for Bhutan Studies, p 06.

  28. Mumtaz Khawar: Women’s Representation, Effectiveness and Leadership in §outh Asia, Key Gender Issues in South  Asia : A Resource Package, Technical Papers presented at the Fifth South Asian Regional Ministerial Conference Celebrity Beijing, 2005, p 6l.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati