Bhutan bucks regional trend in attitude to women

by AFP/Anjali Kwatra, Nov 15, 2002 | Destinations: Bhutan / Thimphu

In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which only recently opened its doors to the modern world, women own land and inherit property, are often the family decision-makers and are even flocking to enter the traditionally male-dominated building trade.

Bhutan may be part of South Asia, but attitudes towards women are completely different to other countries in the region.

The government of the remote Buddhist country, which has a population of just 699,000, has always taken a cautious approach to modernisation, only allowing foreign visitors since the 1970s and introducing television just three years ago.

Bhutan is still primarily rural, with 79 percent of the population living in the countryside.

Tshering Pem, a member of the planning commission with responsibility for gender issues, said Bhutan's traditional values support equality between men and women.

"Historically men moved into their wife's house when they got married and became part of the wife's family," she said.

"Property is very often registered in the name of the woman, because women are the ones who look after the parents in their old age. And there is no stigma attached to divorced or single women."

A gender study carried out last year by the planning commission found that in some areas 60 percent of property is owned by women.

"Women enjoy (a) fair amount of independence in their personal, social, economic and political spheres. They are involved in decision-making processes within the household. In rural areas specially, there is sharing of productive and some reproductive tasks as well between men and women," the report said.

In many neighbouring countries, including India and Nepal, the situation for women is often the opposite. Women generally have lower status than men and girls are considered to be a burden on the family, which has to provide dowry for their marriage.

"Generally there is no inherent bias against women here, no systematic discrimination," said Karma Ura of the Centre for Bhutan Studies.

Women have the same rights as men, especially in matters relating to family, inheritance, marriage and divorce.

"If a couple who have children get divorced the law says the man must give the wife 20 percent of his income for each child, up to a maximum of 60 percent," Ura said.

"And women are not looked down upon if they have children out of wedlock."

Tshering Tobgay, head of the National Technical Training Authority (NTTA), which provides vocational training for school-leavers, said women were often the decision-makers in a family.

"Our girls are as tough if not more so than the boys. Women are very strong here. On many aspects they are the decision-makers and the direct decision-makers."

At a NTTA training site in the capital Thimphu, 50 percent of the 109 students learning the building trade are women.

Phub Gyelmo, 20, dressed in blue dungarees and a yellow hardhat, was hauling bricks and metal rods from one end of the site to the other.

"I have been training for six months and it is hard work, but I like it. There is equality here and no difference between the girls and the boys. We work the same as them."

Nawang Dorgi, 26, a housewife in Thimpu, said she felt she had never experienced bias because she was a women.

"It seems to me women have the upper hand. People usually prefer to have daughters because they will look after their parents when they get old," she said.

"Daughters generally inherit the property because the sons can look after themselves."

But Tshering Pem admitted that things were by no means perfect for women in Bhutan and modern ways of living could be detrimental to equality.

"In rural areas where agriculture is the main, or perhaps the only, economic activity, men and women are both involved in the work and have an equal say," she said.

"People live within the joint family and children are looked after by the whole family so women find it easier to work.

"But as people move into the towns, labour is divided as someone in the family has to go out to work and it is generally the men.

"Before Bhutan set up its own schools, men were more likely to be educated then women as to be sent abroad for education was seen as less risky for them.

She said there were few women at high levels in the government or civil administration.

"We also have a problem that drop-out rates for girls at schools are higher.

"These are things that we need to look at carefully and see how we can change them for the better."

In the south of Bhutan, where many people are of Nepalese descent and are Hindus, there is more discrimination against women, she added.

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