Engaging Women in Bhutan’s Growing Democracy

In Bhutan, women occupy only 4% of the leadership roles at the local government level, and only 10 of Bhutan’s 72 Parliament members are women, according to a report from Helvetas-Bhutan (PDF.) In one rural, agrarian community, one village library has shown the path to get women involved in leadership.

Though Bhutan has a high level of gender equity compared to other South Asian countries, women there have few opportunities to participate in local and national politics or in other areas of the public sphere. At the same time, the Government of Bhutan has been encouraging women’s participation in politics and other public areas.

The Aurbay Sher Shong Payzothkhang (ASSP) Library in Ura — a village with a population of 1,500 that farms mostly buckwheat and potatoes — started a program to increase women’s participation in the public sphere. In surveys taken before the program started, responses showed that most participants believed that women’s responsibilities centered around the home.

Over the course of 11 months, 500 women participated in the program. Activities included information campaigns, a radio show, and a discussion group.

Radio program: Drama, romance — and democracy

The radio show is a drama that gives the group of mostly illiterate women an opportunity to learn about democracy. As the 25-episode story unfolds in the fictitious village of Gakithang, political parties emerge and candidates contend for leadership positions. It is a story with the comedy, romance, suspense and tension of a small community in contemporary times. During the discussion group, women gather to talk about the characters and the events that take place in the radio show. They then relate those events to democracy and politics in Bhutan, giving them a chance to join in active discussions and debates.

“I enjoyed being part of these activities because it has helped me share my opinions and ideas on so many things with the other women,” said Nima Zam. “I now have a place where I can speak and there will be people who will listen to what I have to say.”

Women take up leadership roles

After the program, participants said they felt more comfortable speaking in front of the group. They also had more confidence in their own opinions and views, and became more enthusiastic about taking an active role in society.

The project also had a direct impact on the library itself — for the first time, women will serve in leadership positions on the library management committee. Now, 12 out of 15 committee members are women.

The infographic below was created as part of the project’s information campaign.
bhutan infographic 1

This project was supported in part by a Libraries for Development grant from Beyond Access. At the 2012 Beyond Access event in Washington, DC, participants presented project proposals to a panel of judges and the voting public. The Aurbay Sher Shong Payzothkhang (ASSP) Library won in the Civic Participation category.

Visit READ Global’s website to learn more about community development initiatives in Bhutan.