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A Personal Take on the Changing Tide of Women’s Rights in Bhutan

Written by Emma Chan

Edited by Eunice Tan

How has Bhutan and women’s rights changed over the past 8 years? Having been involved with the country since 2012 and lived there from 2015-2018, I have seen a gradual social shift involving women in the kingdom. Women have always played a crucial role in traditional Bhutanese society, however those traditional roles have become more diversified in recent years. 

My strongest memory that tied to me being a girl in Bhutan was at a local craft fair. I was about 14, and having played archery recreationally for many years but not being able to shoot regularly after moving, I jumped at the chance to play at the archery booth. I ended up being there so long that the store holders stopped charging me. I had been shooting a couple of hours when these three men who looked to be in their 60s came by to shoot. They looked at me, and I clearly remember one of them giving me a seemingly dismissive look. I ended up beating them in that round, hitting the bullseye in two arrows. I will never forget their surprise and how they nodded at me after the round. They were likely stunned because competitive archery is traditionally a man’s sport. In fact, it used to be that there was a lot of prejudice surrounding women archers because it was seen as unlucky if a woman touched a bow. So not only were they beaten by a girl, they were beaten by a tiny five foot two teenager. Never had I felt cooler. 

So, what’s a woman’s place in Bhutanese society? Women are traditionally expected to cook, clean, and might earn a livelihood through farming or weaving. Weaving is a very common handicraft in Bhutan, and there can be a hefty sum made from it. Women in the country are by no means helpless, however domestic abuse is still a cause for concern, as with any other country. The main issue here is that because some parts of the country are so isolated, the women and children facing domestic abuse are not able to get help or may not be in a position to get help. They might not even see their situation as abusive. This is where organizations such as RENEW come in. RENEW is a project initiated by one of the queen mothers of Bhutan to aid abused women and children. Some of what they do is take in abused individuals, as well as providing legal aid and counselling. What I really admire about this charity is that in recent years, they have acknowledged that men can also be abused, and have extended the help they give to include men as well. For a country where gender equality is a relatively new idea, this is very progressive thinking.  

Gender equality in Bhutan is a curious topic. On the one hand, you have the rural villages, where there are some women who practice polyandry (the act of having multiple husbands), and on the other hand, the kingdom run by a senior government made up of mostly men. However, just because the government is run by mostly men doesn’t mean women are not represented. In recent years, I’ve seen numerous women become entrepreneurs and even take up positions in parliament. On an international scale, Bhutan’s first Olympian is a woman archer, and the first Bhutanese to reach the Forbes 30 under 30 is a female tech entrepreneur. Even with all of the progress they’ve made, they are still evolving as a society, and I can’t wait to see how the kingdom will change in the next decade.  However, it is not just gender that is a factor in Bhutan. Age plays a huge role, and I feel that age has heavily impacted my experience as a girl in a country where children are, as I’ve been told, traditionally seen but not heard. 

Bhutan’s no stranger to change. In the past decade, they’ve gone from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, with the current king who has made it known he will commit to and marry one woman. As a kingdom who’s seen their kings marry multiple wives in the past to ensure a bloodline, this is a novel idea to many. The gradual social changes have only become evident to me after stepping back and reflecting. This made me realise that oftentimes we’re living in the changes happening all around us, but we only notice it when we look back. With that, I encourage you to take a look around you for what’s happening now, because you’ll never know when it’ll be different. 

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