On every 8th of March since 1975, thousands of events have been organised on International Women’s Day to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women all over the world. But this is not merely an observance; it is also an opportunity to call for greater equality.
International Women’s Day in 2015 is celebrated under the theme “Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!” We are asked to envision a world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices about her body and her future: participate in politics, get an education, have an income, decide when and whom to marry, when or whether to form a family, and live in a society free from violence and discrimination.
This year also highlights 20 years of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic roadmap signed by 189 governments, including Bhutan. In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action stated out loud that women’s rights are human rights, and that gender equality is critical to development and progress for everyone.
Bhutan has made impressive progress in gender equality over the past several decades. Now all ministries and agencies have gender equality responsibilities, while the National Commission for Women and Children works to specifically fulfill the obligations of the government towards the international conventions ratified by Bhutan.
Reproductive and sexual health and rights
In 1995, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo issued a Royal Decree emphasising the importance of population planning for sustainable development. Today, all Bhutanese have access to family planning services, including free contraceptives in all health centres. Yet many serious gaps remain. Bhutan still has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in our region. Over 15% of women (20-24 years of age) have given birth before their 18th birthday, a proportion that has remained almost unchanged over the last 25 years. Becoming a teenage mother is rarely a deliberate choice. And pregnant girls are often forced to drop out of school, making it even more difficult for them to earn a livelihood in the future.
The high number of teenage pregnancies shows that more needs to be done: we need to support those girls who have become mothers too early, but also to change the trend. The goal is to prevent teenage pregnancies. The UN is a strong supporter of comprehensive sexual education that empowers girls – and boys – with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to make informed choices, and to enjoy their sexuality, physically and emotionally, individually and in relationships. Since 2012, life skills education has been expanded to all Bhutanese schools.
Women’s political participation and economic empowerment
Globally, women earn less than men, and carry a large burden of unpaid care work which deprives them of other opportunities, like earning money, gaining new skills, and participating in public life. Also in Bhutan, women and girls lag behind in the areas of political participation, economic empowerment and income equality. Women comprise only 6.6 percent of the executive level workforce in the civil service. Among the elected members of parliament, the proportion of women is almost the same, 6 percent, much lower than the global average of 21 percent.
In 1998, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo issued a Royal Decree emphasising women’s participation at all levels of government and society, calling for gender-neutral participation based on merit and achievement. Following this, the UN has also been actively supporting women’s leadership in politics and civil service in Bhutan. For example, the UN has been working with the National Commission for Women and Children to develop a National Action Plan on Gender Equality in Elected Office.
Recent studies conducted with UN support on women’s political participation in Bhutan have shown that prejudices against selecting female leaders are high. Most Bhutanese – men and women – see women as less capable and inferior to men in public decision-making and leadership. These studies send a clear message: it is not enough only for women to be active and stand as candidates in elections. But, in order for this to happen, women need support and encouragement both from the political parties and from their own families.
Bhutan is not immune to the pervasive global problem of violence against women and girls. A study on the ‘Situation of violence against women in Bhutan’ (2013) by the NCWC states that about one in three women is likely to experience at least one act of violence during her lifetime. Domestic violence occurs in both rural and urban areas, and across all levels of education and wealth.
The main challenge lies in changing the social norms and the mind-set of people that continue to undermine efforts to eliminate violence against women and young girls. According to a 2010 survey, 68 percent of Bhutanese women, including educated women, believe that a man is justified in beating his wife or partner. This is disturbing. It is even more upsetting that acceptance for domestic violence is higher among younger women. This has to change. We need to work together, and engage with men and boys to break the cycle of violence now.
Many agencies and individuals are already committed to ending violence against women in Bhutan. The Royal Government of Bhutan has shown its strong political will to reduce gender-based violence, both in the 11th Five Year Plan, and with the enactment of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act in 2013.
The UN in Bhutan offers its full support to the government and people of Bhutan in their efforts to achieve gender equality and to eliminate violence against women.
In his message for the International Women’s Day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls for action: “The world will never realise 100 percent of its goals if 50 percent of its people cannot realise their full potential. When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all.”
Equality benefits everyone. Research has shown that in more equal countries, people are happier, they have better health, and poverty is reduced. In fact, gender equality helps to build good relations and harmony in the society.
Bhutan already has many change-makers who challenge gender stereotypes through their own action. Yet, we need more than a few brave individuals to stand for gender equality. I urge all of you – women and men, girls and boys, young and old – to be a part of this positive change. I ask you to not only picture an equal world, but to take a giant leap towards it.
United Nations in Bhutan