Dialogue  April-June 2009 , Volume 10 No. 4

Women in Bhutan: Changing Status and Challenges Ahead

Karubaki Datta


Bhutan is a small kingdom located in the Eastern Himalayas. It is bordered by the Tibetan region of China and the Indian state of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The state covers an approximate area of 46,500 square kms. Because of the extremely rugged terrain only 8% of the land is cultivated. The vast majority of the rural population lives on these 8% of the land.

Ensconced in the Himalayas, it is one of the least developed countries of the world. As per the Human Development Report of 2007/8 of UNDP the Human Development Index (HDI) for Bhutan is 0.579 which gives the country a rank of 133rd out of 177countries. Life expectancy at birth is 64.7 and Adult Literacy Rate (% ,ages 15 and older) is 47.0.Bhutan’s rank being 121 and 129 in these two respectively. As per the same Report, Human Poverty Index -1 for Bhutan (2004) is 38.9. Bhutan ranks 86th among 108 developing countries for which the Index has been calculated. Percentage of adult illiteracy rate among age group of 15 and more is 53.0 and percentage of children underweight for age 0 -5 (2004) is 19.

Traditionally Bhutan used to be almost a closed country. Ruled by a Buddhist monarchy the country was kept out of reach of the external cultural influences as much as possible. Till very recently there were no newspapers, radio stations and other means of communication in the contemporary sense. The entry of electronic media was strictly prohibited as late as the 1990s. The situation has begun to change now and the country has been experiencing some fundamental political, social and economic transformation in course of the last few years. Politically there has been a gradual transition towards parliamentary democracy under constitutional monarchy and economically the country had embarked upon a planned economy, Now, in the 10th Five Year Plan (2008-13) it focuses on further decentralization in both financial and administrative sectors and poverty reduction.

 In Bhutan, material progress and accumulation of wealth are not regarded as the ultimate goal. Rather, the country aims to achieve a harmony between economic forces, the environment and spiritual and cultural values. This is the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) which is considered far more important than GNP. The focus of the country is placed on enriching people’s lives, improving their standard of living and augmenting an overall economic, spiritual and emotional well being of the people. Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) as laid down by the UNESCO is also a part of the development programme of Bhutan.

 The third MDG focuses on gender equality and empowerment. The Royal Government of Bhutan(RGOB), therefore, has made various assessments regarding the gender situation in the country , identified the areas of gender imbalance and undertaken measures to ameliorate the situation. In fact. Bhutan is striving to distribute the fruits of development equally among the men and women which will help it to raise the overall quality of life and achieve both MDGs and GNH.

Ethnic composition

Bhutan being a small country of about 46,500 sq.km., the population of the country is equally small. In fact, it is the least populated country of South Asia. The total population of the state, as per the Population and Housing Census of 2005 is 672,425, out of which 364,482 are male and 307,943 are female. The sex ratio in the country is 118.4 males per 100 females.

Though small in size, Bhutan is the homeland of several ethnic groups. Western Bhutan comprises of the valleys of Paro ,Thimpu, Punakha and Wangdue. It is traditionally populated by the Bodpas or the Drukpas popularly known as the Ngalops. They are Tibeto Mongoloid people and are migrants to Bhutan. Their language Dzongkha is akin to Tibetan. They comprise 35% of the population. The people of eastern Bhutan are known as Sharchopchen. They are people of Indo Mongoloid stock belonging to the groups of Lepchas, Doyas, Birmis, Tephoos, Khengs, Bodos etc. They comprise about 50% of the population. Southern Bhutan is the border area inhabited by the migrants of Nepalese origin commonly known as the Lhotsampas. They include the groups of Sherpas, Tamangs, Gurungs, Rais etc. Nepali is the most commonly spoken language.

In addition to these three major ethnic groups there are some minor ethnic groups living in different parts of the country. They include the Bumthaps and Khangpas inhabiting the districts of Trongsa, Bumthang, Lhunte etc. in the central part of Bhutan. Their language is of Tibeto Burman origin.

The Northern part of Bhutan is sparsely populated by semi nomadic herders who are pastoral people and are traditionally involved in trans Himalayan trade.

Since Bhutan is the homeland of such diverse ethnic groups it is not easy to give an account of the women of Bhutan. Not much work has been done on them and gender disaggregated official statistical data is not available .Whatever data is available are often contradictory and not totally reliable. Till very recently there used to be only one newspaper in Bhutan – the Kuensel- which is Government owned. It has the tendency to churn out glossy pictures of development of the country. Of late, two more newspapers– Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer have come up.

The present paper is based on secondary sources culled from the newspapers of Bhutan, the Gender Pilot Report by the joint initiative of the Planning Commission, Central Statistical Office and UN Agencies of UNDP, UNICEF and WFP, and the Housing and Population Census of Bhutan of 2005. Some stray information is provided by different branches of the UNO as well as by some other International donor organisations. The available data does not give much idea about the community wise differences and basically reflect the condition of the dominant community. Some regional differences however, are highlighted.

Women in Bhutanese society

Bhutan is a country where women enjoy more or less equal social and economic status as that of men. Unlike some other countries of South Asia, there is not any social stigma attached to women and there is no significant preference for male child over the female in most sections of society. Sex biased abortions are unknown among the population. Bhutan is a signatory to the CEDAW from 1981 without any reservation and the law of the land does not make any discrimination between men and women. In field of labour, there is no discrimination on the basis of gender. Both men and women including manual workers draw same wages with free and equal opportunities and facilities for employment. Men and women have the same legal right to acquire and own property.

Bhutan, as mentioned above, is basically an agricultural country and women take an active part in the agricultural activities along with their male counterpart . The percentage of female labour force working in the agricultural sector is as high as 63% Both men and women work actively in the field, in the kitchen garden and for the maintenance of livestock. However, there is a gender division of labour based on physical strength. While digging, weeding and transplanting, manure handling are done by women, land preparation, ploughing, collection of firewoods and felling of trees are done by men. There is no flexibility in this as when men migrate out on work, these are done either by other males or by hired labour. In general however, in traditional matriarchal society, women are expected to hold the house and the landed property while sons would leave home and settle in their wives’ house. This practice, to some extent, can be seen as an incentive for parents to marry their daughters young as this brings an additional worker to the household. Early marriage even at the age of 12 is prevalent in the villages. The legal age of marriage in Bhutan is 18 for both boys and girls but people arrange marriage without the knowledge of the local leaders

Women in Bhutan not only work actively in the fields but also own the family’s landed property. It is estimated that almost half of land registered titles, which is an index of property distribution are recorded in favour of women. According to the Gender Pilot Study conducted in 2001, in rural areas 60% of the landowners are women and in urban areas, many building and business licences are registered in favour of women.(http://www.discoverbhutan.biz/pages/yana/y_bti_wom01html.) Women also take an active role in business. Even if the business is in the name of the husband, it is usually the woman who is found to run it.

The access of women to different opportunities is almost equal to that of the men. The government provides credit facilities to the women to run their business. Almost 80% of both women and men in the rural areas are aware of the credit programmes even though less than 30% of the total households in rural areas and 32% in urban areas have availed of the facility. Credit facilities are generally utilized by women for financing activities like production of cash crops, vegetables, handicrafts, weaving, knitting etc. However, not all women are willing to avail of this facility the reasons of their reluctance being the absence of marketing facilities in the interior rural areas , lengthy procedure , rigid formalities and of course the fear of inability to repay.

A survey by the Labour Force in 2006 showed that even though self employment is very less in Bhutan- at the moment accounting for only 3% of the total employed population, the number of self employed women (3300) outnumber men (3100). Steps are being taken by the Government to further encourage the women with training programmes conducted by the National Women’s Association of Bhutan (NWAB) NWAB was established in 1981 to enhance the role of women at all levels of the development process. The Association has nationwide chapters and addresses the issues of needs of rural women through a variety of programmes like education, family healthcare, skills training, employment and rural credit facilities.

Inheritance and decision making: Two indicators of equality

The Inheritance Law of the country is favourable towards the women. In the Gender Pilot Survey it was found that in rural areas the ownership pattern showed a 60:40 female male ratio. Albeit there are some regional variations, Housing and Population Census of 2005 also supports this fact. In the districts of Trasigang and Mongar for example, the study showed a reverse trend with 40 % women owning property.

In the rural areas women generally receive property through inheritance while the male siblings are supposed to fend for themselves. In western Bhutan it is common for the daughters to inherit property - especially if they are not educated or have to look after their parents. In the eastern parts however, there is also the practice of dividing the property equally among all the children. The survey further points out that men are more privileged in urban areas also where, about 55% property is inherited by them. It could be so because the urban areas are more market and technique based and women cannot compete because of their low level of literacy and skill.

Active involvement in economic pursuits and ownership of property has given a decision making role to the women in the family. In both the rural and the urban areas men and women share the decision making powers over issues like the use of income, selling of crops and property. While in over 60% households, men are responsible for the decisions related to equipments, farm machinery etc. For districts Thimphu and Ha’ business is one of the significant activities. Women do take an active role in such activities, yet decisions are taken by men. This suggests that as economic options widen and households move away from subsistence based activities, women may not be seen as equal partners in the new economic opportunities. This trend needs further investigation. (decision making patterns, Gender Pilot Survey, 2001)

As a result of their active economic participation and ownership of property it is common for the women to be regarded as the head of the family even though. there are some regional – particularly urban- rural disparities in this respect as well. The Census gives the percentage of households headed by women in the 20 dzongkhangs (districts) of Bhutan.

                                             Table 1
                 Percentage of households headed by male/female

Sl.No.  Dzongkhang                          Male                    Female    

    1.     Punakha                                49.5                     50.5        

    2.     Bumthang                              49.6                     50.4        

    3.     Tsonga                                  49.7                     50.3        

    4.     Lhuntse                                 50.5                     49.5        

    5.     Wangdue                              56.4                     43.6          

    6.     Gasa                                     58.9                     41.1        

    7.     Mongar                                 60.4                     39.6        

    8.     Zhemgang                             61.2                     38.8        

    9.     Trashiyangtse                        62.2                     37.8

  10.     Dagana                                 65.1                     34.9

  11.     Paro                                     66.6                     33.4

  12.     Haa                                      71.4                     28.6

  13.     Trashigang                            73.2                     26.8

  14.     Sarpang                                73.7                     26.3

  15.     Pemagatshel                          73.9                     26.1

  16.     Tsirang                                  78.0                     22.0

  17.     Samdrup Jongkhar                78.1                     21.9

  18.     Thimphu                                79.5                     20.5

  19.     Chukha                                 83.9                     16.1

  20.     Samtse                                  84.8                     15.2

Source : Housing and Population Census of Bhutan, 2005

The Census defines ‘head’ as the person who is either the bread earner or is recognized to be the head by the other family members. Accordingly, 28.2% of the 126,115 Bhutanese families are found to be headed by women. Women heads are more in rural areas, 50.5, 50.4 and 50.3 in Punakha ,Bumthang and Tsonga respectively.

This definition of ‘head’, however, is not accepted by all. The higher percentage of women inheriting property, some think, has not been taken into account by the Census. Due to the predominance of women in inheritance, there is the notion that more women than men enjoy the status of the ‘head’ of the family. There is also the view that the female member, especially the mother should have been considered the head of the family.

The Pilot Gender Study takes an altogether different definition of the term ‘head’ and applies two different criteria for the rural and the urban areas. According to it, in rural areas ‘head’ is the one in whose name the property is registered while in urban centres a ‘head’ is one who takes all the decisions and is the main bread earner. Accordingly, in urban areas men are found to head about 80% of households. The study proves that women are definitely losing their decision making authority in the urban areas.

On the whole, their apparent differences notwithstanding, both – the Census and the Gender Pilot Survey highlight the trend that women are losing their traditional status of ‘head’ of the family in the newly emerging urban areas.

Spheres of inequality

One sphere where the women definitely lag behind the men is education. According to the National Statistics Bureau (NSB) Bhutan had a literacy rate of 55.5% (male 65.7 and female 45.9%) in 2007. (Bhutan Observer, September 26, 2007) The pattern is not uniform all over the country. Despite economic growth in recent decades poverty is still concentrated in rural areas and eastern regions causing many people to migrate to the cities in search of jobs and better social services. Significant disparities in enrolment and other education indicators exist between rural and urban areas and between different income groups. This is also reflected in the findings of the Gender pilot Survey. The literacy rate in urban areas is almost three times than the rural areas. (68% and 25% respectively) The female literacy rate among the rural respondents of the Pilot Survey was only 18% - half of that for men. In urban areas, the literacy rate among the women respondents is 52% In the rural areas 75 % of the women in reproductive age group 20-40 are illiterate while in urban areas the figure is 46%.

Though few in number, some women are also educating themselves through programmes of non formal adult education.(NFE) The programme started in 1992 with only 6 classes . By 1999 it had 91 centres with 3,172 learners. In terms of percentage the proportion of people attending these classes is not very high. As per the Gender Pilot Survey report, only 6% respondents in rural areas and 3% in urban areas attended the classes. A large proportion of clients- as much as 80% are women. According to one NFE official it is due to the fact that women stay at home and can devote more time to studies. Moreover, the contents of the reading materials centre around childcare, health and sanitation –all fronts that women tend to be more concerned about In reality however, most of them either do not attend the classes or do not complete the course due to lack of time , non availability of nearby NFE centres or physical exhaustion due to heavy workloads.(Kuensel, September 1999, Gender Pilot Study, 2001))

An UN document on girls’ education identified the following major constraints to women’s education -

          1.   Many rural children have been left behind by migrating parents or have been sent by themselves into urban

                areas for education.

          2.   Basic education is free but not compulsory

          3.   Many schools in the south were closed due to political unrest in the 1990s.

          4.   Prevalent traditional views devaluate education for girls

          5.   There is high turnover rate among teachers and other instructors.

                (UNGEI document on girls’ education. http://www.ungei.org/infobycountry/Bhutan.html)

To these we may add the family responsibilities and individual household impediments and of course the topography of the country.

 Long walks to institutes and absence of proper boarding facilities often deter the girls from attending schools. Men, considered stronger, go to schools while women help at home. Women who inherit property also need to stay at home. This is also one reason behind the high dropout rate after class VI.

Thus, a major challenges faced by the RGOB is to enhance the access and quality of primary education to children particularly in rural and remote areas. The government is undertaking various programmes to correct the gender imbalance in education. Significant portions of national budget is allotted for education to attain gender equality in education. As a result of this the percentage of girls to boys at primary and lower secondary education levels is now almost at par. The ratio remains wide however, at the middle and higher secondary levels. This poses a serious challenge towards achieving gender parity at all levels by 2015.

The traditional economic activities undertaken by the women in some cases act as deterrent to academic achievements by them. Weaving practices of the village of Khoma is a case in example. In this village in Kurtoe Lhuentse all the women are expert in weaving without exception. Weaving Khustara which is a special kind of silk highly appreciated by the urban people and the foreigners is their speciality. The women train their daughters in this weaving from a very early age. The general feeling is that by studying up to 12th standard they can earn about 3/4000Nu a month while by weaving Khushthara they can earn up to Nu.30-40,000. The money earned by weaving is utilized for buying children’s uniform, meat and butter for family feast etc. So why send the daughters to school for higher studies ?

The trend, however, is changing. School facilities are increasing since 1990s and Bhutan government now provides free education to all. The primary school enrolment has reached 72% and the literacy rate among the women is also expected to go up. The Bhutan Observer of September 26, 2008 reported that ratio between boys and girls studying in the Higher Secondary level has tended to increase steadily over the past six years. Total enrolment for this year in all levels of formal education and NFE centres has been 1,92,393 of which 1,01265 are male and 90,969 are female.

 The second sphere where the women lag behind the men is the sphere of politics. Women are active in the village level political meetings and vote equally with the men for the gup but their participation decreases as the level of governance rises.

 The number of women representatives in the National Assembly is negligible. In 2006 they constituted only 8% of the total members. In the first round of nationwide National Council election held in December 2007 there were only three elected women and even in the recently held election for the National Assembly, there were only seven women candidates, four of whom belonged to the PDP and three to the DPT. Only five of them out of 100 Peoples’ Representatives were elected. Less than 1% of village leaders are women.

Apart from their lack of education proficiency in communication there is also the subtle cultural attitudes and stereotypes which infer women as less capable than men. Women’s inferior economic status and double burden of income generation and domestic chore also leave them with little time and energy for public life. Politics, as a result of all this is generally perceived as a ‘masculine activity’ ‘unsuitable’ for women .

 Although the women in Bhutan are actively engaged in income generation for the family, very few of them are prominent in public life or holding high posts . In year 2000 women constituted only 19% of Civil Service sector most of them being concentrated in the lower grades. The increasing number of young women graduating with higher qualifications, may well change the picture and challenge high ranking administrative posts in the near future.

 Already more and more women have started coming to different professions. Those who are highly educated and modern are making their impact on the traditionally male dominated areas like engineering and finance. Economic development has increased opportunities for women to participate in fields such as medicine, both as physicians and nurses and particularly in teaching and administration. (Kuensel, March 8, 2006)

As in other South Asian societies there are some problems in the sphere of health as well.

Early marriage, teenage pregnancy , low use of contraception (30% in 2000), sexually transmitted diseases are common among adolescents and repercussions of home delivery ( 51% births are assisted by health professionals) are some of the social vices linked to the social practices , orthodox village traditions and poor economic conditions that tend to hinder the development of women. Total fertility rate is 2.6 children per woman and Infant mortality rate is 40.1 deaths per 1000,000 live births.

Achieving MDG indicators related to maternal health is therefore a major concern.

The government takes aid from the United Nations Population Fund through its Country Programmes to achieve sustainable development, particularly in the field of women’s health. The first and second country programmes strengthened infrastructure by establishing basic health units, maternal and child birth centres, National Institute of Family Health and storage facility of drugs and equipment. The third and fourth programmes increased family planning, skilled birth attendants, and emergency obstetric care and provided reproductive health care and equipments. In the current programme (2008–2012) $3.75 million out of a total allotment of $5 million has been earmarked for reproductive health.(9http.//www.unfpa.org/exbrd/2007/secondsession/final/dpfpa_cpd_btn_5.doc)

Domestic violence is a social problem that is common all over Bhutan. It is generally accepted that this has always existed in Bhutanese society as it is considered a man’s right to beat up his wife to exercise control. The need to discuss the issue has been recently voiced by many women’s organizations.(Kuensel, March 11, 2000) Even though no exact number can be given for such instances, more and more such cases are coming to light through the media. According to the police, almost everyday a case of domestic violence is reported in Thimpu city. Till August 2006 Thimpu hospital recorded 68 cases of intimate partner violence broadly termed as wife battery at the hands of the husband, ex-husband, boyfriends and live in partners.

A study undertaken by Kuensel on court cases from 20 dzongkhags from 1997 to 2007 showed an increasing number of assault, battery, rape, theft and matrimonial cases. The data also showed that new and emerging crimes like drug abuse, economic offences, white collar crime, child rape and cultural vandalism have increased significantly. Rape and sexual crime against women have increased from 28 cases in 2005 to 48 in 2007.Child rape has emerged in the past few years as a common crime which was almost unheard of before.( Kuensel, April 12, 2008). Increasing violence against women is only a result of rise in crime in general and due to more legal awareness, friendlier courts, more empowerment of the people and better statistical reporting.

To address the issue of violence against women Bhutan Government has set up a National Commission for Women and Children to address all types of violence against women and children and it works in tandem with the RBP, Women and Child Protection Unit and Judiciary. Recently UNDP has committed US $200,000 to it.

The self perception of the women of Bhutan is not very high. One study by the Centre for Bhutan Studies by Sonam Kinga points out women accept the patriarchal value that men are superior. Masculine strength is a valued asset in a society where farmhood is the only means of livelihood. In the villages very few are proud of being a woman because womanhood, to them is associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Working women’s attitude however, tends to differ. These findings are supported by a study jointly conducted by UNDP, UNCDF and SNV. They also find that most rural Bhutanese women view themselves as inferior to men in terms of capability, knowledge and ability to communicate.


Difference between a man and a woman continues to exist in almost all the societies and ultimately it is the degree of intensity that matters. While it is true that Bhutan does not experience the socio-economic bias against women to the extent that characterizes some other South Asian societies even today, it can not be said that there is no gender gap at all. Women enjoy a high position in the family and often own the property and decision making authority yet lag behind the men folk when comes the question of education or participation in the public life. Sexual exploitation, superstition, diseases, child mortality and ignorance are also rampant.

Society of Bhutan is passing through a period of transition and its impact is felt on the gender relations as well. New opportunities are opening up for women - specially in the urban sector, where they have begun to compete with their men folk in many ways. These changes, instead of narrowing down the gaps in gender relations are creating some inequalities by taking away some of their age old predominance – in decision making and property ownership for example. Apparently, the urban women are more affected by such changes in comparison to their rural counterpart. As people are moving away from agrarian economy or up scaling their economic activity, women are losing their traditional roles in the family or the society as a whole. In the urban centres they are no more enjoying predominance in property ownership where about 55% men own property.

Many more of these women are going for higher education and \taking up different types of jobs in various professions which had so far been men’s dominion. But this has faced them with the challenge of balancing between their profession, family and children. In the process they are also becoming subject to stress and strain. Rate of divorce is on the rise.

Aware of the reality of existing inequalities between the genders, the government is undertaking policies and making budgetary allotments for the benefit of the women.

The major interventions are as follows-

          1.   Helping transition of girls to work/employment through female enrolment in vocational training institutes and

                national graduates orientation programmes

          2.   Encouraging political participation and representation of women through mass media campaign, support to 

                women candidates, training for female parliamentarians

          3.   Ending violence against women through awareness campaigns, protection through police and court services

                and shelter

        4.     Systematic issues like capacity building, sensitization of judges, polices and bureaucrats and finally

                researches on gender issues.

Thus the government is trying to meet the challenge of correcting the gender gap wherever it exists, either through making budgetary allotments out of its own resources or by collecting resources from the various international donor organizations. A right step in this direction would help Bhutan achieve the goals of both MDG and GNH.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati