Tough battles women fight
Women candidates face tremendous challenges while contesting for public office
Politics in Bhutan continues to be a preserve of the male. And women who come out to challenge this notion do not have it easy.
The voices of these women, although defeated but determined, found ample expression at the 3rd National Conference on Women in Politics, Governance and Leadership organized by National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) and Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW) early this week.
Sonam Dema, a 40-year-old mother of six, contested the past two Local Government (LG) elections for the post of Gup, losing both the times to her male opponents. But each election has made her stronger and more determined. “I have lost two elections but I am not giving up,” she says.
When Sonam Dema decided to contest for the post of Gup in Sammar Gewog in Haa back in 2011, she knew what she was getting into. But the enormity of her decision dawned upon her only when she was actually in the field, fighting shoulder to shoulder with men who had it much easier because they were men.
“I was surprised by the attitude of people towards women who wanted to contest in the elections,” she says. “Forget about supporting and encouraging me, they discouraged me. More than anything I was shocked when my own family did not support my decision.”
The shock and disappointment have only cemented her will to prove her worth. And despite losing in 2011 LG elections, she contested in the 2016 LG elections. She lost again.
“People doubt your capabilities and without even letting us prove our competence they make judgments that women are not capable to lead,” says Sonam Dema.
Thirty-six-year old Lhaki Wangmo ran for the post of Nanong Gup in Pemagatshel in 2016 LG elections but could not make it. She was not only contesting against her formidable male opponents but the entire population whose support she was seeking and their rigid mindset.
“They always doubt the capability of a woman no matter how qualified and capable you are,” she says.
But she is not the type to call it quits, not without giving a tough fight. “If we’re going to change the mindset of the people and create a platform for women in the future, we can’t be silenced. We must keep participating, ” adds Lhaki Wangmo.
The former Mangmi of Dokar Gewog in Paro, Tsheten Zangmo, contested for the post of Gup in 2016, but lost to a male contestant. In a stoic defiance, she says, she will continue contesting the elections until she attains the age of 65.
“People assume that women can never take up the role of Gup. Even if men has no experience and capabilities, they will be elected and people will support them,” she says.
These women candidates are confronted with insurmountable challenges, most of which have to do with traditional and often archaic concepts of gender roles, further aggravated by social, cultural and political barriers.
BNEW, a networking platform to promote, facilitate and strengthen women’s representation in governance, leadership and development in Bhutan, has been trying to break the barriers and create equal opportunities for women leadership in the country.
The Executive Director of BNEW, Phuntshok Chhoden, admits women leadership is still a challenge to be accepted and it has become crucial for the handful elected women to perform well.
“For BNEW, it is important to firstly work on mobilizing, motivating and building capacity of greater number of women who will participate in the elections in order for more women to be elected in the next election,” she says.
This is to increase the critical mass of women in decision-making positions. And the logic for it is rather simple. “The more role models, the wider the awareness and wider the acceptance that women can do it,” says BNEW Executive Director.
What makes it difficult is that there are no proper legislations and measures to encourage and enhance women’s participation in elections. Although discussions were held on quota for women in the past, it could not gain momentum following differing views on it, even among women themselves.
The gap between men and women in leadership positions is clearly wide, evident from the number of women representation in both local government and in Parliament. Today, there are two female Thromde Ngotshaps, eight Thromde Tshogpas, two Gups, 24 Mangmis and 135 Tshogpas. At the national level, there are 11 female Members of Parliament, of which nine are elected. The female representation in Parliament is 15%, one of the lowest in the world.
“Today might not be the women’s day in the world of local government but they are living with a hope that one day it will be theirs to showcase their capabilities and potential to be a leader to serve their community and people,” says BNEW Executive Director. “Till then they are going to come forward and keep participating till their age permits irrespective of whether they win or lose.”