Blessing for Women
In Bhutan, the government’s refusal to introduce a minimum 20 per cent quota for women in elected offices can help them in the long run as they can contest elections on merit, using their abilities and leadership skills.
Women in Bhutan would benefit in the long-run.
In February this year, the Royal Government of Bhutan rejected a proposal that seeks to introduce a 20 per cent quota for women in elected office. Quite an unusual move, the rationale behind the government’s refusal was based on the assumption that offices or posts must be held on merit basis and emphasis should always be placed on one’s capabilities, skills and educational qualifications, instead of choosing a person because of his or her gender.
Following the Cabinet’s rejection, the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) is now going to review part A of the National Plan of Action of Promotion of Gender Equality in Elected Offices (NPAPGEEO), which talks about the nomination of female electoral candidates and introduction of a quota for women in all elected offices.
According to Sonam Penjor, senior programme officer, NCWC, part A of NPAPGEEO identifies possible entry points in the current electoral system of Bhutan to ensure representation of women at the nomination level, thus increasing their chances to be elected.
He believes the best way forward is to ensure the nomination of a minimum 33 per cent female candidature by each political party for both primary and general elections of the National Assembly.
He points out that 33 per cent tends to be a standardised and globallyaccepted representation of women in the legislature to ensure responsive discourse and resolutions.
“The political parties could actually do this voluntarily. But then, we might not meet the set target. Our intention is not to reserve seats for women, but to diversify the choice for voters by ensuring that there is a female and a male candidate,” says Sonam Penjor.
Part A of the National Plan of Action of Promotion of Gender Equality in Elected Offices (NPAPGEEO) makes it necessary to provide all the necessary government support to female candidates contesting in the general elections, but such support is conditional to the incorporation of the 33 percent criteria in the Election Act.
“Part A of the NPAPGEEO proposes creating a demand for women's participation at the nomination level by requiring the nomination of one male and one female for every slot at the Local Government and National Council elections. For National Assembly elections, it is proposed that parties should have 33 per cent of women candidates. However, the ECB says this can be incorporated in the ECB Act only if it is an approved policy of the Government,” says Aum Kunzang Lhamu, Director, NCWC.
Part B of the National Plan of Action lays emphasis on creating an enabling legislative environment to increase participation of women as both voters and candidates in the electrical process. This section underlines the need to promote women’s awareness of political, economic, social and gender equity and it also recommends conducting advocacy and capacity building programmes along with many other initiatives for women’s empowerment and inclusion in the process of national development.
For the elections of the National Council (NC), the upper house of Bhutan's bicameral Parliament, each gewog, a block of some thirteen villages, can nominate one male and one female candidate to contest elections that are held at dzongkhags (a district comprising 205 gewogs) level. If a gewog nominates one female candidate and two or more male candidates, then only one male will be eligible to contest the final phase of the electoral exercise, thus making it unfair for the rest of the candidates.
“The same shall apply in the event of nomination of two or more female candidates and one male candidate,” says Sonam Penjor.
On the occasion of the International Women’s Day on March 8, the National Conference on ‘Women in Governance, Leadership and Politics in Bhutan’ was held in Thimphu.
It was organised by the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW) and the National Commission for Women and Children ( NCWC) in collaboration with the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), Department of Local Governance (DLG), Women, Children and Youth Committee of the National Assembly (WCYCNA), and Bhutan Democracy Dialogue, a national think-tank on democracy and political development.
Speaking to the conference, Professor Drude Dahlerup, a European scholar, said that the political parties in Bhutan need to be more inclusive in terms of gender because the political parties happen to be the gatekeepers to the nomination of the election candidates.
She said, “The National Commission for Women and Children ( NCWC) affirms the fact that the onerous process of making legislative amendments takes time. However, the political parties can play a crucial role in voluntarily ensuring at least 33 per cent of their candidates are women, but the set target may not be met. Therefore, as a last resort, they need to incorporate 33 per cent criteria in the Election Act.”
She believes no country without universal suffrage can ever be declared as a democratic state, and a maledominated parliament is bound to lose its democratic legitimacy owing to the lack or total absence of female legislators in the assembly.
In the last general elections held in Bhutan in 2013, only eight per cent of women were elected to the National Assembly. Of the 47 constituencies in the country, three-fourths had only male candidates. This means only nine constituencies had both male and female candidates, while in the rest of the 38 constituencies there was not a single female candidate running for the elections, says Drude Dahlerup, a political science scholar from Sweden.
Many people believe the main reason for low female representation in parliament or the legislative assemblies in Bhutan is that a majority of women voters in the country don’t vote for female candidates, but there is no data to back this theory. She says women voters should not be blamed for sending a low number of female representatives to the upper house. On the contrary, the country’s leading political parties are to be blamed for not having women in three fourths of the constituencies.
“The data available from the Election Commission of Bhutan for the 2013 elections states that the number of votes cast for male and female candidates were almost the same, which strongly indicates that when female candidates are there, the voters support them as much as they support men,” says Dahlerup.
In 2008, some 13.88 per cent women contested national assembly elections. To increase their participation ratio, the then government of Bhutan formulated the National Plan of Action for Gender (NPAG), which set a target of 20 per cent representation of women in parliament. However, in the 2013 General Elections, only 8.33 per cent female candidates ran for the elections, which marked a big setback.
For the third national parliamentary elections to be held in 2018, Bhutan’s government had previously planned to increase the number of women parliamentarians from 20 to 50 per cent through reserved seats, which seems unlikely given the recent stand taken by the government not to allocate a 20 per cent quota for women.
The move is highly debatable as lots of arguments can be given both in favour and against women’s representation in the legislative assemblies through a quota or reservation of seats. Nevertheless, most of the problems raised by those in favour of quota for female legislators can still be solved without a quota in place, says Kuensel Online, a Bhutanese newspaper.
As rightly said by the Swedish scholar Professor Drude Dahlerup, Bhutan’s nascent democracy has the potential to go back to square one and it can bring reforms in its electoral system to make it all-inclusive in terms of gender, unlike in the world’s oldest democracies where the political institutions were established centuries before women were given the right to vote.
Particularly in the modern era that is ruled by egalitarianism and equal opportunity, women in Bhutan need to think beyond receiving any preferential treatment given to them in the form of reserved seats in the parliament. Instead, they should utilise all available opportunities to the fullest and nurture their leadership skills to make their way into the parliament solely on merit basis.
The writer is a member of the staff.