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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Faizan Us­mani

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.

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