Towards More Women Political Leaders in Bhutan



Bhutan often goes missing from conversations around the Subcontinent, and its world-famous happiness index tends to obscure the politics at work in the country. Yangchen C. Rinzin shares with us her perspective on the emergence of a generation of women political leaders.

Nine people stand on a snowy day, each of them similarly dressed in a bright long-sleeve shirt and long striped skirt.
A group of Bhutanese female researchers in traditional attire on top of Dochu La, a 3,100-meter-high mountain pass in West Bhutan. / Photo by Yangchen C. Rinzin (February 2022).

Historically, Bhutan is considered a matriarchal society. Why?

Women in Bhutan have generally been considered decision-makers and traditionally, the head of the family in a household. Most women are not compelled to take their husbands’ names after marriage, nor do daughters have to take their fathers’ names, achieving a matrilineal society in the country. The highlight of such a society is the age-old tradition of passing down an inheritance to women members of the family, especially in the northern, western, and eastern parts of Bhutan. 

As much as it is believed that men should be the breadwinner, women are also equally found working outside in the field, along with men, in rural areas or offices in urban spaces. However, when it comes to the empowerment of women outside society, especially in terms of access to political power or leadership, Bhutan still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality. When it concerned decision-making at the highest level, women either did not receive support to take part in the electoral system or were considered not competent enough. 

Several attempts were also made to create a quota system for women’s participation in the electoral process, however, this did not come through, partially because many women believed quotas would underestimate women’s role further. 

Although famed for being a matriarchal society for ages, it was only in the year 2012 that Bhutan saw its first woman dzongdag (district governor) and first elected woman minister in the year 2013. Bhutan also saw the first woman gup (local leader) of a gewog (village block) only in 2016, even though the gup system existed for ages in Bhutan. The country counts 205 gewogs.

However, lately, these have been encouraging changes against the backdrop of how culturally women were always considered “Nangi-Aum” (the lady of the house). In the Bhutanese context, Nangi-Aum is an important responsibility, but only confined within the limits of home. In Bhutanese tradition, it is said that if Nangi-Aum cannot manage as a homemaker, she would not be capable of managing a country. 

According to a recent study conducted by Tashi Wangchuk, outside work generally attributed to men includes work dealing with the state, filing labor tax, or going on trading expeditions, among many others. In contrast, inside work mostly conducted by women usually reflects work not only in the house, but also work related to farming and other domestic labor. 

But things are slowly changing for Bhutanese women and perceptions of gender roles or Nangi-Aum are changing for the better too, where women have started taking charge. With several awareness campaigns, sensitizations, and advocacy on women’s leadership and women’s participation by agencies like the Bhutan Network of Empowering Women (BNEW), there is a growing acceptance for viewing women as a central political figure.

One such proof is 32-year-old Karma Dema who is currently a gup of Dewathang gewog in Bhutan’s Samdrupjogkhar district. She is one among seven female gups elected during the third local government election in 2021. These local government (LG) elections are held after every five years. 

Another political figure is Namgay Zam. A former journalist, she became the first woman executive director of the Journalists Association of Bhutan to represent the media fraternity. She is also a dedicated activist, and her petition to decriminalize homosexuality in Bhutan resulted in the Parliament decriminalizing same-sex intercourse in 2020. 

The landscape of women’s representation is steadily improving in Bhutan and there is no stopping us. The country today has a second female minister, another woman representing the district governor, seven female gups, a female foreign secretary to manage Bhutan’s foreign affairs, and twelve women representing the National Assembly (Lower House) and National Council (Upper House). 

The third election of seven women gups constituted an increase in women’s participation in local politics to 3.41 percent, compared to 0.5 percent in the first LG elections in 2011, according to the Election Commission of Bhutan. 

Today, one such indication of going beyond the Nangi-Aum paradigm can be found in the creation of many farmer cooperatives in the rural parts of Bhutan. These groups are mostly headed by women. As one of them told me, such cooperation not only makes them politically independent, but also financially stable. 

Bhutan saw fewer women representations before because there were no women that young girls could take as role models. Things are different today; more women mean more role models. 

We are still far from achieving gender equity in Bhutan, but I believe that we are on the right path towards it. ■