Features Sunday, October 12, 2014 - 05:30
By Ritu Goyal Harish 42 year-old Sancha Subba runs a tiny restaurant in Thimpu. With food sold cheap, she admits to difficulties in running the restaurant given the overheads. Born in a lower income group family, Sancha never married because early in life she was burdened with the responsibility of raising her deceased sister’s three children and an ageing mother. She doesn’t have much of an education, “Because I was not interested” and earns money the only way she knows how. However, the optimist in her peeks through as she explains her plans to complement her income. She has learned how to drive, procured her driver’s license and bought a Maruti Alto. Soon with permission she will become a taxi driver. She may be one of the handful women taxi drivers in the country, and isn’t particularly excited at the exclusivity. “Is it safe for women drivers?” we ask and she doesn’t know what to say. Safety is almost taken for granted. She also doesn’t know what we mean when we quiz her about the ‘difficulties’ of running a business– from procurement of licenses, to victimisation (a single woman running an establishment) or even harassment from patrons who know she is single. The only difficulties she knows are economic. Questioned about government policies for women, she admits not knowing much. “I don’t have the time to look into it, ” she replies. An Indian woman reading Sancha’s story would know that if it were India, Sancha would be an exception, an aberration and very, very lucky. But in Bhutan, stories like hers are common. Bhutan is a patriarchal society with representation of women in law or policy making negligible and yet, Bhutan is making strides in gender equality. What is the country doing right that India, its democratic neighbour has not done for over six decades? When Bhutan underwent a transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 2008 upon the guidance and insistence of the ruling King it reflected the nation’s desire for progress as a thriving democracy. But the government realised that the process of transition was incomplete until it promoted and respected basic democratic principles in the area of gender equality. According to the UNDP, “Although Bhutan enjoyed a generally high level of gender equality in comparison to its neighboring countries, more subtle and indirect forms of gender bias did exist.” A study on gender conducted by UNDP and other UN agencies in 2001 highlighted gender gaps in key areas such as education, national economy and political participation. In 2005, the Royal Government of Bhutan launched the 'National Plan of Action for Gender 2008-2013', which coincided with its 10th 5 year plan. Under this plan, seven critical areas such as violence against women, good governance, economic empowerment, education and training, health, ageing, mental health and disability, stereotypes and prejudices were identified as needing focus. National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) a government entity has been involved in the process of bringing gender issues to the fore through advocacy and sensitisation. According to TshewangLhamo, officer with the NCWC, policy makers in Bhutan realised the importance of Gender Mainstreaming – the policy of assessing the different implications for women and men from any planned policy action, including legislation and programs –at all areas and levels to ensure credibility and accountability. The monitoring of policies and collection of all data is also done with a gender perspective so that the measured impact can be used fruitfully for further policy making. Simply put, men need not be the only ones making the policies that will affect the citizens of the country (which include women who constitute half the population), equal inclusion of women is just as important; with men benefitting as well. In India, women-related laws languish in the hands of politicians for decades. No policy exists that deals with gender mainstreaming as an integral part of policy making, else women wouldn’t need a 33% Reservation Bill! After sixty-eight years of democracy, Indian women can only hope that the government will take a cue from this Himalayan nation and include half its population in its plans of progress.