End violence against women!

Today is Valentine’s Day. It is a day to celebrate love. The simple and pure message of love transcends all society, and so the Day is observed by all, all over the world.

This Valentine’s Day is special because the world is also observing the One Billion Rising, a call for one billion women and all men who support women’s rights to walk out of offices and homes to “strike, rise and dance!”

Bhutan will also join the noble cause. And, in true Bhutanese spirit, Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck will lead the way, offering prayers and butterlamps at Tashichhodzong. I urge supporters and well-wishers to follow Her Majesty’s exemplary leadership to honour our women by committing to eradicate violence against them by participating in the simplen but sacred ceremony at the Tashichhodzong.

I call on everyone – each and every Bhutanese – to join Her Majesty the Queen Mother, to join One Billion Rising, to put an end to violence against our women.

Violence against women is against our religion. It is against our culture. It is against the law.

Let’s join hands to put an immediate end to this unacceptable scourge.

Thank you Ama

We don’t celebrate Mother’s Day in Bhutan. But 160 countries do. And 79 of them celebrate it today, the second Sunday of May.

I think we should celebrate Mother’s Day too. Like the rest of the world, we should dedicate a day to thank our mothers for their love and affection, and to acknowledge them for the huge influence they’ve had on our lives.

Bringing up children is a difficult job at the best of times. But my mother raised six of us – all boys! She did so single-handedly. And she did so on a shoestring. That meant that she had to work hard, and she had to work continuously – she would feed us and clean us; she would tend to the cows, chickens and the occasional pig; she would work in her garden growing all sorts of vegetables and fruit; and she would take care of an unending throng of guests.

But in spite of all her work, she always seemed to have time to tell us stories. And most of the time, she told her wonderful stories while she wove for the family. Yes, she made our clothes too! She knitted our caps and socks, and scarves and pullovers. And she wove our ghos, every single one of them. But that’s not all: for several years she wove tsug-thrus, heavy but warm and furry blankets, till each and every one of us had our very own comforter.

For all that, and much more, six men got together to say, “thank you Ama!”

Sexual harassment

My wife and our daughter, aged 12, walk home every afternoon. They enjoy their walks, but they’ve been harassed by all sorts of men including commuters, taxi drivers and even school students, in uniform, younger than our son.

The eve-teasing is offensive and hurtful. Yet, they’ve continued to walk, even if they have to suffer sexual harassment, hoping that, sooner or later, we, men, will learn to respect our women, and permit them the freedom and simple pleasure of walking home from school or work.

During their walk today, they met the procession of vehicles carrying effigies and other remnants from the Jana Chidey prayer ceremonies. The men yelled catcalls at them; then they threw some remnants at them; and when my wife protested, they bombarded them with even heavier remains from the prayer ceremonies.

And who were the perpetrators? A couple of monks, in robes. And four policemen, in uniform.

My wife and daughter were harassed by monks, whose mission it is to spread the dharma, and by policemen, whose job it is to protect our citizens.

So they’ve decided to stop walking. They’ve given up. They’ve realized that eve-teasing in Thimphu is not just offensive and hurtful – it’s dangerous. They’ve decided, wisely, that, even in the middle of the day, Thimphu’s roads are not safe for women.


Stop violence against women

Our mothers

“Commit, Act and Demand: We can stop violence against women”

This week’s banner celebrates International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Gender choices

Our last poll asked what you’d like to be reborn as in your next life. Most of us (133 or 42%) of us said that we did not care about the gender of our next birth. This is good, as it could mean that this group does not experience obvious gender biases in this life.

But 132 or about 42% of us said that we would prefer to be reborn as men. And, only 51 of us – that’s barely 16% – would choose to be reborn as women.

The last poll was meant to be amusing. It was also meant to make us indirectly reflect on the state of our women. The poll results, if they can be taken seriously, are not amusing.

Our new poll is on the tobacco control debate.

Listen to the screaming

Today, 25 November, is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Listen to Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall”, one of my early favourites.

Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
The police always come late
If they come at all

Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
The police always come late
If they come at all

And when they arrive
They say they can’t interfere
With domestic affairs
Between a man and his wife
And as they walk out the door
The tears well up in her eyes

Last night I heard the screaming
Then a silence that chilled my soul
Prayed that I was dreaming
When I saw the ambulance in the road

And the policeman said
“I’m here to keep the peace.
Will the crowd disperse?
I think we all could use some sleep.”

Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
The police
Always come late
If they come at all

Born again

Our last poll says that almost half of us go to our villages at least once a year. And that 83% of us go to our villages a minimum of once every five years. That is good. As increasingly more of us abandon our villages in favour of city life, it becomes that much more important to stay in touch with our roots. And to support our relatives back home.

Our next poll is a continuation of the previous one that asked if women face discrimination. Think about it carefully.

Working women

working women

Wonder women

A good 52% of the participants in our last poll said that we do not discriminate against our women. But 44% said that our women do face discrimination. And the rest, that’s hardly 4%, said that they couldn’t tell.

A majority of us feel that our women do not suffer discrimination. That’s good. And that must be so. After all, our society is, more or less, matriarchal; inheritance favours daughters; men move in with their wives; wives don’t take their husbands’ names; widows and divorcees can remarry; and our laws protect women.

For these reasons, and many more, we pride ourselves in having the least amount of discrimination against women among all the countries in South Asia. Some of us even boast that our women are better off than those of many advanced nations.

But wait. Let’s look at employment, an issue that is becoming increasingly important in all our lives. Let’s look at jobs. And let’s look at what we consider to be the most attractive jobs – the public service.

The civil service has 19,835 regular employees. Of them, only 6,166 are women. That is, women account for barely 31% of the civil service. Or, in other words, the civil service currently employs less than one woman for every two men. Suddenly, the situation does not appear too good, does it?

But it gets worse: of the 181 executive level civil servants – that’s directors and above – only 8 are women. Of the 50 specialists, only 6 are women. And only one of the secretaries to the government is a woman.

And worse: the heads of all, but one, of the government owned corporations are men.

And worse still: we have never had a woman as a dzongdag. We have never had a woman as an ambassador. And we have never had a woman cabinet minister.

Our first Parliament is dominated by men. Of the 72 members, only 10 are women. And all its leaders – Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the National Council, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, leader of the ruling party, and leader of the opposition party – are men. The secretaries general of both the houses are men.

Only one of our 205 gups is a woman.

Now ask yourself again: do we discriminate against our women?

Our next poll is straightforward. I want to know how often we go to our villages.

Women warriors

Fourteen villages in my constituency, most of them in Gakiling gewog, do not have electricity. Every night, women in these villages turn their rangthang, a traditional stone mill, grinding buckwheat, maize and millet for several hours in virtual darkness. Working the rangthang is hard work in the best of conditions. But in the dark, by a hearth that offers more smoke than light, grinding food is a lonely and backbreaking exercise. Yet is must be done, for they must feed their families the next day.

So yesterday, when 35 women from similar villages across Bhutan announced that, in three months, they had fitted 504 families in 48 villages from 13 dzongkhags with solar lanterns I was overcome with joy.

These women are not ordinary people. They come from some of the remotest and poorest parts of our country. And almost all of them have never been to school. That’s why they now call themselves “barefoot solar engineers.”

And these women use solar power to fight the darkness that breeds poverty in distant villages. So they are already being called the “solar warriors of Bhutan”.

Yesterday, these women showed off their skills. They showed us how to install, maintain and repair solar lanterns. And they taught us that, with solar lanterns, they won’t have to work in the dark; that their children will be able to study at night; and that they will be better equipped to protect their crops from wild animals. They also taught us that they will no longer have to strain their eyes, or breathe in smoke, or travel long distances to buy kerosene, batteries and candles.

These “warriors” showed off their expertise with obvious pride and joy.

But one warrior, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, easily showed even more pride and even more joy. After all, it was Her Majesty’s Tarayana Foundation that permanently transformed the lives of these women from simple villagers to community leaders. During the last two years, Tarayana, along with Barefoot College, a leading Indian NGO, had carefully selected, supported and trained these women to become confident and competent engineers.

Some of these women will be employed by Tarayana to train even more barefoot solar engineers. Some will soon leave for Ladakh in India to train solar engineers there. But all of them will help illuminate dark villages. And fight poverty.

What I saw yesterday is not just about women empowerment as some observers noted. Or about reducing poverty, as proclaimed by others. It’s much, much more. It’s about putting GNH into action.

And it’s about the distinct possibility that women in my constituency will, in the near future, be able to work their stone mills in the comfort of the light from a solar lantern.

Celebrating women

Today the world celebrates the achievements of women. Today is International Women’s Day.

When I last checked, the IWD website had registered that 841 events would take place in 54 countries to observe International Women’s Day. And according to a press release from RENEW, Bhutan alone will hold five events – in Paro, Phuentsoling, Sarpang, Thimphu and Trongsa.

Her Majesty Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, the founding president of RENEW, will grace the celebrations in Trongsa and address the nation. This is fortunate. Her Majesty works tirelessly to raise awareness and improve the conditions of our women. And to create social, economical and political opportunities for them.

So let’s listen carefully when Her Majesty announces this year’s IWD theme: “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls”

Let’s obey Her Majesty’s appeal to “Say No to Violence against Women: it is not in our culture!”

Let’s acknowledge Her Majesty’s constant reminder on RENEW’s website that “Home is a place for love and happiness, not for violence”

And let’s honour Her Majesty by celebrating our women – not just today, but tomorrow and everyday.

Her Majesty’s portrait from RENEW website