The General Round of the 4th National Assembly (NA) Elections 2023-2024 saw a disappointing outcome for women’s representation, as only two out of five female candidates won seats in NA. This is a setback from the previous years, when more women were elected to the Parliament. The National Council election also had only one woman, Tshering Tshomo, among the winners last year.
Bhutan’s political landscape, traditionally dominated by men, has seen a gradual but uneven increase in women’s participation since the adoption of the Constitution in 2008. The recent elections have raised concerns about the diminishing representation of women in key decision-making bodies.
During the Primary Round of the 4th NA Elections, there were 23 female candidates, with Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa fielding the highest number of female candidates (7), followed by Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa (6), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (5), Bhutan Tendrel Party (3), and People’s Democratic Party (2). This demonstrates varying levels of commitment among political parties to promote gender diversity within their ranks.
Tshering Tshomo, a member of the National Council, emphasised the importance of women’s representation for balanced legislation and governance that aligns with the demographics of the population.
She expressed her concern and said, “For a Parliament to pass a balanced law, gender-responsive policies, and inclusive legislation, fair women’s representation is a must.”
Dorji Wangmo, a newly elected candidate from the Bhutan Tendrel Party, echoed similar sentiments, emphasising the need for adequate women’s representation in the Parliament, to ensure balanced decision-making and policy framing. However, she expressed disappointment at the low number of women elected, considering that half of Bhutan’s population comprises of women.
Dimple Thapa, a newly elected candidate from the People’s Democratic Party, highlighted the unique attributes women bring to politics. She said, “Women’s representation in the Parliament is important because women are polite, versatile, have a natural tendency to accommodate any issues, and are action-oriented.”
She emphasised that greater women’s participation ensures that their voices are heard and issues related to women receive the attention they deserve.
Despite the calls for increased women’s representation, the hurdles for women aspiring to political leadership roles persist. Tshering Tshomo said, “The implementation of a women’s quota is a short-term strategy to overcome gender imbalances in the Parliament.”
She acknowledged the need for initiatives from the government and relevant stakeholders to raise public awareness about the importance of women’s participation in politics and to break stereotypes.
Former Health Minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo expressed a different perspective, advocating for creating an enabling environment for women to participate equally. She emphasised the importance of building capacity and competence among women by engaging them in dialogues and conversations around democracy and politics.
Similarly, Dimple Thapa said, “Women are capable enough to compete without quotas because women are capable enough to compete and stand out in the crowd. What people need to provide is trust and confidence that women can equally perform as men and are given responsibility to deliver with excellence.”
Tshering Tshomo argued that quotas could serve as a necessary and immediate measure to address the current gender imbalance. She also said, “From my personal perspective, there should be more women participation in the democratic processes, like men, and shouldn’t lose one’s confidence with first failure. One interesting observation about men is, no matter how many times they fail to get elected, they still continue to re-contest in any elections. There are some of our male friends who have participated in three consecutive Parliamentary election and have won in the fourth election. This should be the spirit of democratic participation.”
Dechen Wangmo stressed the need for a cultural shift in responsibilities and urged the electorate to have faith in women’s abilities.
Acknowledging the hurdles faced by women in politics, Dasho Dechen Wangmo pointed out the importance of social networking in politics. She noted that men often have different avenues, such as playing archery and mingling, to interact with each other, while women may lack such platforms. She advocated for educating the electorate on women’s representation in politics and shifting cultural responsibilities.
Dorji Wangmo attributed the lack of female contestants to the perception that politics is meant for men. She encouraged efforts to dismiss this notion, and inspire more women to participate in politics by leading by example.
As discussions around potential reforms to address gender imbalances arose, both Dimple Thapa and Dorji Wangmo dismissed the notion that the electoral system significantly impacts women’s representation.
Dimple Thapa said, “I don’t think the electoral system impacts the representation of women because it gives equal opportunity for women to participate in politics. It surely demands a lot of sacrifices and commitments, which at times may hinder women from participating in politics. For example, for one to be successful in politics, a blend of supportive family, relatives, and friends is a must. The only reform to address gender imbalance is that people must support women participating in politics instead of criticising them. the importance of support for women participating in politics.”
Dorji Wangmo said, “On the part of the electorate, I do not think people really look at candidates as males or females while making their choices. Many may not even be aware of the importance of women’s representation. Therefore, to encourage more women participation and ensure higher success rates for women in elections, education and awareness on this—to both potential women candidates and the electorate—are very important.”
As the lone female elected representative in the National Council, Tshering Tshomo plans to address the issue of gender imbalance during her tenure.
She said, “For now, there hasn’t been any deliberation on the potential reforms from the National Council to address gender imbalance in Parliament. But now, with only two elected representatives in the National Assembly, I feel it is necessary for me, as the lone female elected representative and, more importantly, as the member of the Review House, to put this subject on the table.”
She expressed concern that the recent election results suggest a lingering belief among the electorate that leadership qualities are inherently tied to men.
The recent elections in Bhutan underscore the ongoing challenges and aspirations regarding women’s representation in politics. While progress has been made, there is a consensus among elected representatives and stakeholders that more concerted efforts are needed to ensure that women play a more substantial role in shaping the future of Bhutanese democracy. There needs to be the broader understanding that effective leadership comes in various styles. Women’s leadership brings unique perspectives and collaborative approaches that contribute positively to unbiased decision-making.