How we marginalize those who need the most help

On August 18th, 2023, the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, in partnership with UNICEF, organized a sensitization event to bring attention to social protection issues faced by marginalized groups like people with disabilities, youth recovering from addiction, caregivers, and women. The event aimed to empower these groups to engage with policymakers and decision-makers and advocate for their rights.

One of the individuals who shared their story at the event was Wangmo, a woman whose 12-year-old son, Nima Tenzin Wangdi, has autism hyperactive disorder. She had to work for a year and had to give up her career to become a lifelong caregiver for her son, which resulted in financial dependence and vulnerability to mental health issues and marital conflicts. Without a proper social protection system in place, families like hers are facing economic hardships, struggling to meet the expenses of special needs education and bear the lifelong burden of caregiving.

“He is our first child and we are doing everything possible for him to recover. I met with many specialized doctors but they recommend different medicines to buy. The government does not recognize autism as a disability, making it even more challenging for families like us to access support”.

Members of the Wangsel Institute for the Deaf highlighted the difficulties faced by people with disabilities in accessing services from public offices, hospitals, and banks. Often, their disabilities are not visible to others, leading to a lack of understanding and support. The group called for greater education and awareness among service providers to make public services more disability-friendly.

The event utilized the design thinking process, starting with empathy to understand the experiences of marginalized groups. The stories shared by people with disabilities highlighted the physical and social barriers they face, limiting their access to public facilities and services and contributing to their marginalization and isolation. Despite the enactment of the Person with Disabilities (PWD) Act in 2019, there is still a lack of accessible infrastructure, awareness, and resource allocation for PWDs in Bhutan.

 A mother whose child is neurologically disabled said they face specific challenges in accessing quality education and achieving their potential. “The current school curriculum and evaluation system do not cater to their needs, and schools lack the necessary resources and professional competencies. There is also a lack of support for early diagnosis and intervention for children with neurological disabilities, resulting in limited opportunities for higher education or training”.

Additionally, people with deafness said they face communication barriers and limited access to information, further isolating them within their community.” Bhutan currently lacks a fully developed sign language, and sign language courses are not offered in colleges of education. These factors pose obstacles to quality education and the integration of deaf people into society” said an instructor who learned through the institute.

The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) shows that gender-based violence continues to be a large-scale problem; as many as 1 in 3 Bhutanese women report some form of partner violence. The national parliament also has very few female MPs (15%) representing women.

Unemployment of women (7.9%) is higher than male (4.4%) and economic circumstances make them vulnerable to organized crime such as human trafficking. During the height of the pandemic, 160 Bhutanese women and girls trafficked to Iraq on the pretext of well-paid jobs were rescued from enslavement and sexual abuse. A majority of the women who seek the intervention of RENEW are from low-income backgrounds and remain caught in abusive relationships.

Members of the LGBTQIA community also shared their experiences of discrimination and challenges in accessing education and employment opportunities. They emphasized the need to end discrimination against LGBTQIA individuals and create an inclusive environment that allows them to pursue education and meaningful careers.

Another issue raised was the lack of opportunities for individuals who drop out of high school to pursue higher education. Participants suggested introducing alternative high school diploma certification, such as the General Education Diploma (GED), to provide these individuals with a chance to continue their education and improve their prospects.

Bhutan has made significant progress in human development and well-being, with a focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) and holistic development. However, there are still challenges to be addressed, particularly regarding the rights and needs of marginalized groups.

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