On every 8th of March since 1975, thousands of events have been or¬ganized on International Women’s Day to celebrate the economic, po¬litical and social achievements of women all over the world. But this is not merely an observance; it is also an opportunity to call for greater equality.
International Women’s Day in 2015 is celebrated under the theme “Empowering Women – Empower¬ing Humanity: Picture It!” We are asked to envision a world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices about her body and her future: participate in politics, get an education, have an income, decide when and whom to marry, when or whether to form a family, and live in a society free from violence and discrimination.
This year also highlights 20 years of the Beijing Declaration and Plat-form for Action, a historic roadmap signed by 189 governments, includ¬ing Bhutan. In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action stated out loud that women’s rights are human rights, and that gender equality is critical to development and prog¬ress for everyone.
Bhutan has made impressive prog¬ress ingender equality over the past several decades. Now all ministries and agencies have gender equality responsibilities, while the National Commission for Women and Chil¬dren works to specifically fulfill the obligations of the Royal Govern¬ment towards the international conventions ratified by Bhutan
Reproductive and sexual health and rights
In 1995, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo issued a Royal De-cree emphasizing the importance of population planning for sustainable development.
Today, all Bhutanese have access to family planning ser¬vices, including free contraceptives in all health centers. Yet many seri¬ous gaps remain.
Bhutan still has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in our region. Over 15% of women (20-24 years of age) have given birth before their 18th birth-day, a proportion that has remained almost unchanged over the last 25 years. Becoming a teenage mother is rarely a deliberate choice. And pregnant girls are often forced to drop out of school, making it even more difficult for them to earn a livelihood in the future.
The high number of teenage preg¬nancies shows that more needs to be done: we need to support those girls who have become mothers too early, but also to change the trend. The goal is to prevent teen-age pregnancies. The UN is a strong supporter of comprehensive sexual education that empowers girls – and boys – with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to make informed choices, and to enjoy their sexuality, physically and emotional¬ly, individually and in relationships. Since 2012, life skills education has been expanded to all Bhutanese schools.
Women’s political participation and economic empowerment
Globally, women earn less than men, and carry a large burden of unpaid care work which deprives them of other opportunities, like earning money, gaining new skills, and participating in public life. Also in Bhutan, women and girls lag behind in the areas of political participation, economic empower-ment and income equality. Women comprise only 6.6 per cent of the executive level workforce in the civil service. Among the elected mem-bers of parliament, the proportion of women is almost the same, 6 per cent, much lower than the global average of 21 per cent.
In 1998, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo issued a Royal Decree emphasizing women’s participa¬tion at all levels of government and society, calling for gender-neutral participation based on merit and achievement. Following this, the UN has also been actively support¬ing women’s leadership in politics and civil service in Bhutan. For ex-ample, the UN has been working with the National Commission for Women and Children to develop a National Action Plan on Gender Equality in Elected Office.
Recent studies conducted with UN support on women’s political partic¬ipation in Bhutan have shown that prejudices against selecting female leaders are high. Most Bhutanese – men and women – see women as less capable and inferior to men in public decision-making and lead¬ership. These studies send a clear message: it is not enough only for women to be active and stand as candidates in elections. But, in or-der for this to happen, women need support and encouragement both from the political parties and from their own families.
Bhutan is not immune to the per-vasive global problem of violence against women and girls. A study on the ‘Situation of violence against women in Bhutan’ (2013) by the NCWC states that about one in three women is likely to experience at least one act of violence during her lifetime. Domestic violence oc¬curs in both rural and urban areas, and across all levels of education and wealth.
The main challenge lies in changing the social norms and the mind-set of people that continue to under-mine efforts to eliminate violence against women and young girls. According to a 2010 survey, 68 per cent of Bhutanese women, includ¬ing educated women, believe that a man is justified in beating his wife or partner. This is disturbing. It is even more upsetting that accep¬tance for domestic violence is high¬er among younger women. This has to change. We need to work togeth¬er, and engage with men and boys to break the cycle of violence now.
Many agencies and individuals are already committed to ending violence against women in Bhutan. The Royal Government of Bhutan has shown its strong political will to reduce gender-based violence, both in the 11th Five Year Plan, and with the enactment of the Domestic Vio¬lence Prevention Act in 2013.
The UN in Bhutan offers its full support to the government and people of Bhutan in their efforts to achieve gender equality and to eliminate violence against women.
In his message for the International Women’s Day, UN Secretary Gen¬eral Ban Ki-moon calls for action: “The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential. When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all.”
Equality benefits everyone. Re-search has shown that in more equal countries, people are happier, they have better health, and poverty is reduced. In fact, gender equality helps to build good relations and harmony in the society.
Bhutan already has many change-makers who challenge gender ste¬reotypes through their own action. Yet, we need more than a few brave individuals to stand for gender equality. I urge all of you – women and men, girls and boys, young and old – to be a part of this positive change. I ask you to not only picture an equal world, but to take a giant leap towards it.
The writer is the UN Resident Coordinator in Bhutan
By Christina Carlson