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Violence against women still on rise in Bhutan

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Shocking acts of violence against women often make headlines in mainstream media inside the country. The Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA) that the parliament of Bhutan passed last February could not make much impact. Observers are of the opinion that the act is as good as a paper tiger.

Two days after the International Women’s day, national newspaper reports: “Gelephu dungkhag court sentenced a 41-year-old man to nine years imprisonment for raping a 17 year old.” A police officer in Gelephu who allegedly raped his maid is sentenced to two year.  In Gasa, a 24 year old allegedly raped 55-year-old woman. In Punakha a monk was accused of impregnating a 14-year-old.  In Tsirang, a 21-year-old man was detained by police for having affairs with 13-year-old schoolgirl. Yet in Thimphu police detained a 38-year-old security guard for alleged rape of an eight-year old girl. In December last year, a 13-year-old girl suspected of repeated rape by her father was rescued by RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture, Empower Women), an NGO for Women in Bhutan.

A recent study on the ‘situation of violence against women in Bhutan’ by the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) states that about two in 100 women, aged 15 to 49 years, are likely to be sexually abused before the age of 15.

Bhutanese Women, mostly Lhotshampas, engage themselves in a discussion on the occasion of the International Women Day in Bhutan (Picture: Author)
Bhutanese Women engage themselves in a discussion on the occasion of the International Women Day in Bhutan
(Picture: Author)

“Girls below the age of 15 are at some risk of sexual violence, but significantly below the level of risk compared to women aged 15 and above,” study states.

The study also states that four in 100 women are likely to have their first sexual encounter before 15 years, of which more than half are likely to be coerced or forced.  It was also found that about three in ten women are likely to have their first marriage before the legal age of 18.

Most of the cases happen within the closed door and most of the perpetrators are someone known to the victim, the cases do not get reported, says a counsellor at the RENEW.

National Statistics Bureau’s Bhutan Multiple Survey 2010 highlighted about 70 percent of women said that they deserved beating if they neglected their children, argued with their partners, refused sex or spoiled meals.

“This kind of level of domestic violence tolerance only suggests that there is not yet widespread understanding of the link between women and personal security,” the UN resident coordinator in Bhutan, Christina Carlson said.

The acceptance of violence was highest in Paro at 90 percent and least in Thimphu at about 50 percent.

Annually, March 8 is observed as a day to raise awareness on the plight of women on the face of discrimination, oppression, abuse, violence and injustice. It is a day when the world asserts attention to the widening gaps underlying the path of progress for women equity. The international women’s day is observed to recognise women’s achievements without regard to divisions; whether nationality, ethnic, cultural, economic or political in nature

The Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Sangay Choden Wangchuck, the Goodwill Ambassador of UNFPA and President of RENEW, joined the people of Haa to celebrate the International Women’s Day on March. Over 2000 people including teachers, students, civil servants and locals gathered to observe the day. At the gathering Her Majesty vouched her interminable support to empower women from abuse and violence transgressions.

She said, “In almost all the countries, disparities among men and women is still a predominant issue affecting any country’s development.  Observing such a day gives us an opportunity to celebrate the progress made for women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality.”

UN Women Office of India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka representative, Dr Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, during the program, said countries with more gender equality have better economic growth.  Companies with more women leaders perform better.  Peace agreements that include women are more durable.  Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all.

Talking on the domestic violence and women’s right the Chief Justice of Bhutan, Sonam Tobgay, said that women’s well being is pivotal for the advancement of humankind.  He said, “Necessity to espouse the equality of man and woman supersede any letter of law, faith and customs.”

“I believe that our common dreams of peace and our anguish over violence committed against women must give impetus to the issue, generate practical solutions and empower the victims. Women are and must be supported as social agents, to build social capital that contributes to strengthening the fabric of our societies.”

Bhutanese women were confined within the house and mainly in the kitchen in the past. Women were never given the opportunity to do what men were doing. But today there are women holding constitutional post, in the parliament and in the civil service.  A good signal is that Bhutan last year elected its first women minister.

However, there are still challenges surrounding women. Still today, men and the society as a whole prefer women to be confined within the household chores despite the same education and qualification. When it comes to leadership people think men are better than women and this is the reason why we have a countable number of women holding high post. This was a testimony when majority of women voters in 2013 elections, National Council and National Assembly, elected maximum men to the houses.

In the year 2013 alone, RENEW has provided counselling services to as much as 350 women.  And have since its establishment in 2004 serviced more than 1600 clients. Having to render help to “Domestic Violence victims every single day is a concern that will not only cripple our women but will also hamper the long term stability of our nation too, a Renew official said. The need for more efforts to advance women empowerment in Bhutan is imperative. It is on global platforms such as these, that issues impeding women progress can be brought up for discussion, she says.

Bhutan’s first woman minister, who is also Chairperson of NCWC, Dorji Choden said: “Valuing the contributions that women have made in making this world a better place to live in; contributions not only through their work and labour, but also contributions through sufferings borne as a mother, wife, sister and daughter. In recognizing and valuing these contributions, let us all celebrate Womanhood as a Privilege.”

A woman parliamentarian said the Domestic Violence Prevention Bill would greatly help the victims of violence against women and help root out gender-motivated attacks against women and girls.  But observers said the Act is a paper tiger. He said there were cases of rape and domestic violence reported almost weekly on the national newspaper and television.

In 2012 alone, the police recorded 231 cases of domestic violence and harassment. In 2010 and 2011, some 3,487 cases of crime were recorded in the country. Of the total, 1,061 cases were committed under the influence of alcohol.

Sonam Yangdon, a civil servant, said that violence against women and girls is a violation of human rights, a public health epidemic and a barrier against solving global challenges such as extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS and conflicts.

Sonam Yangdon said: “Violence against women devastates the lives of millions of women and girls – in peacetime and in conflicts – and knows no national or cultural barriers.

The DVPA will protect and prevent women from debilitating acts of violence against them and promote women’s participation in social, economic and political sectors.”
It is every individual’s responsibility to stand up and take necessary measures to ensure that violent attacks against women and girls are no longer tolerated. The progress and development of our society depends on our ability to affirm and safeguard the human rights of all people, including women and girls, she said.

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