Header image for news printout

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reviews the situation of women in Bhutan

GENEVA (27 October 2016) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of Bhutan on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
 
Kinga Singye, Permanent Representative of Bhutan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, introduced the reports and said that numerous steps to empower women had been taken since 2008, when Bhutan had become a constitutional democracy: the National Commission for Women and Children was strengthened, the role and capacity of civil society organizations working on women and children issues was enhanced, and interventions to enhance women’s representation in elected offices were initiated.  All policies had to be screened using a Gross National Happiness screening tool, which had gender equality as one of the parameters.  The Child Care and Protection Act was enacted in 2011 and the Domestic Violence Prevention Act in 2013.  Harmonization of laws remained a priority area, in particular the reform of contradictory of discriminatory legal provisions pertaining to women and children.  As a small least developed and landlocked country with scarce resources and competing priorities, Bhutan continued to encounter numerous challenges in implementing the Convention, but it had a strong commitment and was confident that the efforts would bear the fruit with the support of international community. 
 
In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts commended Bhutan for the remarkable progress made since the last review in 2009 and noted with concern that the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex remained absent from the Constitution and other laws.  As a country in transition, Bhutan faced serious obstacles in enforcing gender equality: the police and the judiciary lacked capacity, there was insufficient education on the human rights of women, while gender mainstreaming in policies and budgets needed to be translated into concrete actions.  Experts urged Bhutan to adopt temporary special measures to accelerate and increase participation of women in public and political life, and to address gender stereotypes and remove the discriminatory norms based in custom and transition to facilitate the achievement of women’s autonomy, increase access to education and employment, and mitigate the negative consequences of poverty and discrimination.  Experts welcomed the adoption of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act and stressed that all manifestations of gender-based violence and in all spheres had to be identified, targeted and addressed in a holistic manner.
 
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Singye expressed appreciation for the frank assessment of Bhutan’s reports by the Committee Experts and said that their concerns were carefully noted. 
 
The delegation of Bhutan included representatives of the National Commission for Women and Children, Royal Court of Justice, the Office of the Attorney General, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and the Permanent Mission of Bhutan to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
 
The Committee will reconvene in public on Friday, 28 October, at 10 a.m. to consider the eighth periodic report of Belarus (CEDAW/C/BLR/8).
 
Report

The combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of Bhutan can be read here: CEDAW/C/BTN/8-9
 
Presentation of the Reports
 
KINGA SINGYE, Permanent Representative of Bhutan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that in 2008, Bhutan had become a constitutional democracy and that the current government had taken numerous steps to empower women, including through strengthening the National Commission for Women and Children, enhancing the role and capacity of civil society organizations working on women and children, and initiating interventions to enhance women’s representation in elected offices.  The Constitution provided the overall framework for the promotion and protection of equal rights of women; it required every Bhutanese not to tolerate abuse of women, guided actions to eliminate discrimination against women and children and recognized international treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as the law of the Kingdom.  The development philosophy of Gross National Happiness articulated the idea and vision of a just and harmonious society, and all policies had to be screened using a Gross National Happiness screening tool, which had gender equality as one of the parameters. 
 
A small least developed and landlocked country with scarce resources and competing priorities, Bhutan continued to encounter numerous challenges in implementing the Convention, as it impinged on the ability to smoothly implement policy decisions and initiatives.  Nonetheless, Bhutan had a strong commitment and was confident that the efforts would bear fruit with the support of the international community.  As a result of the second local elections conducted last month, women’s representation in local government had increased by three per cent – modest but significant gains, given the constraints of deeply entrenched traditional norms and beliefs.  Continued efforts were being made to address those constraints and combat societal prejudices and other barriers to increasing women’s representation at both the national and local levels.  Bhutan had already started working on a national gender equality policy, which would be instrumental in providing clear policy directives towards strengthening gender mainstreaming initiatives in the country, and it continued to review new policies from a gender equality perspective.  In that sense, the revised Economic Development Policy 2010 would bring about economic reforms and opportunities, particularly for rural women and women entrepreneurs. 
 
The network of Gender Focal Persons had been expanded in all 20 districts to support the implementation of gender-related interventions at the local and national levels.  The National Commission for Women and Children was working towards strengthening their capacity and supporting development of Gender Action Plans in the selected districts in the Twelfth Five Year Plan Period 2018-2023, while the Government initiated mainstreaming gender though inclusion of gender specific indicators for Ministries of Education, Health, Agriculture, and Forests, and the National Statistics Bureau.  Major achievements in the area of legal reform was the enactment of the Child Care and Protection Act 2011 and the Domestic Violence Prevention Act 2013.  Harmonization of laws remained a priority area and discussions were being undertaken at various levels of legal reforms, while the National Commission for Women and Children initiated consultations on amending contradictory provisions pertaining to women and children.
 
Questions by Experts
 
Committee Experts recognized the progress Bhutan had made since its previous review by the Committee, including the adoption of the law on domestic violence in 2013 and, in particular, the adoption of rules and regulation in that context in 2015, as well as its pioneering work in addressing the impact of climate change on rural women who represented 75 per cent of the female population in the country. 
 
The country had done a lot in the past ten years, but the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex, gender and other elements remained absent from the Constitution and other laws in the country.  A Committee Expert urged Bhutan to consider the adoption of a law to that effect, and also to examine the possibility of the ratification of the two International Covenants.
 
What efforts were being taken to incorporate prohibition of discrimination against women in conformity with the Convention, and to adopt the law of gender equality?  What steps were in place to ensure that the National Commission for Women and Children operated with sufficient resources?
 
An Expert asked about the timeframe for the completion of the legal reform and harmonization, and in particular about the work of the task force on identifying and eliminating discriminatory legal provisions.
 
Which concrete measures were being taken to ensure access to justice for rural women?  How many persons worked in the judicial sector, and how many were women?
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The head of the delegation reiterated the commitment of Bhutan to international instruments, and explained that the major constraint in their ratification was the capacity and resources to ensure the country’s active engagement with them.
 
Bhutan had come a long way in ensuring that its policies were gender-neutral and that they looked at different needs of women and men.  Early on, it had set very clear targets on gender mainstreaming in laws, policies and programmes, and in the collection of disaggregated data, while gender equality was one of the variables in the gross national happiness policy screening tool.  Gender-responsive planning and budgeting had been initiated in 2013 to ensure that gender mainstreaming was translated into actions.
 
Although Bhutan did not have a formal definition of discrimination, any ambiguity in the interpretation would be resolved by judges looking at the Constitution and the Convention itself.  A budget had been allocated for legal aid in order to ensure access to justice; so far there had been no beneficiaries.
 
The Legal Review Task Force had been instituted with the mandate to review all the laws and harmonize them; the members had been identified, and several meetings had already taken place.
 
As for the representation of women in the judiciary, a delegate said that out of the 502 persons working in this sector, 174 were women.  Women represented four of the 36 judges and justices; three of the 22 assistant judges; four of the 16 lawyers or registrars; and 107 of more than 300 bench clerks.
 
A high-level task force had been convened to study the possibility of the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  In February 2016, Bhutan had adopted the procedures for treaty making, which would streamline procedures related to the ratification of treaties and so improve institutional capacity with regards to ratification.  The Convention was directly applicable in Bhutan as national law, by virtue of the provisions contained in the Constitution and the Criminal and Civil Code.
 
In their follow-up questions, Experts asked about access to justice for women, and particularly for victims of violence and asked about the establishment of a specialized court on domestic violence, and to increase awareness of the judiciary on women and child-friendly judicial procedures.
 
The delegation said that so far there were no specialized courts on domestic violence due to the lack of resources and capacity in the judiciary; however, a decision had been made to establish a specialized court on a pilot basis in the capital.  The Women and Child Bench in the capital Thimphu would be set up in November 2016.  Almost all judges in the country had been trained in new domestic violence legislation and other relevant laws.  Sex disaggregated data was available for social sectors, but that data were not readily available in other sectors, such as transport or infrastructure. 
 
Questions by Experts
 
An Expert said that Bhutan’s Gross Happiness Index was a guide for the ecologic and economic policy in the global arena, and that its National Commission for Women and Children was also a success story.  As a country in transition, Bhutan faced serious obstacles in enforcing gender equality, such as lack of capacity in the police and the judiciary, lack of education on the human rights of women, insufficient gender-responsive planning and budgeting tools. 
 
The delegation was asked about legislative plans to increase gender budgeting and the resource allocation to the National Commission for Women and Children, measures to increase the number and the capacity of the police in districts, including in remote ones, and to train the police to increase their reporting capacity for sexual and gender-based violence.
 
The Expert noted that Bhutan had not adopted any temporary special measures to increase political participation of women and took positive note of some initiatives undertaken by the National Commission for Women and Children in that regard. 
 
What progress was being made towards the enactment of the legislation on quotas?  When would Bhutan start the drafting process for that important law?  Which awareness programmes were in place to increase understanding of the nature and scope of temporary special measures among the members of the Parliament and other important stakeholders?
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The National Commission for Women and Children had received the implementation mandate for the three laws Bhutan had adopted since 2011, namely the Child Care and Protection Act,  the Child Adoption Act, and the Domestic Violence Prevention Act.  As a result, and in order to translate the laws and policies into practice, the Commission started the review of its institutional structure and coordination mechanisms with districts. 
 
At the moment, the Commission was setting up District Committees for Women and Children, and was nominating Protection Officers.  Women and Child Protection Units were being set up in the district, and, in addition, there were specialised police officers dealing with women and child protection in districts.
 
As a result of the mid-term evaluation of the Eleventh Five Year Plan, a national action plan on gender equality in elected offices had been submitted to the Cabinet.  The plan proposed instituting quotas for political representation of women – not as in reserved seats for women, but at the nomination level - which was met with strong opposition, including from women who felt that all candidates should be elected based on merit. 
 
The National Commission for Women and Children was developing a draft Population Policy of Bhutan, which would contain a statement on instituting temporary special measures in areas of critical concern to the country.  The Gender Equality Policy was being developed, and it was hoped that it would include measures to increase political representation of rural women.  The next step would hopefully be drafting of the quotas law.
 
Questions by Experts
 
Gender stereotypes were entrenched in the Bhutanese society, said an Expert and stressed that custom and tradition discriminatory norms had to be removed in order to facilitate the achievement of women’s autonomy, improve the access to education and employment, and mitigate the negative consequences of poverty and high maternal mortality.
 
All manifestations of gender-based violence, and in all spheres, had to be identified, targeted and addressed in a holistic manner.  Prevention alone was not enough - there had to be repression as well as the protection of victims.  Why was the law referring on domestic violence only and why did it address only the prevention? 
 
What percentage of the police, judges and prosecutors were trained specifically on the Domestic Violence Prevention Act?  The Act allowed mediation in some cases of domestic violence classified as misdemeanour, but the Expert warned against any use of mediation in domestic violence cases simply because the victims were never in a position of power to negotiate.
 
Another Expert noted that Bhutan remained both a country of origin and country of destination for trafficking in human beings, for purposes of labour and sex exploitation.  There were also cases of internal trafficking from rural to urban areas, for domestic work and forced labour; those were often young girls from poor and remote areas.  What measures were in place to address this phenomenon?  What was being done to change the definition of human trafficking in the law and ensure that its contained the element of “exploitation” in the motives for the crime?
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
A delegate agreed that women in Bhutan – particularly rural women - faced double or often triple burden of work as a result of stereotypes and cultural and social perceptions, which remained a key concern for the Government.  In order to reduce women’s workload and free up some of  their time to enable them to participate in the public and political life, there were initiatives to set up child care in rural areas.
 
It was true that women in Bhutan were less happy than men, and it was due to two factors: women were less educated and suffered greater levels of illiteracy, and they were also participating less in the governance.
 
The Domestic Violence Prevention Act looked at prevention, and it also provided for responses and support victims, and for sanctions for those offences not already included in the Penal Code, namely economic and emotional violence.  Other forms of violence against women, such as sexual violence and sexual harassments, were covered under different laws. 
 
The law on domestic violence had been drafted in response to the findings that intimate partner violence was the most common form of violence against women in Bhutan.  Mediation was being used as it had shown that the cases settled in that manner were less likely to recur.  The police had measures in place to monitor the domestic violence in which mediation had been used to ensure that they were not perpetrated again. 
Awareness raising measures were in place to address the exploitation of women for domestic work, especially those from poor and remote areas.
 
Close to 70 per cent of the district judges had attended the training on domestic violence prevention law.
 
Questions by Experts
 
Women in Bhutan were still under-represented in the political and public life: they held only eight per cent of the seats in the National Assembly - a decline from 14 per cent in 2014, only six per cent of executive posts in the civil service, and they were under-represented in the judiciary, said an Expert. What were the causes of such low representation, and what steps were being taken to address the barriers, and to increase the number of women in appointed positions?  Were there any initiatives to increase the capacity of women elected to posts and positions? 
 
What was the situation concerning participation of women in the foreign service and in the academia?  What was the current status and the timeframe for the adoption of the law on the political representation of women?
 
On the issue of nationality, an Expert noted the difficulties in obtaining nationality for children whose documents were missing, and for children born to a foreign father and a Bhutanese woman, or when the identity of the father could not be ascertained.  What measures were being taken to address problems in accessing education for children without adequate documentation, such as parents’ marriage certificate?


Replies by the Delegation
 
In order to increase political participation of women, several initiatives were in place, starting from raising awareness, to mentoring women, to increasing their capacities.  With the development of the gender equality policy, the National Commission for Women and Children would be addressing the issue of the under-representation of women in the political life.
 
A study had been carried out in obstacles and constraints to the participation of women in the public and private sectors, which showed that the major barriers were the lack of availability of child care and lack of domestic help.  All government departments had been instructed to provide child care to their employees, and as a result the number of women in the civil service had increased  from six to eight per cent.  The Bhutan Democracy Dialogue was a multiparty platform comprising of all five political parties though which many leadership and mentoring programmes were being provided to elected women.
 
The Constitution clearly stated that, in order to obtain Bhutanese nationality, both parents had to be Bhutanese.  Children born to a foreign parent were provided with a residence permit which enabled the child to access all services.  At the age of 15, the child could undergo the naturalization process.  
 
Questions by Experts

An Expert noted that the overall literacy rate was low and it had clear gender gaps.  Turning to the education of girls, the Expert asked about incentives provided to families to encourage that girls remain in school, concrete steps to reduce girl school drop-outs, which led to early marriage, and steps taken to ensure safe school environments in addition to the comprehensive school health programme on hygiene, which had a very positive impact on girls’ enrolment rates. 
 
What was being done to increase the number of female teachers, to encourage girls to pursue education beyond primary and secondary levels, and also to encourage girls to study science, technology and engineering? 
Bhutan was very mountainous, which represented a formidable challenge in ensuring education for the children throughout the country.  How was Bhutan addressing the issue and what was the evaluation of the impact of the extended classroom system on girl enrolment? 
 
Female workforce was overwhelmingly engaged in the rural sector, the gender wage gap was considerable, and only 17 per cent of women worked in paying jobs.  What was being done to ensure that equal employment opportunities for women and men were guaranteed in the private and public sectors?  What measures were in place to provide childcare in the workplace and to support a more equal sharing of childcare between the parents?
 
Thanks to the basic health care system, much progress had been made in maternal health, with maternal mortality rates dropping from 265 per 100,000 live births to 86 per 100,000.  Issues of concern remained the high rate of teenage pregnancies, high prevalence of HIV/AIDS particularly among young women, and the low number of physicians particularly in specialized institutions.
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
Responding to the questions related to the education of girls, a delegate said that measures were in place to ensure gender-friendly teaching and that teachers were trained in those methods.  The Ministry of Education had examined technical and vocational educational curricula and made them more women-friendly.  There were still stereotypical views among girls  themselves who preferred not to choose “traditionally male” areas, such as construction or engineering.  Although there were no targeted measures in place, discussions were ongoing on how to increase the participation of girls in scientific and technical professions.  
 
In remote and rural communities, the central school initiative was put in place to address the distance which was one of the factors that kept girls from school.  The system had just been introduced and would be evaluation after a while.
 
Guaranteed Employment Schemes had been put in place to increase employment of women.  Childcare centres and early child development centres run by civil society organizations were being established in the rural areas on a pilot basis in order to ease the burden of rural women.  The government was looking into appropriate modalities for the extension of extended maternity leave into the private sector. 
 
In order to improve the use of contraceptives, especially by the youth, awareness raising and campaign programmes had been put in place, while adolescent health units provided counselling and advice on adolescent reproductive and sexual health.  Free-of-charge contraceptives were being distributed by the Government and were accessible to the public.
 
In follow-up questions, Experts asked about the status of the Child labour handbook and the training of the labour inspectorate, measures to address mental health issues among victims of domestic violence, and about suicide prevention initiatives. Responding, the delegation said that the Child labour handbook had been endorsed and that labour inspectors had been trained.  A leading cause of suicide were economic factors, followed by mental health issues including those caused by domestic violence.  A multi-sectoral approach was being taken to addressing the issue, and developing a national action plan which would aim to reduce suicide rates by 2018.
 
Questions by Experts
 
With regard to the efforts to eradicate poverty and ensure economic empowerment of women, an Expert asked about the strategies to put in place real social protection policies that covered all the situations of vulnerability, and noted that the efforts to fuel economic development caused new inequalities for women.  Bhutan lacked mechanisms for fair redistribution of products of development, particularly to women from rural and remote communities.
 
Which programmes and temporary special measures were in place to accelerate the modernization of rural and remote areas and how was the full participation of all rural and indigenous population therein ensured? 
 
Bhutan paid high attention to the environment and sustainable development, and the delegation was asked how women participated in climate change and disaster risk reduction programmes and policies.  What was the role of the State in the domain of social welfare and sustainable development, which was part of the 2030 Agenda?
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
A draft social protection policy had been developed, but it was important to note that it did not cover informal sector and rural areas. 
 
Poverty was a key crosscutting issue included in all sectors involved in development planning.  The Eleventh Five Year Plan contained several flagship programmes, such as the Rural Economy Advancement Programme, which covered 20,000 individuals in 70 villages.  The National Poverty Alleviation Programme shifted the focus from village to a household; to date, more than 3,000 households had been surveyed for their individual circumstances, and specific interventions were now being designed.  A challenge with that approach was that households were very spread out and the access was difficult.
 
The delegation stated that Bhutan was focusing its attention on adaptation to climate change by making its rural food and livestock systems more resilient.  The National Adaptation Programme of Action recognized the impact of climate change on vulnerable categories and highlighted key priority actions to be undertaken with rural communities, such as setting up social safety nets  through crop insurance schemes.
 
The Community-Based Disaster Risk Reduction Programme was in place, and it required equal participation of women in the programmes and community disaster management committees.  The post-disaster assessment tool took into consideration different categories of people, such as women, pregnant or breastfeeding women, and the elderly.
 
Questions by Experts
 
Concerning laws governing inheritance, an Expert noted that it was still largely governed by the customary law which was discriminatory against women.  What was the situation concerning the practice of polygamy and how was it sanctioned?
 
Custody of children under the age of nine was automatically granted to mothers, with certain exceptions, which reinforced gender-based stereotypes.  What steps were being taken to ensure that custody decisions were made on the principle of best interest of the child?
 
What impediments were encountered in the drafting of a Family Code, inquired an Expert.
 
The Expert commended Bhutan for decreasing the practice of early, forced and child marriage, but that practice still existed in most regions.  What efforts were being taken to address the issue, including though establishing accurate birth registration of children and thus age establishment?
Replies by the Delegation
 
In response to those questions, the delegation said that child marriage was not permitted and that marriage certificates were not issued to children under the age of 18.
 
The 2011 Child Care and Protection Act gave courts discretion to ascertain if the mother was capable of having the custody of the child in case of divorce, and would make its decision on the basis of best interest of the child.
 
Inheritance laws varied from region to region: in some regions girls inherited, and in others it was the boys.  The law defined the obligation of parents to decide who would inherit and at which rate.
 
The Government to Citizen Initiative had turned over the birth registration to local level.  As of 2010, the coverage stood at more than 90 per cent.
 
Concluding Remarks
 
KINGA SINGYE, Permanent Representative of Bhutan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, expressed appreciation for the frank assessment of Bhutan’s reports by the Committee Experts and said that their concerns were carefully noted.  Mr. Singye reiterated Bhutan’s unwavering commitment to continue to cooperate with the Committee.
 
YOKO HAYASHI, Committee Chairperson, commended Bhutan for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations which the Committee would issue with the purpose of more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.

______________

For use of the information media; not an official record