During my years with the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, I was responsible for the multi-party programme in Bhutan. Just like my work in Nepal, working in Bhutan turned out to be extremely rewarding from both a professional and a personal point of view. In particular, it has been exciting to follow the development of the women mobilized through the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women – BNEW. I have followed many of the women from the very start in early 2012, and I will continue to follow their engagement with politics in this very special country.

The article called WOMEN OF THE HIMALAYAS is one of many more in the book “Engaging with democracy globally”, published in December 2016 when I retired from the institute. Should you be interested in other articles, the book can be downloaded here: Engaging – 2016 – final


First meeting in paro in 2012

It was difficult not to become emotional. For every story the women told with pride and a shy smile, the tears started to roll down softly.

“I first walked for three days to get to the bus stop, and then I spent two days by bus to reach the conference,” a young woman told us in a short break between the dancing they had started after the dinner.

“My father did not think I should run for office in the local elections. This was not what a woman should do. I decided to do it anyway,” another woman said, adding that she had never been to a meeting like this.

“At home it can be difficult for us to speak what we think, but when we are together like this, it is much easier. We all get stronger together,” an older woman stated.

It was evening in Paro, the only major airport in Bhutan, and the entry point for most tourists coming to visit one of the few Shangri La’s left in the world. A nation known for inventing the concept of ‘gross national happiness’, and recognized for having an enlightened King, who handed democracy (back) to the people in 2008, after careful planning for several years. Not an easy thing to do in a country, where a large part of the population – if not the majority – actually think and feel that they could do better without all of this democracy.

Even today, a large part of the population of 750.000 people, living in very small villages scattered on mountain tops and slopes and along rivers in the bottom of steep valleys, would argue that democracy will never be able to deliver what the King was able to. Democratic politics with political parties competing for power would only create divisions and possibly conflicts, even within families.

Time will show. However, while the answer to the large democracy question is blowing in the wind, many women of the Himalayas are not sitting quietly in their villages, waiting for things to happen. They are raising their voices and empowering each other. They are trying to touch the glass ceiling.

The women we had talked to had arrived yesterday, on buses from all corners of the country. They came to participate in the first national gathering of women, who intended to compete for local level office in the upcoming elections in 2016.

During the first day, they had listened to speakers from Denmark and various government agencies. They had conducted workshops on the barriers they face when running for office; they had also shared the ways they had devised to cope with adversity, be it in the family or in the village.

These were inexperienced women, but I had never met a group of people more determined and dedicated. Just think about it: To travel for five days to reach the conference, then participate in the conference for two days, and then again travel for five days to get home.

Can there be a better indicator for the need and relevance to invest in such an activity?

official cooperation

Bhutan is among the most exotic and smallest countries Denmark has had official development cooperation with since it all started in the early 1960s. At the same time, Bhutan is a country that can document effective and sustainable use of the financial and human resources made available from Denmark. I would even argue that it is the most successful partnership we have been able to establish over the decades.

Why was this possible? You could argue that they knew their own ‘theory of change’ better than the donors, and this defined the way they wanted to do business. Open, friendly, competent and genuinely cooperative, but never in doubt about the direction they wanted to travel with the donors, at what speed they wanted to travel, and who should be in the driver’s seat.

At the time of setting up DIPD, Bhutan and Denmark were discussing the phase-out of official development cooperation. This came a few years after the country had moved into full-scale parliamentary democracy, with political parties competing for power in the elections in 2008.

While Denmark had not supported the political parties so far, governance had featured prominently in the cooperation, in addition to health, water, education, and much more. Support for local level municipal elections and the participation of women had been an important focus area. There had also been support to the parliament, both in the form of hardware and software.

Fortunately, the official minutes from the phase-out discussions mentioned that Bhutan would welcome support from DIPD in the area of democracy.

This was a necessary precondition for getting started. We therefore went on a scoping mission for the areas, where we could meaningfully make a contribution and a difference. We met with government ministries, the Election Commission, agencies working with women, other bilateral donors, the UN system, and individuals who played a role in Bhutanese society.

The conclusion was clear: While there was great need for support to the newly established political parties, there were many sensitivities involved, and it was therefore still too early to engage with the parties. One important barrier was actually the Constitution, which had language that indicated that it could be outright impossible or illegal to support the political parties, even if this support was what we define as capacity development and therefore not support to parties to win elections.

To engage with women at the local level would be less controversial. According to the Constitution, political parties are not allowed to enter the arena of local elections. Only individuals can stand as candidates.

A contribution to the struggle of women to be accepted on an equal footing with men running for office at the local level could also be seen as building on the achievements of official Danish cooperation over several decades. This type of synergy is mentioned in the law that gave birth to DIPD in 2010, and we have consistently looked out for opportunities to deliver on this.

a different vision

How to provide support for the women in practice was a different and much more complicated question. Bhutan is a small country with a high level of cohesion, based on a strong faith in Buddhism, and with a tradition of enlightened and benevolent control from the top. Critical voices and calls for effective accountability by independent civil society organizations was a new and rather confusing phenomenon.

My vision was slightly different. From my talks with a number of individuals, many of whom were also close to the circles of influence, I got the sense that DIPD should use its unique position of being Danish and thereby trusted to do things a bit differently. We should of course play by the rules, but we should also challenge some of the traditional ways of doing things, as a contribution to the development of a new ‘democratic culture’.

We should not only support the local level women to run for office through the government department and the commission for women and children charged with this task. These agencies had already worked for many years with support for the participation of women.

It would be interesting to see what a more independent platform could achieve.

I had no clear idea of what this ‘something’ would look like, nor did I have a clear business plan for taking it forward. I knew if could not be done from Copenhagen! Only a person with intimate knowledge of what had been done in the past, a person who was trusted and respected by the various stakeholders, and a person who was willing to travel to all corners of the country would be able to lead the journey.

Having met Phuntshok Chodden and heard about her track record working as a consultant, with gender as a key area of expertise, I was convinced she was the right person. My gut feeling was that it could work with her at the helm. Phuntshok knew the country, she knew what had been done in the past, she knew what others were doing, she knew the women, high as well as low, and she was ready to lead.

Still, she was hesitant to start with. At the end, after having shared our ideas, we agreed that it deserved a chance!

the birth of bnew

Now I was there, in February 2012, in the city of Paro, together with Elisabeth Møller Jensen, a strong and dedicated Danish woman, and a visionary leader. She was then the Director of the Danish women’s organization KVINFO, the national focal point for women and gender in general. I thought it would be good for DIPD and for Phuntshok to benefit from the experiences of an organization that knew every detail of how gender equality had developed over time in our own country.

Elisabeth brought with her the Danish experiences of women’s participation in politics, which was an important aspect of the first ever conference for women wanting to run for local office in Bhutan. Elisabeth was uniquely equipped to cover this. Not to ‘promote’ the Danish way, but to share Danish experiences for inspiration.

The more than 100 women from all over Bhutan worked non-stop for two days, and I do not remember having been in a conference with participants so hungry for information, so eager to share with their sisters, so grateful for being allowed to contribute to the new democratic culture Bhutan was developing.

For most of the women this was a ‘first’ in many ways: first time in Paro, first time in a conference, first time to speak in public, first time to ask a Dane a question.

When they assembled for the last time in the evening of day two, they unanimously agreed to continue to work within the framework of what was called Bhutan Network for Empowering Women, or BNEW as we normally call it.

The women committed to bring in their time and energy, and DIPD committed to bring in some money and ideas. The department responsible for local level affairs also committed to offer support in different ways. The National Commission for Women and Children did as well.

Next morning, the women scrambled to get on the busses, the first part of what for many would be a five-day arduous trip by wheels and feet.

However, there was no indication whatsoever of this in their faces or bodies. They were smiling and chatting, clearly genuinely excited about having been part of a truly historic moment. They had been party of the first ever national gathering of women seeking public office at the local level.

“They will probably not believe it, when I tell family, friends and neighbors about this,” one of the women we spoke to the night before exclaimed, with sparks in her eyes. “But the photos on my phone will show them! Can I have one with you?”

On that morning in Paro, Phuntshok and I had no idea where this would all go. Would more women be interested in joining? Would we be able to meet the demands in case many wanted to participate? Would training and empowerment be enough to get women elected? Would old ways of thinking about roles of men and women in society persist despite all the efforts of BNEW and the women?

I thought about all of this, but I also have to admit that I have never felt more gratified than right there, among the women of the Himalayas. Ever since, whenever we have met, we have also taken time to shoot photos. Every time I have felt a gratitude purer and more genuine than anything I have been exposed to anywhere else – except maybe in my old battlegrounds on the African continent.

from paro to mongar

While there was not a clear business plan from the start, there was a lot of strategic thinking and hard work invested by Phuntshok and the small group of women elected in Paro to form a National Council for BNEW. They took the newborn child forward in a very practical manner, focusing on what the women ‘out there’ needed to be strong enough to compete with their fellow male competitors.

Two years later, I met the 100 women from Paro again at the national conference in Mongar in the western part of the country. I also met another 300 women, bringing the total number of participants to 400. An incredible achievement in such a short span of time.

When the women met in Paro, the plans for the future were unclear. Meeting now in Mongar, they could reflect on what had taken place on the ground. They had been to workshops where they discussed the rules and regulations of serving as an elected official; learned how to speak in public; practiced to pass a test in reading and writing as a basic requirement; discussing the needs of the people in the villages.

It was obvious that a change had taken place. The increased self-confidence was vibrating in the meeting hall, when women would take the floor and ask questions or respond to questions. Some were still a bit shy in the presence of senior officials, but it was not nearly as pronounced as back in 2012.

For BNEW as an organization, it was a sign of recognition that the Governor of the province had accepted to do the official opening; the relevant departments and commissions had participated in the planning and were present with their officials; the minister responsible for women’s issues had her message to the women read out when the conference opened.

It was clear that the dream of being able to shape their own destiny was no longer just a dream in the sky. The dream had come through, although the ultimate success would be reflected in the numbers and percentages of women elected to the local councils in 2016 compared to the numbers for 2011.

touching but not breaking

In October 2016, the results of the local elections finally came ticking in on emails from Bhutan. Voting had taken place in 205 rural councils at the end of September, as well as in some larger urban councils. Votes cast on the day as well as the postal votes had been counted.

Thirty percent more women than in 2011 had applied to take the test that would allow them to be approved as candidates by the Election Commission, if they passed the test. Thirty percent more women ended up running for office, which was a huge leap forward.

BNEW had campaigned on a somewhat simple but very ambitious set of numbers:

Women were 7 percent of all locally elected officials in 2011. This should increase to 20 percent in 2016. Out of 205 mayors elected in 2011, only 1 (one) was a woman. This should increase to 41.

When you set the targets high, the risk of being disappointed is also very high. I could feel the sense of disappointment in the messages piling up in my inbox from Phuntshok, who was busy getting in touch with all the villages where BNEW had supported candidates.

Results pointed to less than a doubling of elected women, from 7 percent in 2011 to around 12 percent now.

The result was way below the 20 percent BNEW had set for its campaign. Still, I would consider the final result as well as the entire campaign a great success and a victory for a small organization, which has managed to utilize the limited funds made available from DIPD exceptionally well.

Most of the money has been used to bring the women together, to offer them some basic tools needed to be involved in politics, to allow them to share among themselves and through this gain confidence.

Today they have the confidence to stand. Today they know how to run a campaign. Today they can compete on equal terms. Today they have reached for the ceiling. Today they know what it feels like to touch it.

The journey is far from over. It has taken Denmark 100 years to reach around 33 percent representation for women at the local level. It will not take 100 years for women in Bhutan to reach that target.

BNEW still needs a lot of support and care, but there is no doubt that it has been able to contribute to the democratic change Bhutan is experiencing, after the King told his people that they themselves were now in charge.

The next major challenge will be the elections for the National Assembly in 2018. The 2013 election saw an unfortunate downward trend in the number of elected women. This needs to be reversed.

Once again, BNEW will have to punch above its weight!