Unlike many developing countries, in Bhutan, women inherit the family property rather than men. As a result, most girls in the villages end up at home to help their parents maintain the land while their brothers are sent to school. It’s thus no surprise that only 34% of women in Bhutan have a high school education and that women hold only 7% of elected positions in Parliament.
Karma Choden and her sister had to drop out of school after fourth grade to help with chores at home and take care of the land they would one day inherit, while their three brothers stayed in school. Karma grew up shy and insecure, got married at the age of 26, and soon had children of her own.
In 2012, READ Bhutan received an award from Beyond Access to conduct women’s empowerment programs at the Ura READ Center. For the past year, READ has been conducting programs in Ura, where Karma and her family live, to empower women and give them a voice in their communities. The women learned public speaking and leadership skills, and formed women’s groups to discuss important issues. Because Bhutanese women aren’t well represented in politics, the Ura READ Center also held meetings to listen to radio programs on democracy.
The “Women Represent” program has significantly changed the way Karma’s community views women. Before the program started, 76% of surveyed community members thought that women are most suitable for household chores. After the program, that number dropped to 20%. Before, less than half of community members thought girls and boys should have the same access to educational opportunities. Today, two-thirds think they should.
Because Karma never finished her education, she hadn’t been participating in community meetings and was not able to understand the decisions made there. But then she took part in the Women Represent trainings, joined discussions about women’s empowerment, and gained the self-esteem necessary to assert herself at community meetings.
Karma is now the Chairperson for the Ura READ Center Management Committee—the first woman to hold a leadership position within a READ Center in Bhutan.
Pending funding, the Women Represent project will be brought to other READ Centers in Bhutan, so we can continue to shift gender norms and create women leaders.