The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked nation nestled in the eastern Himalayas, bordering China to the north and India to the south. With a total area of 38,394 and aerial distance of around 350km from east to west and around 150km from north to south. Bhutan lies between 88°45’ and 92°10’ longitude East and 26°42’ and 28°15’ latitude North. It is a mountainous country except for a strip of plains in the south.

Bhutan followed a policy of self-imposed isolation and was largely cut off from the rest of the world until 1950s.Its formidable geographical boundaries kept out foreign authority and influence, allowing the Bhutanese to develop its own sense of a unique national identity, despite ethnic and linguistic diversity. Today, unlike most countries, Bhutan has retained its integrity and distinctive way of life is virtually intact.

Despite its late start towards modernization in 1961, Bhutan has recorded remarkable achievements. Today a wide network of roads, cheap electricity and telecommunication facilities link the different parts of the country and Bhutan with the outside world. The progress in physical infrastructure is matched by the same in social sectors such as education and health. A least developed country in the 1960s with a GDP per capita of USD 51 (the lowest in the world), in 2008 it moved up to USD 1,852 being among the highest in South Asia. This without compromising the preservation of the age-old mosaic of cultures, lifestyles, languages and belief systems. Bhutan’s rich and unique cultural heritage has largely remained intact. Traditional arts, crafts, rituals, ceremonies, festivals, social conduct and structures are not remnants of a bygone age but are as alive today as they were hundreds years ago.

National vision of Gross National Happiness

With a unique national vision which is the guiding development philosophy for Bhutan, Gross National Happiness (GNH) was envisioned and encapsulated by His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Bhutan is  known for its visionary and dynamic leadership under its benevolent Monarchs. The four pillars or principles of GNH outline Bhutan’s uncompromising stance on environmental conservation (to maintain 60% forest cover for all times to come), preservation and promotion of the rich culture and heritage, good governance and balanced economic development. As a result Bhutan is known for its policy of ‘high value low impact’ tourism, rich traditions and cultural heritage, pristine ecology and abundant wildlife.

Bhutan’s transition to Parliamentary democracy

Bhutan embraced parliamentary democracy in April 2008, a unique and peaceful way initiated by the Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, unlike typical transitions to democracy elsewhere in the world. It was introduced at a time of unprecedented peace, stability and prosperity, and against the will of the people. In March 2008, two major political parties that emerged viz.the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Druk Phuensum Tshokpa (DPT) contested for the first ever parliamentary elections held in Bhutan’s history after 100 years of monarchy. DPT won a landslide majority taking 45 out of 47 seats of the National Assembly or Lower House of Bhutan’s Parliament. President of DPT Jigme Y Thinley became the first elected Prime Minister of Bhutan, and in April 2008 as the ruling party formed his government for a term of 5 years (2008-2013).

BHUTAN at a Glance

Total Area                     :  38,394 square kilometers (350km long and 150km wide approximately)
Location                        :  Landlocked between China and India
Altitude                         :  100m above sea level in the south to over 7,500m above sea level in the north.
Longitude                      :  88°45’ – 92°10’ East
Latitude                         :  26°42’ – 28°15’ North
Political system             :  Democratic Constitutional Monarchy
Capital                           :  Thimphu
District                          :  20
County/geogs                :  205
Population (2009 est.)    :  683,407 (Male 357,305; Female 326,102)
Population growth rate   :  1.8 percent (2005)
Exchange rate (Mar. ‘10)  : 1USD = Ngultrum 45.50
Forest coverage             : 72.5 percent of the land area
Cultivated area              : 7.8 percent of total land
Life expectancy             : 66.3 years (Male 65.7; Female 66.9)
Literacy rate                  : 59.5 percent (Male 69; Female 49)
Local time                     : 6 hrs ahead of GMT
Country code                 : +975

Natural Resources

Minerals  : Dolomite, Limestone, Gypsum, Slate, Coal, Talc, Marble, Zinc, Lead, Copper,
Tungsten, Chemical Grade Quartzite, Graphite, Iron Ore
Crops :  Rice, Maize, Wheat, Potato, Millet, Buckwheat, Orange, Apple, Cardamom, Coffee
Hydropower :  An estimated potential of 30,000 MW with mean annual energy production capability close to 120,000 GWh.

A glimpse at Gender in Bhutan

Women in Bhutan enjoy relative freedom and equality in many spheres of life. Laws in Bhutan treat women and men equally and women’s rights and interests are safeguarded by  provisions of different legal acts, including the Constitution of Bhutan. However, despite equal opportunities enjoyed by men and women, gender gaps exist in many spheres including the economy.

The table below from the National Plan of Action on Gender, 2006  shows  gender gaps in various areas.

Female Male
National Assembly 3% 97%
Civil Service 28% 72%
1% 99%
Access to Credit 38% 62%
Labour Force Participation 
Higher Education 32% 68%

The status of women in Bhutan has been influenced by many factors which include socio-cultural perceptions that generally hold women as less confident and less capable and sexually more vulnerable than men; women’s triple roles and work burden; lower literacy rates and educational levels; religious norms disabling women to break away from traditional roles; women’s inferior economic status as in most cases women are financially dependent on men. These factors have greatly influenced their position in terms of access, including educational and employment opportunities. Women’s own perception of themselves in Bhutan based on above factors, add to the shortcomings.

Women’s traditional tie to the land in Bhutan, reinforced through matrilineal inheritance patterns especially in western and central areas, have increased their responsibility in caring for their parents, hence limiting their social and economic choices. Coupled with these factors, women’s disadvantage has been amplified by the late start that Bhutan made in introducing modern education, in which women got their opportunity much later. Hence, today the higher positions in both public, professional and private sectors are dominated by men.
While most of Bhutan’s population still lives in rural areas (69%) 4, urban centres which have emerged in recent decades in most Dzongkhags have attracted a considerable number of people from rural communities, in large part because of the access to cash income. Almost 60% of migrants are men, thus leaving women further behind to take care of the farms. Among those women who migrate to urban areas; many find employment as domestic helpers for the urban elite, particularly in childcare. Younger girls engaged in this type of work often do not attend school, further limiting their development.

Over the past decades considerable progress has been made in reducing gender gaps in Bhutan in terms of school enrolment rates, length of female education, and labour force participation. Nevertheless, in many important areas gender disparity exists and much still has to be done.

Gender and economy in Bhutan

Any initiative aimed at achieving sustainable economic development calls for efforts at increasing women’s participation in the economy, reducing women’s poverty, increasing access to educational opportunities and enhancing women’s access to power and decision-making. Integration of women into the productive work force and economic activity will enhance growth prospects with expansion of the labour force and an increase in economic productivity.

Promoting gender equality is now deemed extremely essential in alleviating poverty and a key factor in contributing to the economic growth.

To engender the economy of Bhutan, the role of women entrepreneurs in particular needs to be highlighted, supported and facilitated. Today they are fairly invisible whilst women participate in significant numbers at the level of small, cottage and micro-entrepreneurs, but more informally than formal economy.
The rationale for engendering economic development is provided as follows:

  • As women comprise half the population, their contribution is vital for achieving sustainable economic development.
  • Gender equality strengthens long term economic development with higher labour activity and a more robust economy.
  • An increase in female participation in the workforce will undoubtedly create economic growth as empowered women will contribute to the health and productivity of families and communities and to improved aspects for the next generation. For example, a woman’s decision to participate in the paid labour force will enable them to alleviate their families from poverty that prove detrimental to economic growth.
  • Women also create a beneficial environment where they improve the well-being of their children so that their children can go on to survive and contribute to future economic growth. Thus, the ability to voice decisions allows gender equality to be crucial to economic progress and human development.

By assuming a role in the decision-making process, women are also able to influence human development. For example, children whose mothers have an equal voice in family decisions have been found to be more likely to receive proper nourishment, education, and health care services.