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Women and the vote
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Women and the vote
As more Bhutanese women become inspired and encouraged to play a bigger role in public life, their path to the democratic process seems quite unclear.

Today, women gather under the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) umbrella to discuss social, women and youth issues. Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has said that political parties are not allowed to have separate women or youth wings.

"The draft constitution prohibits segregation based on sex, religion, language or social origin and having a group, which particularly isolates women from the mainstream of the party politics, is unlawful," said election commission officials.

"It is also self-defeating because, on one hand, you have a women's wing and, on the other, a youth wing, implying that the main party members are men.

ECB officials said that the commission was not against women or youth issues being brought to the limelight, but the constitution made it clear that a wing, structured in such a way as to have its own charter and objectives, was not permissible.

The women members have, however, got around the commission's stance by renaming the PDP women's wing as the department of women and youth.

"Initially, we called it the PDP women's wing, but the ECB heard about it and was under the impression that it was an independent body of the party or an NGO," said the director for PDP's women and youth department, Lily Wangchuk.

"But that is not the case, we are a department within the People's Democratic Party and not a separate branch. We have let ECB know that. Since then, we have not heard from them on the matter and we have an understanding within the party that it is okay to have a women and youth department," she said.

The director also said that ECB has to understand that the department's intention is not to start a feminist movement but to incorporate women's perspectives in the party policies and plans.

On the other hand, women members of DPT call themselves the women's support group of DPT and also the Amsu Detsen.

They do not have a separate charter and their goals and objectives are in line with the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa's objective and goals, according to the members.

"We are not an independent so-called 'wing' of the party. We are a support group of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa," said a member, Khandu Om.

"We don't have a leader or a director, but we have women's working groups and several focal persons in a few districts and, at the moment, our main objective is to ensure that women understand their role in democracy."

The PDP women and youth department members said that they were going ahead with their activities, adding that the time to act was now.

On October 4, a women's discussion forum on 'women's role in democracy' was organised by the PDP women and youth department. However, it left the organisers and volunteers dissatisfied.

The reason was the turnout, which constituted only a handful of educated women, housewives, businesswomen and lacked the participation of women in the civil service.

"Civil servants are told to remain apolitical but, if they are to vote, they need to be informed and for that they need to attend such meetings," said Lily Wangchuk. "But women are worried, because they are either civil servants or wives of civil servants or armed forces."

"We sent out about 500 invitations to educated women, but only about 100 turned up," she said.

However, those attending the meeting did not put up a lame show. Some were outspoken and some were coy but they had the courage to face the crowd and give inspiring talks on why women should raise their voices. Some however forgot the larger issue and simply pledged support to the party.

Some of the gaping issues, relevant to most Bhutanese women and society at large, like sexual harassment in the work place, lack of care for old people, uneducated and divorced single mothers, and a lack of economical day-care centres for single as well as working mothers, were raised.

But there were women, who had attended such a gathering for the first time in their lives, and did not see housework or battery as issues.

Some listened but were critical about the women and youth department's role. "What I understood is that they are indirectly asking for votes by saying that there is nothing they cannot do for us," said Kinley, 56.

On the other front, a similar meeting was organised by the women tshogpa of DPT on September 28. A DPT member, Rinzin, told media that women's involvement in party politics and decision-making would contribute towards a better tomorrow.

About 300 women from Lamgong Wangchang constituency in Paro attended the meeting in Lango gewog.

Source: Contributed by Kinley Wangmo Kinley, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper, October 2007
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