Thursday, September 16, 2010

Should RTI Act be introduced in Bhutan?

Tshering P. Dorji

Information as a term means giving shape to something and forming a pattern, respectively. It means adding something new to our awareness and removing the vagueness of our ideas.

“Information is a necessity”, Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley said. However, Lyonchhen said, “I cannot say if the Right To Information (RTI) Act is needed in our country at this point of time. Thus far, what ever information, whether it’s to media or to any organisation, government has not withheld any information that is required by the public to know”.

Lyonchhen further said, “RTI is not yet a priority because the information is still available. We have got so many Bills that are urgent and needs to be enacted. The Parliament is required to enact these Bills as per the constitution”.

According to Karma Gyeltshen, a civil servant, information is power these days. To share this power is empowering the weakest sections of the society. “It is precisely because of this reason that the Right to Information has been ensured by some developed countries elsewhere,” he said.

While most of the civil servants and media professionals I interviewed had mixed feelings about introducing RTI in the country, the managing editor of Bhutan Observer, Needup Zangpo, said that RTI is one of the central pillars of democracy and that, “If not now, sometime in the future, it should be introduced in the country”. He added that with democracy in the country, the introduction of RTI in the country has become “inevitable”. He pointed out that the government at this juncture “does not feel the need though”.

He added that information is indispensable for the functioning of a true democracy. People have to be kept informed about current affairs and broad issues whether it is political, social or economic. “Free exchange of ideas and free debates are essentially desirable for the government of a democratic country,” he said.

Tenzin Rigden, the editor in chief of Bhutan Today and the former press secretary to the Prime Minister opinions that RTI as of now is not needed. “In the future, yes”, he said, adding that the present government is transparent and that any information that is required to be reached to the people is not being with held by the government. He feels that with the change in government in the future, the need for RTI will arise.

Kezang Dema, a corporate employee is of the view that RTI is a constitutional right as enshrined in the constitution of the Kingdom. “The prerequisite for enjoying this right is knowledge and information,” she said adding that the absence of authentic information on matters of public interest will only encourage wild rumours and speculations and avoidable allegations against individuals and institutions. “And therefore, the RTI becomes a constitutional right, being an aspect of the right to free speech and expression which includes the right to receive and collect information,” she said.

However, on the contrary, Sonam Lhamo a school teacher said that as no right can be absolute, the RTI has to have its limitations. “There will always be areas of information that should remain protected in public and national interest,” she said. Moreover, she said that this unrestricted right can have an adverse effect of an overload of demand on administration, and so the “Information has to be properly and clearly classified by an appropriate authority,” Sonam said.

Towards curbing violence in Bhutanese homes

Tshering P. Dorji

A survivour of gender based violence in Peru, was once quoted as saying, “It is said that we were all born under a star; when I watch the stars at night, I ask which of them is mine, so that I can change it for another one.” Such is the plight of women who fall victim to violence at homes.
At the stakeholder’s consultation meeting on 27th August 2010 held in the capital at Bhutan Chamber for Commerce and Industry (BCCI) the members reviewed the much awaited domestic violence Bill of Bhutan. The members consisted of parliamentarians, health officials, police, officials from the non-governmental organizations and other champions of the cause.
“As we embark on this journey each and every one of us have a responsibility and a duty to leave behind a better world than we found. It is our moral obligation to hand to our children a society free of social malice,” Chimi Wangmo, the executive director of Respect Educate Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW) said. She added that social problem we face today is as complex as it has ever been. “It is a daunting challenge to tackle the issues of substance abuse, aggression, and domestic violence within our society. But every long and difficult journey begins with the first step and we have actually made a leap to begin our journey,” she said.
According to the United Nations to which Bhutan is a signatory, domestic violence, any act of gender based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering for women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) domestic violence accounts for a high proportion of homicides of women internationally. About 40 percent to 70 percent of female murder victims (depending on the country) were killed by their partners/former partners, whereas the comparable figure for men stood at 4 percent to 8 percent.
The study conducted by RENEW on domestic violence concluded that domestic violence has become a cliché in Bhutanese society over time. “Like any other society such form of violence is viewed casually as a private affair and is sanctioned under the semblance of cultural practices, social norms, misinterpretation of religious tenets and misguided jurisprudence often referred as ‘balance judgment’”, the report said.
In a population based survey conducted in Thimphu by RENEW in 2007 indicated that 77 percent of the participants in the survey have experienced domestic violence in the past three years. The statistics from the forensic unit of the National Referral Hospital in Thimphu indicates that 70 percent of the reported assault cases are of domestic violence. In 2008, the forensic unit recorded 339 cases of domestic violence perpetrated against women. In the first half of year 2009, the unit saw 169 cases. 80 percent of the domestic violence cases reported to RENEW is of repetitive violence they have endured anywhere from 3 to 14 years.
The Bill reviewers concluded that gender norms and inequity condone and perpetuate violence against women and that the violence against women is used to support unequal gender roles.
Doctor Rinchen Chhophel of National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) in his presentation said men notion that they have the right to control wives’ behavior and to ‘discipline’ them. He quotes a typical husband saying, “If it is a great mistake, the husband is justified in beating his wife. Why not? A cow will not be obedient without beatings.” The notion, he asserted is that “There are ‘just’ causes for violence.”
The reviewers as well deliberated on some of the myths and realities about gender based violence. “To say that gender based violence happens only to poor and marginalized women and that men cannot control themselves because violence is simply a part of their nature is but a facade. The reality is, such violence happens among people of all socioeconomic, educational and racial profiles,” one reviewer pointed out.
“Male violence is not genetically based. It is perpetuated by a model of masculinity that permits and even encourages men to be aggressive and that blaming the victim is precisely the kind of attitude that has the potential to cause harm to a survivor of violence,” Dr Chhophel said.
According to WHO report, incidences consistently show that most women who experience domestic violence are abused by people they know. “Often the perpetrators are those they trust and love,” the report said.
The RENEW’s report, ‘domestic Violence: social malice’ says that their study revealed 77 percent of the women surveyed in Thimphu have experienced domestic violence within the past 3 years.
Police records indicate domestic violence reports of up to 6 times per week. The forensic unit in the National Referral Hospital recorded 339 cases in the year 2008, and 169 in the first half of year 2009. RENEW alone has catered services to 400 victims of domestic violence so far.
Gender based violence according to Dr Pakila Dukpa is also one of the major public health issues in the country. “Besides socio-economic and psychological impacts, domestic violence also causes severe reproductive health impacts. Forced sex for instance, is directly correlated to fatal diseases like HIV/AIDS,” he said.
The reviewers revealed that world wide, US $ 5.1 billion is spent annually in treating victims of domestic violence. Statistics for Bhutan as of now is unavailable.
Dr Chhophel concluded his presentation saying that the journey is long, tedious and painful but “we must make a start” and with the drafting of this Bill “the start has begun”, he said.

No women, No GNH?

Tshering P. Dorji

A type of governance that considers and is receptive to gender differences is good governance. While, men and women are treated as equals and provided equal opportunities in Bhutan, socially preconceived gender differences thwart good governance.
Based on the results of Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (PHCB) 2005 the National Statistics Bureau’s (NSB) population projections reveal that women constitute half the population of the country implying that they can play crucial role in the economy.
However, women’s participation towards nation building is cheerless, so the figures maintain. The civil service with 19,835 employees consists of 6,166 women which accounts for about 31% of the total. And according to the Opposition Leader, Tshering Tobgay, the civil service currently employs less than one woman for every two men.
Of the 181 executive level civil servants only eight are women with only one at the secretary level. Figures state that except for one government owned corporations the rest are all men. And of the 72 members in the parliament, only 10 are women. Further still, at the grass root level only one woman rub shoulders with 204 other gups. And worse still, we neither had a woman as a dzongdag nor a minister in the cabinet ever.
The effort thus far by the government with regard to women’s participation at the decision making level is according to most Bhutanese Bhutan Times talked to “is either lacking” or “the better halves are not interested.”
Although the Royal Government has maintained a gender neutral position in the formulation and implementation of its plans, policies and programmes, the National Plan of Action’s (NGAP) gender baseline study report revealed that while Bhutan enjoyed a generally high level of gender equality, “More subtle and indirect forms of gender bias did exist.” The study highlighted gender gaps in key areas such as higher education, national economy and political participation.
As affirmed by the Prime Minister, Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley in his State of the Nation report 2009-2010, “My fellow subjects of the great king, we must not be passive observers passing judgments. We must directly or through our MPs play a role in correcting and changing what is unjust or inequitable,” Lyonchhen said. “Our duty is to be caring, active, participative and contribute to the making of our country into a vibrant and sustainable democracy.”
However, gender equality cannot be achieved by government alone but should be tackled by society as a whole. The formulation of approaches will need to ensure that these policies, programmes and projects are oriented to both women and men if sustainable development is to be achieved.
“I would remind that ensuring equity and justice in our society is not the sole responsibility and function of the state-it is shared in a democracy,” Lyonchhen said in his address to the nation. “As citizens of a democracy, we must always mindfully be aware that the will and actions of the leaders, and in turn, the state are reflection of the culture and will of the people.”
“To address the issue, gender responsive governance will need to be practiced and further progress required towards promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the next elections in 2013,” said Member of the Parliament (MP) Lila Pradhan. She implied that by encouraging more women to join politics it would give some diversity.
Attempting to achieve the Gross National Happiness (GNH) without conferring on in gender uniformity would increase reduce chances of acquiring GNH. “The noble concept after all is, all about contentment and contentment can only be realised when gender balance is achieved and more so at the administrative level,” Lila Pradhan said.
According to Lila Pradhan sustainable development which has been and still is the top most priority of the government can only be achieved when citizens and social structures work together to make use of the society’s utmost potentials irrespective of gender. “With good and equitable governance, sustainable human development is more easily achieved,” she said.
Attending to gender inequality will reduce poverty and enhance economic growth by increasing the productivity and efficiency of women’s contribution to the not only Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but also GNH, and according to MP Karma Lhamo, it is the lack of university level education that the women in Bhutan are generally found lacking in this front.
“Addressing gender inequality is not about advancement of women’s rights but rather enabling women to make full use of their potentials and skills thus contributing towards a productive workforce for the country and thereby enhancing good governance and economic growth,” Karma Lhamo said.
It is necessary to create an enabling environment for women’s empowerment, a process that will eventually lead to greater participation in social and political processes, greater decision-making power.

Quotas have been viewed as one of the most effective affirmative actions in increasing women's political participation. There are now 77 countries with constitutional, electoral or political party quotas for women worldwide. “Minimum quota system in our country as well would be nice. It would encourage more participation,” said MP Karma Rangdol, adding that such system would also mean forgoing quality.

In a nutshell, whether it is our traditions or the failure to implement gender sensitive policies women’s political empowerment until this day was invariably fraught with challenges and difficulties and is a matter to be confronted now.

By enhancing women’s presence will make parliament more humane, more sensitive to the real concerns of the citizens by better equipping the government to respond to the needs of all sectors of society. By doing so, “Realising GNH is not distant,” the members of the parliament told Bhutan Times.