Thinley Choden is the Bhutan country director at READ Global, which established the Aurbay Sher Shong Payzothkhang (ASSP) library in Ura. She spoke with us recently about the Women Represent project at ASSP and also described the cultural challenges to libraries in Bhutan and to the “Women Represent” project.
BA: What are some challenges READ Global faces in Bhutan?
TC: In some countries, libraries are working to redefine their roles in their communities, but in Bhutan, we don’t have a public library system. Bhutan has only one small public library, located in Thimphu. Even the concept of a library is very new since Bhutan has traditionally been an oral culture until the 1960s, when the current education system was established. READ Global is the only organization in Bhutan that is working to establish a network of community libraries. All the schools have a library, but that’s just for school students, that’s not for the community. I want to be at a point after five years or so where our READ centers can fill that role and become integral parts of the communities they serve.
BA: Can you tell us more about the Women Represent project?
TC: Due to the fact that the current education system started only in the 1960s in Bhutan, we have very minimal representation of women in leadership roles at a national level. Even at a community level, women hardly come out to participate in public meetings and in community meetings. But what women say and do can have a big impact on them, on their children and on the future of the whole nation, because women make up 51% of the Bhutanese population. Through this project, we want to encourage and increase awareness about the importance of women’s participation in public spaces.
We plan to do advocacy and outreach, including conducting leadership and capacity training at the community level. Also, we work with the Bhutanese Network for Empowering Women, which is creating a network of women leaders who will mentor young women and girls who are interested in public roles or public offices.
On International Women’s Day this year, we conducted a debate, essay and poster competition in Ura about the role of women. After the activities, a lot of the elders came forward and said that it was very inspiring to see that these young girls and boys raised these important issues.
BA: What successes and challenges has the project faced?
TC: Culturally, Bhutan is a matrilineal society, which means that the oldest daughter inherits the family’s property and that when couples marry, the husband moves into the wife’s house. Given that background, our advocacy work can be difficult because some people argue that women in Bhutan are already in a far better place than women in neighboring countries. They think we’re trying to bring in a very foreign idea and a foreign culture.
But we say that this is not enough for a young, democratic country. Most of the people who are out in the public spaces are all men. That’s not representative of our country. Unless women participate in decision making processes and in leadership roles, their voices will not be heard.