Bhutan saw the highest rate of women participation in local government elections – candidates and voters – in 2021, claims BNEW, Bhutan Network for Empowering Women. With 186 women voted into office, seven rose to Gup status (the highest decision-making post in local government). This turn of events is positively disrupting beliefs that women don’t have what it takes to lead.
For SNV, it was a great moment of pride to see familiar faces from our Leadership for Change (LfC) trainings in public service. The LfC trainings were also instrumental in helping Bhutan’s national Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Programme (RSAHP) meet its gender parity target for regional review and reflection workshops. For far too long in the eastern region, women participation in review and reflection workshops barely reached 30 per cent. In October 2021, participation was at 56 per cent.
The LfC training programme was a collaborative initiative between SNV, BNEW, and the country’s Ministry of Health (MOH), supported by the Australian Government’s Water for Women Fund.
Gender networks talk WASH
The LfC initiative broadened the network of women promoters for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH). Regular SNV engagement in BNEW forums strengthened capacity of emerging women leaders, including women in parliament to ‘know and speak WASH.’ Organisations outside the traditional water and WASH networks began contributing to WASH issues including Rainbow Bhutan, a network of sexual and gender minorities.
‘I will advocate women and men in my community to raise their voice at every community meeting including during WASH forums so that our voices are equally heard.’ - Woman training participant from Zhemgang
Sustaining collaboration and solidarity
To sustain the partnership, Wechat and Whatsapp groups were created to serve as networking social platforms. These were particularly useful in responding to a key challenge to rural women’s participation in leadership positions in Bhutan: the ‘lack of networking amongst women, particularly rural women.’ Today, these platforms are being used to:
- share updates on (WASH) action plans,
- support each other when a member (or members) is (are) confronted by gender-related biases and exclusionary practices, and
- empower and encourage each other to vie for leadership positions, including in government.
Gender parity achieved during the 2021 Eastern regional review and reflection workshop (Photo: Sonam Pelzom/MOH Bhutan)
Focusing on strengths to effect change
A strengths-based approach was applied during LfC trainings, encouraging participants to identify their strengths and the opportunities that they could leverage in their leadership journeys. The approach enabled participants to value their capacity, skills, knowledge, connections, and potential to become a leader.
‘I feel so motivated to participate in the upcoming local government elections in 2021 so I can bring about more positive change in my community including in WASH.’ - Woman training participant from Tashigang
In the words of Aum Phuntshok Chhoden, Executive Director of BNEW, ‘BNEW considers SNV to be a valuable partner whose support enabled BNEW to add another aspect to its capacity building initiatives since 2019 for our local women representatives… to work closely on WASH activities as also a way to position themselves stronger in society and become better leaders who bring and lead positive changes in their communities.’
Contributor: Tshering Choden, Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor, SNV in Bhutan
Banner photo: SNV Bhutan
 This blog was written as part of the Beyond the Finish Line-Sustainable Sanitation and Hygiene for All programme, which is funded by the Australian government’s Water for Women Fund.
 Read key SNV lessons in the application of a strengths-based study of women leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bhutan, Lao PDR, and Nepal here.
 Contact SNV in Bhutan by email for more information.