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Interview With Dr. Tashi Zangmo - Bhutan

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Dr. Tashi Zangmo

Zangmo was born on 1963 in Wamrong, Bhutan. She was the first girl from her village and house to go to school. After completing her studies she worked as a secretary in the civil service in 1980s.

She earned academic degrees from India and United States. She received her Buddhology degree from Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS), Varanasi and BA degree in Development studies from Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. Later she received her master's degree and PhD from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.[3] After studies, she came back Bhutan and became an Executive director for the Bhutan Nuns Foundation. BNF was founded in 2009 under the patronage of Tshering Yangdon.

(Short bio in Wikipedia: was born on 1963, from India and United States.)

Gender Equality Statistics

In Bhutan, in 2010, 84.6% of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. 25.8% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 59 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2009, up from 43.8 per 1,000 in 2006. As of February 2021, only 14.9% of seats in parliament were held by women. In 2018, 8.6% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Women and girls aged 15+ spend 15% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 5.9% spent by men.

Unemployment rate. Age 15+: Female (3.2%), Male (1.8%)

Maternal mortality ratio: 183 per 100,000

Literacy rate, age 15+: Female (57.1%), Male (66.6%)

Rate of out of school children. Primary and Lower Secondary education: Female (6.8%), Male (12.3%)


Interview with Dr. Tashi Zangmo (6 September 2023)

Catherine Piskurich: Due to the close contact and extensive work you have done regarding Bhutan women gender discrimination, in what ways do you see traditional cultural gender roles still being integrated into societal norms today in Bhutan?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: In general, Bhutan is a country that is moving towards gender equality. Compared to many other countries with extreme gender discrimination, it is very progressive. However, different generations have different attitudes towards gender roles. For example, my parents and older sisters still believe in traditional gender roles where men are stronger and better, and women are expected to do household chores. Although it is difficult to change this thinking, awareness is increasing, especially among the younger, educated generation. It begins at home, with how we raise our children. The older generation still expects girls to help in the kitchen, while boys are given more freedom. Nevertheless, change is happening, and it is not just a black and white issue. There are different categories of people, each with their own views on gender roles.

Catherine Piskurich: In what ways does your organization hope to target these lingering inequalities for women in their efforts? What can we take away from the same message you would give to the young woman of Bhutan?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: You know, I often get invited to colleges to talk about gender issues. Just having the opportunity to talk to students about this topic means a lot, because it encourages dialogue. Before, people didn't even want to talk about it because it was a sensitive issue. But now, I get invited to colleges to talk about it, and that's progress. We should never give up on talking about important topics, even if they make us uncomfortable.

I always encourage younger generations and women to speak out, even if older generations may discourage them. It's important to explain to them that men and women are both human beings, and that we can try to achieve the same things. We should never give up on trying to make progress and have important conversations. That's what I always tell young women in school systems and colleges.

Annabelle Crouch: Given the traditional culture in Bhutan regarding women’s familial and homemaking responsibilities, can you discuss how systemic barriers have evolved but continue to limit women’s involvement and education over the years?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Compared to my time, significant changes have taken place. In some of my articles, I mentioned that when I first went to school, there were about 100+ boys and only 7 to 8 girls. Even the girls who attended were daughters of local teachers or shopkeepers, and nobody came from faraway villages. I became a role model for girls from faraway villages then.

Nowadays, girls outnumber boys in some schools, but societal notions that favor men during political elections still exist. We need to raise awareness and make systemic changes to eliminate gender discrimination. Just because we are better than the worst scenarios in other countries, it doesn't mean we are okay. We need to aim for the best and become free of all gender discrimination.

Dr Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: Gender-based violence is a critical issue in Bhutan, but unfortunately, it is not an exception to the rest of the world. Gender-based violence is a widespread epidemic, and it must be addressed. What are your thoughts on this matter? How can we tackle this issue?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, gender-based violence is prevalent everywhere. However, in Bhutan, we have measures in place to address it. There is a national women and children's office that focuses on women's issues, and NGOs also deal with violence against women. Our organization specifically focuses on Buddhist nuns. Although gender-based violence is not tolerated anywhere, we still need to do a lot of advocacy work to make sure people feel comfortable speaking out against it.

There are systems in place, such as lawyers and police forces, even corporations are involved in addressing the issue. However, abusers often make their victims feel like they cannot live without them. The oppressors and the oppressed need to be educated, and more advocacy work needs to be done. Although progress has been made, there are still cases where individuals are mistreated and find it difficult to break away from their abusers.

Gender-based violence affects both men and women, but women are often the majority of victims due to their physical vulnerability. We still have a long way to go, but compared to when I was growing up, there are now more resources and systems in place to address the problem.

Our organization is actively engaged in addressing this issue. Our foundation's vision is to educate people with compassion and help them understand that mistreating another human being, even a loved one, is not acceptable. These are some of the initiatives we are undertaking to prepare our nuns to be a spiritual body that can contribute positively to society.

I focus on Buddhist nuns and train them because I believe they are in the best position to help women and young girls by educating and counseling them. However, it takes time to educate and prepare the nuns for their role in society. It has been my fourteenth years working with them, and it takes time for them to understand their potential and role in society.

Before, nobody noticed their existence, but we are there to support and encourage them to contribute to society. It takes time for them to believe and realize that they have a role in helping the needy in society.

Annabelle Crouch: Dorji Choden rejects praise for being the first woman in cabinet stating one is not enough, we need more women in decision-making roles. What changes would you like to see in regards to regulation and funding relating to women’s education in Bhutan?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: We can see that there are now women in Cabinet level, indicating an improvement in the participation of women in politics. They have demonstrated their capacity and capability. However, there may still be discrepancies in selecting and recognizing those who deserve it, as is the case anywhere. Despite this, more women are stepping up and holding positions of power every year. At least several women are now holding the highest positions in Bhutan, and there are several more at the middle level.

It takes time to achieve gender equality, and there is a lot of debate around quotas. When I was younger, it was rare to see women in leadership positions, but now that is changing. However, being a mother and a woman comes with obligations that require significant sacrifices. People often do not realize how much women sacrifice to step up and hold these positions. It is in our nature to make sacrifices, and this can prevent women from taking on leadership roles. Life is more complicated for women, but more and more are making sacrifices and stepping into leadership roles.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: You briefly mentioned this earlier, but I would like to know more because it is interesting to compare across countries. What are the most common stereotypes about women in Bhutan?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: One of the most common stereotypes is that women are weaker. People tend to judge women based on physical appearance without realizing how strong they are emotionally. While women may not be able to lift heavy weight as much as men do, that doesn't mean they are weak and incapable. In fact, women can do everything that men can do. Unfortunately, society often looks down upon women and makes negative comments if they behave in a similar way to men. This stereotype is especially prevalent among older generations and needs to be challenged.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: Is the identification of women as "mother" also common over there?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Yes, that identification is still very common here too. But, as I said, although Bhutan is still somewhat gender-biased compared to many other countries, Bhutanese women are increasingly raising their voices and speaking out. They are free to express themselves, answer questions, and offer their opinions without hesitation. Women's voices have always been strong in Bhutan and continue to be so today. However, women still face challenges in doing what men can do. Nevertheless, as time goes on, more and more women are stepping up and breaking down these stereotypes.

With my organization, for example, we've already broken several glass ceilings this year that have universal benefits. In fact, even before this interview, I was responding to an email from two Italian Buddhist nuns who want to come to Bhutan to obtain their highest ordination. While this was not available for the Himalayan region Buddhist nuns, we have worked to revive this practice again and it has become one of the positive topics of discussions among the Buddhist communities now.

These are the kinds of systemic changes that are making a huge difference, starting from a small country like Bhutan. In fact, it's sometimes beneficial to have a progressive Royal Patronage. In our case, we've made a lot of progress thanks to our king’s forthright and progressive attitude.

Dr Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: What are your thoughts on establishing quotas for women's participation in the political system of your country? Although this idea is controversial, it has been effective in countries such as Rwanda and Sweden.

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Many years ago, when women were just beginning to participate in Bhutan’s young democracy, debates about the quota system arose. At that time, I participated in some of these debates on the national television and I didn't fully support it. I believed that the quota system was a form of discrimination in itself, as it suggested that women were weaker and needed special treatment.

However, I now understand the importance of the quota system in promoting gender equality in Bhutan. Without it, women would continue to be left behind. Waiting for more privileged and educated women to step forward is not enough. We need to encourage all women to participate, and the quota system can help achieve this goal. Therefore, I now fully support the quota system to catch up.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: Is gender equality promoted in schools in Bhutan? How?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Traditionally, there was no age limit for attending school, but boys and girls nowadays usually start at the age of 5 or 6. In the past, children were typically not accepted until they were around 9 or 11 years old. However, the current national requirement for primary school attendance is 6 years old, and both girls and boys can attend at this age. Gender equality is emphasized from an early age.

In the past, even issues like menstrual hygiene were not widely discussed, and there were some taboos associated with it, particularly in Hinduism. Although some taboos still exist in Bhutan, they are not as strong. Initiatives are underway to promote menstrual hygiene awareness and gender advocacy in the school system. Students are encouraged to discuss and talk freely about menstruation, and these efforts are making a difference.

Gene Herrmann: After some studying, it seems that Bhutanese monasteries are very important to the history of education in Bhutan. Could you speak a little bit on the past, present, and future importance of Nuns and Buddhist monasteries in Bhutanese education? Could you speak a little bit on the past, present, and future importance of those nuns and Buddhist monasteries in Bhutanese education.

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Yes, it is very important in the history of Bhutan because Buddhism and spirituality are integral to the country's identity. The founder of Bhutan was a monk who fled from Tibet and named the country Bhutan. During his time, majority of the clergy and civil servants were all monks, making it a strongly spiritual country. Even now, the majority of citizens are Buddhist, and the culture and traditions are intertwined with religious values.

However, there are concerns for the future generation as the country becomes more modernized. Bhutan's philosophy of development is based on the concept of gross national happiness, which has four pillars: culture and tradition preservation, environmental protection, economic development, and good governance. While economic development is necessary, there is a concern that younger generations are being driven towards Westernization and materialism, which may threaten Bhutan's identity. Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent, but it is important to consider at what level we are willing to let change happen.

Jack Libby: Is there one opportunity that you passed up that you have always regretted not taking? What was it and what do you think it would have changed about you or the effect it would've had on your career?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Actually, when I read your question, I took the time to type out some answers. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on each question, which was really good because I haven't had a chance to sit down, think, and write lately. I am always running around. I thought to myself, "I should write my own story." Your questions allowed me to think and reflect on my past. Looking back, I realized that I don't regret anything because I always took opportunities as they came and never said no to anything.

I encourage all of you to keep your options open, as I did. When the first opportunity arose, I was older than those around me, especially when I attended Mount Holyoke College (MHC) for my undergraduate degree. I was 27 years old when I got the chance to study there. While studying in India, I met a professor from MHC who came to teach computer science at the Tibetan university. Since I was able to communicate in English a little better than other students were at that time, I helped the western students who came to study Tibetan. It was during this time that the two professors asked me if I would like to apply to Mount Holyoke College. Without even thinking, I said yes.

Later, when I got to Mount Holyoke, I realized how tough it was. I spent my whole four years in the library because I had never written an English academic paper before, and critical analysis was never taught. It was completely different, but it was the guts that I put forward. Saying yes to things is important, and nothing is impossible. I don't regret anything because the tough times made me who I am today, and I wouldn't change a thing. Those tough times also made me an empathetic person who can better help others. So, I enjoy looking back at my tough life experiences now.

Valentina Rydstrom: What or who pushed you to be the first girl to receive and education in your village at such a young age?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: During my childhood in a small and remote village, education was not a priority. Only a few boys attended school. Girls were not even considered for education. One day, my mother asked me if I wanted to go to school. I didn't even know what school was, but I said yes without any hesitation. The only school existed in that area then was a day's walk from my village and there were no boarding facilities. However, I started boarding and stayed with a lady who was cooking for her son. There were no rules or regulations as there were no facilities. I slept in the corner of a boys' dormitory with no proper food, mattresses or blankets. This continued for a year. Despite the challenges, I felt responsible and dreamed of doing well in school to help my village people in the future. This thought motivated me to work hard and think beyond myself.

Hailey Williams: What or who inspired you to join the journey of the Bhutan Nun Foundation?

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: When I was growing up, very few people went to school, especially girls. If a family had five daughters, they could only afford to send one to school. The rest would be sent to become a nun or a monk, where at least some learning, reading, writing, and traditional Buddhist studies took place. There was no quality education, but parents still sent their children there.

One of my older sisters was a nun who passed away ten years ago. I was fascinated with nuns and drawn to them. When I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, I won an award called Simon Huntington Public Service Award, which was opened to participate for any graduating senior in the United States. I won a $10,000 prize to go anywhere in the world and do public service.

I decided to go back to my village to help a nunnery to build a library (study hall) because they were staying in a dark one-room hut with no electricity, no study room, and no space for anything. They were staying in a small-shared space, and each time I brought books, they would be damaged by the smoke from the fireplace and the mice would destroy them etc. So, I applied to build a small library for the nuns.

When I went to graduate school, I wanted to write my thesis on nuns’ education because I saw they needed help. Initially, I wanted to return to Bhutan and start a women's college. However, when I came back, I saw that things had changed, and girls were going to universities. The nuns needed more support, so I started focusing on their education and how we could help.

After finishing my Ph.D., I felt bad because I had asked so many questions, but I wasn't doing anything. I wrote my thesis and didn't want it to sit on a shelf, so I started thinking about how to help the nuns systematically throughout the country. I saw that our Queen Mother, now the patron of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, was interested in nuns and was supporting one or two nunneries on her own.

We wanted to start a systematic foundation to support the nuns' well-being, living conditions, education, and social activity. We wanted to train them as trainers,

counselors, hospice palliative care, and teachers. We wanted them to be socially active Buddhists rather than passive recipients. Under the guidance of Her Majesty, we started the current foundation. Thank you for your question.

Dr. Tashi Zangmo: Thank you again for the opportunity. Before we finish, I would like to answer a question that one of the students posted about the advice I would give to students who want to make an impact. My advice is to be open to opportunities and to step out of your comfort zone. Consider volunteering with organizations like the Peace Corps to challenge yourself and gain an appreciation for what you have at home. Dream big, but also pay attention to the details.

There is a quote by Guru Rinpoche, the second Buddha, that goes, "My visions are vast than sky (space), but my attention to details are as fine as barley flour." So, think beyond yourself and help others to solve their problems. By doing so, your problems will automatically become smaller.

Thank you very much.


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