Nation-building needs investing in women: Dechen Wangmo, Bhutan’s Health Minister

Her Excellency Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo is the Health Minister of the Royal Government of Bhutan. Prior to joining politics, she worked as an international public health consultant in several countries. She represents North Thimphu constituency in the National Assembly of Bhutan (lower house of Bhutanese parliament).


In this interview, she speaks to Women for Politics about politics as a career choice for women in Bhutan, her experiences as the only woman minister in the national government and gender equality in Bhutanese and South Asian politics.


Dechen Wangmo elected as the President of 74th World Health Assembly, the highest decision-making body of WHO
Dechen Wangmo elected as the President of 74th World Health Assembly, the highest decision-making body of WHO

Bhutanese society has evolved a lot over the years. How has it been growing up as a girl in Bhutan for you?


Dechen Wangmo: Having worked in many countries now, I feel privileged and happy about being born in Bhutan with equal opportunities. In Bhutan, men and women have a fair space as compared to the rest of the world. I studied in a co-ed school where we could do whatever boys could do, we played basketball, learnt taekwondo and there were no restrictions based on gender.



Bhutan’s Covid success during the pandemic is an inspiration to the entire world. What are some of the lessons from this crisis for you and what is your vision going forward for Bhutanese public health system?


Dechen Wangmo: If I look back, the singular most important factor for our success so far is our leadership. It is not just leadership, but leadership of the heart, understanding every individual’s inconveniences and concerns. This came right from His Majesty, The King.


His Majesty travelled the length and breadth of the country, assuring all the citizens and advocating the protocols to follow. The solidarity we received from our people is because of their love for the country and his Majesty. This is the reason, we had very little vaccine hesitancy. People looked at the vaccination as a national duty. We are keeping our fingers crossed and we are hoping that Bhutan will probably become the first nation to have achieved herd immunity.


I am also happy to say that many countries came forward to support our vaccination drive. So for the world also i think sometimes even they want to see a light at the end of the tunnel so Bhutan became that light at the end of the tunnel.


We want to institute a people-centric and community-led health system. We want to strengthen our tertiary health care systems, building capabilities for early screening and disease detection. So ultimately gearing towards building a resilient health system and health security so that the next time the pandemic comes around, we have enough health workforce. We are a small country. We cannot afford not to invest in public health and prevention. So we have a very strong focus on prevention and health of the mother and child.



You have studied at one of the top universities globally and worked around the globe, how did politics happen? What motivated you and what were your thoughts when you joined Bhutanese Politics?

His Majesty The King conferred Dechen Wangmo with the Red Scarf
His Majesty The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck conferred Dechen Wangmo with the Red Scarf in recognition of her outstanding public service

Dechen Wangmo: It was the cause that I was passionate about. Politics was never on my radar, but since the current Prime Minister and the founder of our party (Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa) were from the same medical fraternity and also good friends, when they approached me saying ‘let's make a difference in the health sector’, I felt passionate and joined politics.


I barely had a month to campaign. The opponent party had its Vice President standing up as my opponents. By then, I didn't even know the basics of politics. I would say there was not a lot of thinking on the pros and cons but the decision was made by my drive to improve the health services in the country and the energy that my colleagues brought.



While there has been an increase in the number of women in politics in Bhutan since its first election in 2008, the percentage of women parliamentarians and women in cabinet stands quite low at 15%. How do you see this?


Dechen Wangmo: I absolutely hope that we have more women coming forward. When people say there are only 7 women in the lower house of the National Assembly, they don’t realise that we had only 10 people participating. And, 7 winning from 10 is an amazing proportion. This means that the public have high confidence in women and as long as one shows their capability, people see what they can deliver rather than the candidate’s gender.



For women contesting in Bhutanese politics, what are some of the entry barriers?


Dechen Wangmo: In my opinion and limited political experience, someone who had a good-paying job would have to let go of that to join politics. The security that you might have in other jobs, you would not find that when you enter into a career in politics. I feel women are generally not the biggest risk-takers, so such a risk might limit women from entering politics. In my case, I was working as a public health consultant, and I could still go back to doing what I do. But for others, like those who are civil servants, they have to resign and there is no way back then.


Additionally, the negative connotation around politics is also a factor and that is the same across the world. As per the public narrative, politics is not seen as noble work. Since we are a very new democracy, these challenges may pass as we grow.


When I was campaigning, everyone was concerned about my young son at home. I was asked about his care and also how I was managing it. My grand-aunt would see me on the TV and start crying with concerns about the responsibilities I have to shoulder during the pandemic. The other day I called her up and said, you should be proud of me for doing this! And she said yes, I feel proud, but you are also a girl, so I feel very sad for you to be shouldering all this responsibility.


So that's the mindset we are dealing with, you know, where there is a lot of love and care for girls and women. They think you are the ones who should be pampered and taken care of. You should not be the one who is taking care, but rather taken care of. It has a lot to do with the culture.



Would you please throw some light on the Bhutan Women Parliamentary Caucus and its impact on empowering women in politics?


Dechen Wangmo: Interestingly, we have a very strong woman as a leader, Phuntshok Chhoden who runs Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW) and played an instrumental role in establishing the caucus.


It is fairly new, but it does create a platform for women parliamentarians to discuss agenda regardless of their political affiliations. To discuss an agenda that pertains to women’s well-being. I find these platforms very informative, and they also facilitate capacity building and understanding among women politicians. We are trying to groom and strengthen the platform, and build our own capacity too. This is a platform where women from different walks of life, we have women civil servants coming in and talking about politics to us.




What are your experiences at regional and international platforms as a woman political leader from South Asia?


Dechen Wangmo: We have been bestowed the presidentship of the World Health Assembly (WHA) for the tenure of one year. I had the pleasure of being there and hosting one of the highest policy-making dialogues across 194 countries. I really look at that platform as showcasing not just Bhutan, but showcasing women’s leadership. We need to see more role models. We need to see not just regional role models but be able to compete as a region in the global platform as well.


I know there are many women political leaders in South Asia, I think we just need a platform to showcase that. Your organisation is one such, I believe it has that potential to show the world that these are role models, to not just the world but to growing young girls.


My son never thought woman could be a minister because he was so used to seeing a man minister. When I became the minister, he had a funny statement, he said, “when you become the minister, would you change your dress?” and I told him “No! I am going to wear the Kira, not the Gho, what the men wear. I think it is very difficult for him to comprehend because he was very young when we had our first woman minister so he has never met her. Similarly, there are many young girls who need to see that women are also capable of doing these things.


We are working very closely with leaders in the region and we said, ‘let's collectively look at women's agenda. It's not about men and women, rather the focus should be on the agenda, to create a conducive environment for women to thrive, conducive environment for women to get empowered.’ Taking up such agendas or creating a conducive environment, collectively in the region is quite exciting.



What, in your opinion, needs to change, to make way for more women in South Asian politics?


Dechen Wangmo: I think for women, it is the avenue for “Networking”. Men do have a wider network than women do. Let’s take an example of sports in Bhutan. Women don't play any sports. We have Archery, which is our national game but women don't play that. So, every man goes and plays archery and this is a great platform to build a network because once you play the sport, you have every people from different walks of life coming in, gathering and discussing. They do have these kinds of platforms women don't have that and this is where we specifically need to design a platform for women to come forward, for women to understand developmental issues, for women to understand social issues.


Second, at the end of the day is economic empowerment. Being able to make choices in your life, to come up with a decision, to make choices in your life you have to be economically empowered. If I am dependent on my spouse, there is no way I can make that independent decision. Bhutan, like I said, is blessed to have an inheritance law favouring daughters.



You talked about the importance of women accessing economic opportunities and public spaces. But, how can this further political empowerment of women?


Dechen Wangmo: So, we never believed in the quota system because we really wanted to see women joining the ranks not because they are entitled but because of their capacity. So we are seeing that...we have women heading the anti-corruption Commission, rural civil service commission and leading as governors. The more people see this, the more confident they are. So, it ultimately boils down to seeing and believing.


Also, as the only woman in our cabinet, I feel I have the extra responsibility of giving my best and showing to the next generation of girls that they can excel. I want a young girl somewhere in the remote village of Bhutan dreaming of becoming the Prime Minister of Bhutan someday.



As a minister in the national government, how do you work towards improving women’s political participation and representation in Bhutan?


Dechen Wangmo: By creating a conducive environment: if a woman wants to participate, we must facilitate. We are working closely with BNEW, the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) on this.


One of the biggest pledges of this government is to provide maternity allowances. I believe that raising a child is not just the responsibility of the parent of the mother, but the responsibility of the nation. Interventions like maternity allowances are aimed at easing women’s domestic responsibilities so that they would be in a space to think something beyond, and for the wider benefit of the community.



What is your message to young women who want to enter Bhutanese politics?


Dechen Wangmo: You can do it.

I think your heart has to be in the right place, you have to have the passion and the drive and you can do it. I believe there is nothing a woman cannot do. I have been raised like that by my parents. I know many young girls I have met in schools in the remotest village have the drive and it is a matter of time we will see more women in politics and other spheres of the country. One day, I want to see a woman become the Prime Minister of Bhutan.

What would you like to tell men in Bhutanese politics on becoming better allies of women in politics?


Dechen Wangmo: If we invest in one woman, we invest in a household. If we invest in one household, we invest in one community. And that’s how nation-building starts. And so we cannot build a nation without considering women's agenda. So, let's focus on the agenda, women’s agenda.

Women must be placed at the centre of the developmental agenda and my request to men in politics would be, let's move the agenda forward.


[Additional inputs from Vibhuti, Sanika, Sanjana and Anagha]


[All the photographs are taken from Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan's website and Facebook page]


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Read our previous interviews with South Asian leaders here