THIMPHU, Bhutan — A place unlike any other, Bhutan is an ancient kingdom nestled in the Himalayas that was first settled at least 1,400 years ago. Bhutanese culture bases itself in Himalayan Buddhism, and spirituality is interwoven with all aspects of life. Deeply-ingrained religiosity is evident even in the Bhutanese government, which prioritizes Gross National Happiness above Gross National Product. Political emphasis on the happiness of the people defers economic growth to equitable development, which can be best sustained through education.
Education in Bhutan was monastic until the 1950’s; literacy and education were confined to the study of Buddhism. Monastic education in Bhutan still exists today, schooling roughly 5,000 mostly male students in philosophy, logic, astrology, traditional medicine and literature. Monastic schools recently added English and mathematics to the curriculum so that students could more aptly participate in life outside Bhutan.
As part of an effort to integrate itself onto the world stage, Bhutan secularized its education system throughout the 50’s and 60’s, borrowing from Hindi school models. English became the language of instruction while primary, secondary and post-secondary schools spread throughout the small country.
General education, which includes pre-primary and secondary school, is available to every Bhutanese citizen, although a slight attendance gap between boys and girls persists. Non-formal education (NFE) was established in 1992 to accommodate those for whom education was not available. NFE provides literacy courses to all age groups and has many female participants. Formal or non-formal, education in Bhutan aims to instill the nation’s unique values and prepare students for the realization of their own potential through the world of work.
The essential function of education in developing Gross National Happiness makes universal access to education in Bhutan especially crucial. The mountainous terrain, however, complicates school accessibility. Because most of the population subsists as rural farmers scattered throughout the mountains, schools are unavailable to many communities. In fact, about 25 percent of the population suffers from seasonal food insecurity because of isolation, while teachers and students sometimes trek through precarious mountain passes and dense jungles just to get to school. For most, though, school is worth the struggle.
To alleviate the challenges Bhutanese students must face in order to attend school in such remote areas, the World Food Programme (WFP) is working with the Ministry of Education in Bhutan to ensure school meals are provided, particularly in the most rural areas where accessibility is hardest. WFP assists the government in introducing rice fortification for schools that face seasonal food shortages, helping provide 176 schools and 19,000 students with school meals. The Ministry of Education in Bhutan will assume full responsibility for these provisions by the year 2019, as its fiscal and organizational capacity grows.
Through education, the Bhutanese government is investing in relieving poverty and empowering people. With cooperative assistance from the international community and about 17 percent of total government spending, education in Bhutan becomes more accessible every day to citizens of all ages.
– Robin Lee