THIMPU, Bhutan — Last year representatives from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation gathered in Nepal to establish a set of post-2015 development targets in accordance with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. The role of education in growing South Asian economies was prominent in the discussions, with countries vowing to build on past successes to develop more inclusive education systems.
Among the nations present was Bhutan, the small Himalayan country best known for its unique principle of Gross National Happiness. This principle, which guides all policies of Bhutan’s constitutional monarchy, incorporates ecological, physical and psychological well-being to determine the overall happiness of citizens.
Education in Bhutan has come far since transitioning from a monastic to a public institution in the 1960s. Proving its serious commitment to the U.N.’s Education for All agenda as well as the Millennium Development Goals, the government devotes about 17 percent of its budget (or seven percent of its GDP) to education. This figure is among the highest in the region. Free education up to tenth grade is guaranteed in the Constitution.
The country has made great strides in providing girls with equal access to education. In 1970, for every 100 boys enrolled in primary school, only two girls were enrolled. By 2013, for every 100 boys in school there were 101 girls. Girls also outnumber boys in secondary education. Part of the reason for these incredible changes is the government’s commitment to achieving internationally established development goals using the tenets of Gross National Happiness.
The next challenge facing Bhutan is to improve the quality of education girls are receiving and to encourage women’s involvement in public life. Despite achieving equal access to education, girls are performing more poorly than boys in almost all subjects. This reveals a gender-based discrepancy in the quality of education girls and boys are receiving. It may imply that facilities at schools are not sufficiently accommodating to girls.
It also suggests that girls are not able to devote as much time to their studies as boys are. As Bhutan is a matrilineal society, women hold more land titles than men but also take on more responsibilities in the family. This has led to strongly held beliefs that girls should stay close to home. Bhutanese women’s role in public life is highly constrained, and Bhutan rates among the lowest in the world in terms of women’s involvement in politics and tertiary education.
In 2004 Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck, Bhutan’s Queen Mother, launched RENEW: Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women. The NGO works to bring girls more opportunities and empower them in the political sphere. It partners with the Australian Himalayan Foundation to raise the standard of educational facilities across the country.
In 2012 UNICEF awarded a Bhutanese children’s program the highest honor at the Prix Jeunesse International Festival in Germany. The program, “Tashi and Sakteng,” sought to inform children and adults about the benefits of education. It argued that education would not, as some Bhutanese fear, tempt youth away from the traditional way of life. Rather, it would be an asset to the community by helping young people to reach their full potential. The success of the program highlighted how media is being utilized in Bhutan to resolve ideological conflicts between tradition and modernity.
In these and many other ways, the government and public figures in Bhutan are leading the way toward more inclusive education for girls and boys. Last year the country drafted the Bhutan Education Blueprint for 2014-2024. The document outlined a 10-year plan for improving children’s access to education without compromising traditional values. With a dedicated government, an expanding nonprofit sector and increasing international collaborations, Bhutan can expect to see rapid improvements in its education sector.
– Janie Ryan
Sources: Borgen Magazine, Brookings Institution, Financial Review, UNESCAP, UNICEF
Photo: The Atlantic