Gender equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination are principles protected by the Constitution and the laws of Bhutan. Still, some gaps remain in implementing these general principles in practice. Trade policy can be used to make the commitment to gender equality meaningful and operational. This was one of the conclusions reached at the Workshop organized by UNCTAD on 18 May in Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, on the occasion of the launching of the study "Who is benefitting from trade liberalization in Bhutan? A gender perspective". The workshop was chaired by Sonam Tshering, Secretary, Ministry of Economic Affairs, and attracted participants from different government departments, the private sector, the academia and the resident United Nations agencies.
Traditional views about women's role in the society have resulted in few women in key positions in public offices and in the economy of Bhutan. However, some recent progress is visible in this regard. The country has achieved gender parity at the primary and secondary levels of education. A Government-sponsored programme for informal education is targeting in particular girls who have left the formal schooling system. There has been a significant reduction in maternal mortality, and women's access to health services has improved. More women are found at present in the services sector, especially in tourism and in education. Support services are increasingly being targeted at women. Women now account for more than 40 per cent of rural credit, and Community Information Centres, a newly established tool by the Royal Government of Bhutan to bridge information gaps, are increasingly catering for women. As a consequence, more women are setting up small enterprises.
Even sectors that traditionally have not provided employment for women, such as the hydropower sector, are now attracting them, especially younger women. Despite these achievements, women still need more education and better skills to meet the challenges of the open market, the meeting concluded.
Product identification and product differentiation emerged as key policy tools to distinguish products manufactured in Bhutan in accordance with traditional methods and know-how from similar industrial or semi-industrial goods produced in neighbouring countries. Such a strategy based on linking products to values such as environmental preservation, organic production, conservation of biodiversity and preservation of the cultural heritage, could make Bhutanese products appealing to consumers in foreign markets. Geographical indications, trademarks, collective marks and other Intellectual Property Rights instruments can be used as a source of niche marketing to identify products of Bhutanese origin.
Women are already involved in the production of organic agricultural products, of forest-based products, such as mushrooms and medicinal herbs, and of traditional textiles. Value added strategies would, therefore, make women's participation in these economic sectors more profitable. Critically, extra value unlocked by such instruments should be passed onto producers, including women, and not be captured by middlemen, the participants agreed.
The experts also identified the forging of linkages between traditional and dynamic sectors as a strategy from which Bhutan, and more specifically its women, could benefit. For example, agro-processing industries and the expanding tourism sector could be linked in this way. Tourist outlets could cater on food products manufactured locally. This strategy would be commercially sound under the condition that local suppliers meet stringent safety and quality requirements imposed by the tourist outlets.
Multilateral assistance frameworks, such as the Aid for Trade Initiative, the Enhanced Integrated Framework for Trade-related Technical Assistance to the Least Developed Countries and the United Nations Development Assistance Framework were identified as possible instruments to address the gaps that hamper women's broader participation in production and export. The experts listed extension services, market information, and technological upgrading as possible areas where the development assistance schemes could provide concrete support to women in Bhutan. For this to happen, Bhutan should include such activities among its trade-related priorities, export strategies and/or trade-related poverty reduction policies.
The meeting recognized that "one size fits all" is not the appropriate approach to mainstreaming gender in trade policy. Instead, a country's productive capacity, education, employment, trade flows, trade engagements at all levels, and gender commitments should be carefully assessed in order to tailor trade policies to women's needs. This is what UNCTAD aims to do through its series of country case studies on gender mainstreaming in trade policy. The study of Bhutan is the first one in this series, which also includes Cape Verde, Lesotho, Rwanda, Uruguay and Angola. These studies are being conducted by UNCTAD's work programme on gender and development.