By helping them gain knowledge, skills and confidence, UNICEF assists the government in providing the keys to a better life not only for individual women but for their entire families.
Second chance at literacy
Sixty-one-year-old Tshering Dem shuffles into the dim, dusty room. From the folds of her dress called the kira she pulls out a sheaf of weather-beaten Buddhist scriptures and sits on a small stool near the window. She opens her mouth wide to blow warm breath on a pair of spectacles, wipes the lenses with the edge of her kira , and with her palms irons out the pages on a low table in front of her.
Around her, another 12 women -- their ages ranging from 20 to 50 -- are settling down with a variety of reading material, from printed scriptures to school books and pages of the newspaper in the local language, Dzongkha. This is a post-literacy class in Thimphu's Changzamtog suburb, a part of the nation-wide non-formal education (NFE) programme. These 13 new literates are among 112 enrolled in five centres that have really become their windows to the world.
Like 4,000 others -- 70 per cent of them women -- Tshering completed the basic NFE education course in one of 54 centres. A centre may be a spare room in a remote village home or a monastary, where adults and youth sit together to grapple with the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics.
The non-formal education programme targets people like Tshering Dem who have seen changes unimaginable in their youth. Tshering herself belonged to the generation of parents who, in the early 1960s, pleaded with government appointed teachers to "spare" their children from school because they were needed on the farm. Today, she wryly notes, parents lie about their children's ages to get them into school.
With education declared a national priority in the country's development process, the government established 343 schools and educational institutions in four decades, from primary classes to a college that offers undergraduate degrees in arts and commerce.
As the more accessible primary schools quickly filled to capacity, community schools were introduced to cater to remote villages. Parents in rural communities contributed labour to build, with government-provided construction materials, more than 150 community schools, in line with the national goal of making education available to every school-age child.
Reflecting the need to educate women -- who constitute 49 per cent of the population -- the primary school enrolment is 45 per cent girls. Bhutan is convinced that "to educate a women is to educate a nation". It firmly believes that, given its small population, the future lies in high quality education to build a qualified and productive work force. Education is also the foundation on which to strengthen child rights and participation.
There is, however, a long way to go as the country tries to raise the literacy level and catch up with a fast-moving world. Schools are few and scattered across the rugged countryside; they have no electricity, adequate drinking water, or sanitation facilitites. Children in many cases have to walk several hours a day to class, in rain or snow, or through rough forest paths infested with leeches.
Classrooms are in short supply. Each teacher has an average of 37 students, but the class size goes up to 70 in some schools. Although the government offers special incentives to those who join the profession, it has not been able to train enough teachers.
In the case of special education, the government plans to consolidate and develop the National Institute for the Disabled in eastern Bhutan. Currently providing braille literacy and life skills to blind students, education authorities hope to expand the institute to help other disabled youth and to give them the chance for a more productive life.
UNICEF plays an important role in helping build the education system with limited resources. It supports three areas, focusing on the needs of women and children and the disadvantaged: Primary education, non-formal education, and special education. It also funds teacher training programmes, the printing of text books, and provides other essential supplies for primary and community schools.
< Previous | Continue >