Childhood and the monastery: Jigme’s story

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 31 – the right to rest, relax and play

Jigme looks at the camera in his red robe. Thimpu lays stretched out in the valley below with moutains in the distance.
16 September 2019

Thimpu, Bhutan – Growing up, Jigme lived with his family in Haa Valley, a district in the west of Bhutan. Jigme loved playing games – especially football – with his older brother and two younger sisters. His parents are divorced, and his mother spends a great deal of time working at the shop she runs in her neighbourhood.

At the age of 12, Jigme joined the monastery because of his faith, above all else – but he also hoped his new monastic life would make things easier for his family.

“I thought I would be better able to take care of my parents if I became a monk,” Jigme said. “I don’t know if I can help my parents when they are alive. But when they die, I will be able to conduct all the funeral rituals, so they can be reborn and have a good life. Also, when we go to school, parents must keep spending a lot of money – but here, my parents paid only once. At least with me becoming a monk, I have secured a future and I’m set for life. I also feel that becoming a monk will help me in a spiritual way.”

Like Jigme, now 16, many young boys feel that by joining a monastery they become less of a burden to their families. The monks are looked after by the monasteries, where they are provided food, religious education and health services, and because of that, those who are drawn to monastic life are often those from Bhutan’s poorest families. But even after entering their new environment, many young monks lose out on the chance to play regularly. 

Life in the monastery

Every day, Jigme wakes up at 4.30 am. After praying for an hour and a half, he turns to his studies from 6 to 9 am, and to his classes from 9 until noon. After a quick meal, Jigme returns to the classroom to study from 1 to 5 pm in the afternoon. Then, he prays, attending a session from 6 to 8 pm at night. Apart from Jigme’s mealtimes, the young monk’s days are completely booked.

Though Jigme loves his life in the monastery and has a passion for his studies, by 9 in the evening, Jigme falls asleep exhausted.

Jigme has grown used to his busy schedule, but he still feels play and rest are important. Play, Jigme says, provides both children and adults with the break they need to start fresh the following week.

“I think children should have the right to play,” Jigme said. “It keeps you healthy and fit, and it gives you a chance to interact with other people. I especially love football and I like to play as a striker.”

Realising the right to play

Over the past few years, Jigme and his peers have come to understand their right to play, rest and enjoy their childhoods, regardless of their studies or obligations. They have even attended talks on child rights and the responsibilities of adults to ensure they get them.

“If everyone was educated on rights, I think that children would not be discriminated against. When people don’t know about children’s rights, the voices of young people are sometimes ignored.”

– Jigme

Because of these sessions, children in Jigme’s monastery are more aware of their right to play, rest and relax. Even so, there is still room to grow to make play more attainable for all. Today, play and rest are mostly reserved for Jigme’s weekends. During the weekdays, he sometimes skips dinner to play football, hoping to squeeze a game in before evening prayers, as the elder monks have allowed children to play around that time.

JIgme stands in front a monastary building looking at the camera while two boys chase after eachother behind him.
Jigme stands in the monastery courtyard while two boys play behind him. After his advocacy, children at the monastery have more time to realise their right to play.

“Here, children below 15 years of age weren’t allowed to play football because they are considered too young,” Jigme said. “But after the child rights sessions in our monastery, we asked the older monks to let them play.”

Now, children play together – not just around dinnertime, but on their free weekend days as well.