Senior Buddhist monks in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, sometimes viewed as aloof or removed from many of the tribulations of everyday life, are now playing an active role in opening up an area of social education that was once considered taboo, joining the movement to banish social stigma and provide comprehensive education in the vital area of sexual health and rights, especially for women.
Even relatively recently in Bhutan, openly discussing sexuality and reproduction was considered embarrassing, even shameful, and there was an even wider separation between sexuality and religious teachings. Despite awareness campaigns at the civic level, attitudes in many rural communities remain extremely conservative, in particular with regard to the social, cultural, and religious stigma attached to topics such as pap smears, menstrual hygiene, contraceptives, family planning, and gender-based violence.
Lopon Sherab Dorji of the Zhung Dratshang, the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan, is one of the first male monastics in Bhutan to participate in a life skills education training conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “There has been a change in the mindset of monks, who now freely discuss and advocate on issues of sexual and gender-based violence, which in the past were perceived as a private matter,” he explained. (UNFPA)
Part of the progress in this field is being manifested during Buddhist tshechu (“day ten”) festivals observed annually at monasteries in each of Bhutan’s 20 districts. In addition to religious functions, tshechu also serves as a major social gathering; an opportunity for social bonding for people living in remote and wildly spread rural communities. Centered on performances of ritual Buddhist masked dance known as cham, these centuries-old festivals today also feature messages on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
This national movement for comprehensive sexuality education has been spearheaded by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck as UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador and 2020 United Nations Population Award laureate. For more than 20 years, she has worked to raise awareness in Bhutanese society about reproductive, sexual, and mental health for women and girls.
“Periods can be extremely challenging for women due to various misconceptions and taboos prevalent in Bhutan. These range from beliefs that women should not enter temples while menstruating to the idea that women experiencing menstruation are being possessed by evil spirits. Menstruation hygiene practices such as drying reusable pads are also considered shameful among young adolescent females,” the Bhutanese newspaper Kuensel shared in an editorial in March. “Menstrual advocacy should be part of greater sexual education generally. Conversations surrounding menstrual health and stigmas should be part of a broader push to tackle other sexual stigmas, such as homosexual and transgender rights. In supporting greater menstrual education, the government, NGOs, and youth organizations should also champion rights for all marginalized people facing sexual discrimination.” (Kuensel)
For many years, Bhutan’s small population of female monastics have been important agents for change in the area of sexual education, playing an essential role in imparting knowledge. Notably, much of this progress has been driven by the Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF), a non-profit organization striving to improve the day-to-day livelihoods of Buddhist nuns and to enhanced their access to basic and higher education. The BNF also works to empower and educate Bhutanese girls and women, to improve their living conditions as well as the economic vitality of rural villages, in turn helping to preserve the kingdom’s rich Buddhist culture in the face of rapid development.
“Nuns have played a crucial role by imparting critical health knowledge to rural women on issues such as the importance of a pap smear, menstrual hygiene, contraceptives and family planning, and have thus gained the trust, respect and confidence of the community,” Nun Lhamo observed. (UNFPA)
The UNFPA is a UN agency focused on improving reproductive and maternal health. Supporting programs in more than 150 countries, the UNFPA’s work includes developing national healthcare strategies and protocols, increasing access to birth control, and leading campaigns against child marriage, gender-based violence, obstetric fistula, and female genital mutilation. In Bhutan, the UNFPA’s efforts to engage with religious leaders began in 2011 with the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, and by 2014, the UNFPA had expanded its movement to include male monastics.
The participation of religious leaders has helped to bring about advances in sexual and reproductive health services, and thousands of young people in Bhutan are now learning how to practice healthier lifestyles and to conduct healthier interpersonal relationships. According to data from the UNFPA, maternal mortality declined from 380 per 100,000 live births in 1994 to 89 in 2017. Contraceptive use rose from 30.7 per cent in 2000 to 65.6 per cent in 2018. And more than 95 per cent of births are now delivered by trained attendants, compared with 23 per cent in 2000.
“I look forward to imparting the skills and knowledge I have learnt when community members come to my monastery to offer prayers,” said monk Lopon Karma, speaking from the village of Dungmin in Bhutan’s Pemagatshel District. “I also intend to engage primary schoolchildren on menstrual hygiene, teenage pregnancy, and advocate on the need to support one other.” (UNFPA)
Remote, landlocked, and sandwiched between two political and economic heavy-hitters India and China, Bhutan is the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist country. The ancient spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction from Tibet by Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, in the eighth century.
Most Bhutanese—about 75 per cent of a population of some 770,000 people—are Buddhists. The majority of the remaining 25 per cent, mainly people of the Lhotshampa ethnic group of Nepalese descent, practice Hinduism. Most of Bhutan’s Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Sexuality education is among teachings by monks in Bhutan (United Nations Population Fund)
Lets talk about sexual and reproductive health. (United Nations Population Fund)
Menstruation stigmas are adversely affecting Bhutan’s society, economy, and culture (Kuensel)
Menstrual advocacy, sex education a ‘pressing need’ in Bhutan (South Asia Monitor)
The Bhutan Nuns Foundation
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