Bhutan’s Education Sector

The 2002 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Progress Report on Bhutan suggests that, “by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” This is in fact the main goal of Bhutan’s education sector. The country has made substantial progress toward achieving the goal of universal access to primary education.   The percentage of students who complete primary education (a seven year cycle from Pre-Primary to grade 6) has increased from 60.5% in 1996 to 69.3% in 2,000.However, there are considerable gender and geographic equity gaps in the delivery of education.Most parents in rural Bhutan cannot afford to send all of their children to school even though the only costs are uniforms, stationery and a nominal enrollment fee. Regarding gender, enrollment for girls is estimated at 47% compared to 55% for boys.  
In response to these disparities, Bhutan’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) was developed with a focus on the education sector. The PRSP sought to improve access to primary education through the expansion of schools, particularly the network of community schools.  It outlines its approach as follows:

  • Build capacity at various levels to accommodate increased enrollment;
  • Support school meals and boarding facilities;
  • Upgrade the quality of primary education through improvements in curriculum, learning environment, teacher qualifications and didactic methods;
  • Focus on the special education needs of disabled and disadvantaged groups.

Bhutan’s PRSP goals are consistent with the country’s Ninth Five-Year plan development objectives and the 2015 MDG goals.  These are also perfectly consistent with GNH strategies. The Ninth Five-Year plan, which will end in June 2008, emphasizes the important role education is expected to play in the achievement of GNH. The policy objectives cover all levels and sectors of education. Objectives include providing support mechanisms for early childhood care, enhancing the enrollment of children aged six to twelve, increasing access, and enhancing the literacy rate from 54% to 80% by 2007 as part of a broader goal of ensuring lifelong education for all citizens.

The only flaw in the Ninth Plan lies in its failure to recognize the important need and role of nunneries in promoting girls’ education, women’s literacy and GNH.

Rationale for Improving Nuns’ Education and Women’s Literacy
Since the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990), it has become widely accepted that education for girls has a profound effect on lowering maternal and infant mortality rates and reducing fertility levels.  An equally strong correlation has been established by scholars between a woman’s schooling and her children’s learning opportunities. They contend that intergenerational benefits resulting from female schooling are considerably higher than from male schooling. Increasing girls’ education and women’s literacy provides enormous benefits to individuals and families.  As a result, literacy for women and girls has become a major focus of  the governments of many developing countries. Bhutan’s literacy policy was conceived and developed to complement its overarching Gross National Happiness development philosophy.

While the GNH goals support education and equity, Bhutan, like many other developing countries, still has much work to do to attain gender equity in educational access and learning outcomes. The Royal Government is addressing this in a serious way. But resource constraints and the absence of a coordinating and support mechanism have been the reasons why the nunneries and the education of nuns have not been a focus of development programs.  As an advocating, coordinating and funding agency, the Bhutan Nuns’ Foundation aspires to fulfill this vital need. There is no doubt that these institutions are vital to women’s education, socio-economic empowerment and spiritual fulfillment. The potential role of nuns in advancing the goal of building a happy society needs to be appreciated and realized.

Why Promotion of Nuns’ Education is Important
Despite the cultural preservation component of GNH, the younger generation (Bhutan’s future leaders) is getting overwhelmingly caught up with modernization and Westernization. As a result, it has become ever more important to support the traditional spiritual practitioners who have always worked hard to keep the country in spiritual harmony. Bhutan’s culture and traditions are a priceless gift that can and should be passed on to the younger generation. This will help them succeed in and not be overwhelmed by a rapidly changing world.  If the ability of nuns and others to support cultural preservation is not recognized, then the philosophy of GNH may remain a mere dream and not be actualized in the near future.  

In Bhutan, there are several thousand nuns within and outside nunneries. Recent estimates indicate that many women between the ages of 12 and 50 have attended a nunnery as a form of traditional learning. Many younger women join the nunneries as an alternative means of achieving an education. A significant number of girls become nuns because their parents could not afford to send all their children to the formal school system. Some girls who drop out of the formal school system eventually end up in the nunneries hoping to continue learning in the traditional way. Others join simply because they wish to follow a Buddhist spiritual path marked by a life of meditation, devotion to Buddhist studies, peace and harmony…Finally, older women often join the community of nuns (Sangha) to seek a second chance in life through learning and devotion. Overall, women both young and old join nunneries because they are passionate about studying Buddhism, and have a desire to live a peaceful and meaningful life that brings balance and wisdom to a rapidly changing and increasingly unsustainable world.

Nunneries provide women from all walks of life with an educational opportunity that has no age or learning capacity limit, as the formal education sector does. If the nunneries provided good education, nuns and other girls and women coming to the nunneries would be empowered and be in a better position to contribute to their communities. Nuns in turn could become teachers and social workers within their villages and their nunneries.  Additionally, nuns often live close to the village community, both psychologically and physically, and provide important support to communities, especially to women and girls. As a result, supporting nuns’ education will maximize social capital, enhance the role of women in development, and help to achieve GNH. The promotion of nuns’ education and recognition of their role in Bhutanese society is critical tostrengthening the sustainable development of Bhutan.

These factors combined with the need to empower women in general demand that the education of nuns be given urgent attention.  The benefits of doing so will greatly outweigh the costs.  It is in this light that the Foundation has committed itself to championing the cause of nuns and nunneries.  It hopes to greatly improve nunnery education and solidify its place in the pursuit of GNH and achievement of Bhutan’s development goals.