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The homestay business in Haa dzongkhag (district), along Bhutan’s western border, has been transforming women’s roles in rural Bhutan. Seventy-year-old Pema Dema, who runs a homestay in Haa, shares that life has been quite different since she started her business. “I meet people from different parts of the world and my husband stays home more often and helps me,” she says. These homestays have been helping women in rural areas gain access to finance while taking care of the household. This is a significant step towards more meaningful participation of women in the rural economy.
Bhutan’s constitution affords equal freedom to women and men, and the general public perception is that no overt gender equality issues exist. However, the lack of equal opportunities for women is quite evident. Bhutan is the second-lowest ranked country in South Asia on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2018, with a 36% gender gap in economic participation and opportunity. Women in rural Bhutan, in particular, have limited formal education and skills and are therefore restricted to domestic chores and subsistence agriculture. In 2012, 86% of rural women were involved in agricultural and farm-based activities, in stark contrast to 66% of men. Although agriculture is a crucial sector for the country (with over 80% of the population depending on it for livelihood), and women’s ownership of agricultural land is very high, the low returns from agriculture is clear in the outmigration of men for employment. This has led to the increasing feminization of agricultural labour but with limited skill and access to finance. The worrying gender gap in economic participation exists mainly due to sociocultural norms and practices. Women therefore need to be able to break through these barriers and carve their own identity, empowered to gain financial independence, have an equal role in decision making, and assume leadership.
Aligned with the country’s principle and pursuit of Gross National Happiness, community-based tourism is one of the most viable options for sustainable socioeconomic development. Homestays have received much focus along this line. As of 2018, there were a total of 133 homestays in Bhutan, with 23 homestays in Haa alone, offering a unique experience of Bhutanese culture and natural heritage. These are supported by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), a non-governmental organization.
Haa dzongkhag has a vision of tourism development emphasizing a green and productive community in harmony with culture and tradition. The village homestay service initiated in Haa allows tourists to stay with a host family and receive an authentic experience of traditional village life. Women in Haa, regardless of their age or education, have been leading this business, balancing domestic chores (which are part of the business) with income generation.
The first meeting on the establishment of homestays at the gewog (block of villages) in Haa called by the gup (block head) was attended by Pema Dema’s husband, but since he often left home for work outside their village, he insisted that she take the initiative. Pema willingly accepted. She attended a few capacity development trainings on homestay management, and she now runs her homestay along with her husband and daughters. With the opportunity and capacity to engage in a homestay business, Pema sees herself as a confident entrepreneur with control over decisions.
As tourism is seasonal and only supplements subsistence farming, homestays have proved be a good source of diversified income. The fact that the peak tourist season coincides with the lull in the agricultural season has made it easier for women to manage their commitments to both. Dema Tshering, Pema’s younger daughter, says, “It is difficult for us to get a job elsewhere, and homestays are an easy business when compared with farming. Cleaning the house, preparing food, and looking after the cattle and farm are part of our regular job, and my father stays back during the tourist season to help as well. He takes care of the cattle and helps us collect firewood and make hoentay (a local Haa delicacy).”
Dema points out that men are usually the ones who are expected to socialize in their society, but the homestay guests are more interested in interacting with women. This has helped build women’s confidence and communication skills while also building networks for future business. Dema also supports her mother with managing the financial matters of the business. Homestays have therefore subverted traditional gender-based roles to allow women control over financial resources and decision making at the household and community levels. Women have gained confidence, self-respect, economic empowerment, and equity, thereby contributing to closing the gender gap. The homestay business by its very nature also allows traditional knowledge to be transmitted to future generations. If progressive values are passed on, a society can be built where women and men equally share responsibilities and enjoy social, cultural, and economic benefits.
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