No Country for Bhutan's Fatherless Children

A mother and her child in Bhutan. Photo: Steve Evans / Flickr. CC 2.0. Edited by Kevin Rothrock.

A mother and her child in Bhutan. Photo: Steve Evans / Flickr. CC 2.0. Edited by Kevin Rothrock.

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan, with a population of about 750,000 people, is known for the phrase “gross national happiness”—a slogan coined in 1972 to represent the country's commitment to that serves Buddhist spiritual values instead of Western material development. Bhutan's strict citizenship laws, however, aren't doing much to boost happiness these days, as thousands of Bhutanese children abandoned by their fathers have been rendered stateless according to Bhutanese laws.

The country's Constitution says:

A person, both of whose parents are citizens of Bhutan, shall be a natural born citizen of Bhutan.

Making matters especially difficult, children whose fathers are unknown or children with one parent who is not a citizen cannot get registered in the national census. It is not possible in Bhutan to apply for government services, own property, or obtain a passport for travel abroad if you don't have citizenship papers.

Vishal Arora, a journalist, writer, and filmmaker, based in New Delhi, has published a documentary on the issue, as part of a campaign called Media Project:

Abandoned by their fathers, these children are brought up by their mothers, who endure financial hardships to raise them and yet fail to ensure a good future for them.

For, Bhutan requires the legal identity of a child’s father before granting him or her citizenship rights.

These mothers and their fatherless children are paying the price for growing alcoholism and the misuse of the age-old tradition of nightly dating, called “Night Hunting,” the two key reasons behind the high incidence of unprotected premarital sex.

The fate of these fatherless children is uncertain because of delays in Bhutan's registration process when a mother is unable to identify her child's father. Abortion is illegal in Bhutan, except in cases of rape, incest, mental health risks, or threats to the mother's life. As a result, many women resort illegal abortions or cross the border into India to terminate a pregnancy.

Blogger Passu says:

I find more compassion in abortion; killing a cell for the sake of a woman’s life, and liberating both the mother and the child from depth of mistake. Abortion is not an ice cream that everybody would enjoy if made free, it is but the only option left when everything seems wrong. No woman will go for abortion for pleasure.

Yeshey Dorji writes in his blog:

Centuries of societal indoctrination has numbed our mind into believing that a child born out of the wedlock is, without contest, fathered by the husband of the woman bearing the child. This belief is so deep rooted in our consciousness that to suggest otherwise is anathema. But if you were to contemplate this matter a little deeper, you will realize that this is a fallacy of gargantuan proportions. The truth is that no one, but a mother alone may testify to the veracity of the fact. For all you know, the child could have been secretly fathered by someone from Timbuktu.

This brings us to the realization that where the Bhutaneseness of a child is needed to be established, nothing can be as authoritative and genuine and genetically pure as that of the Bhutanese mother who bore the child. Since there is room for duplicity, I think it is erroneous to set the criteria that the father of the child ought to be a Bhutanese for the child to qualify as a Bhutanese.

Sonam Ongmo writes in her blog:

Apart from having to deal with the cowardly men who have made them pregnant, and leave both woman and child in limbo, the least she should have to deal with is the government doing this too. Why should a woman have to prove who the father is in oder to avail citizenship for her child? What if the woman was raped? And even if she wasn't, what prevents her or her child from being a citizen? It is inhumane to put a woman through this!

It is the Nation's responsibility; the government's responsibility to ensure citizens, especially women, this right and to make it as easy as they can for them to avail this right.

Yeshey Dorji writes:

A benevolent law should not encourage gender bias and unequal treatment. We have always been a matriarchal society and thus, it is not in our character to treat our women as if they were second class citizens. Our laws should give them the same dignity, right and freedom as those that are accorded our men.

It remains to be seen whether the Bhutanese government will reform its rules and regulations, or if women can look forward to more of the same hardships they face now.


  • highlander1213

    I know a Bhutanese man who is married to an Indian citizen for last 17 yrs and have two children. Mother and children are not Bhutanese citizens yet inspite of repeated appeal to the Government. Mother still holds her Indian citizenship and required to produce a pass to travel to Thimphu every time. Children though are stateless, they don’t have Indian citizenship either. To get admission in Schools in Bhutan you need to show the official document to prove that the child is a Bhutanese. The oldest one would need an identity card pretty soon as he will be an adult, he goes to school in India as i understand one doesn’t need identity card to get admission in Indian school.
    However, younger one got admission in School in Bhutan from the backdoor as the Headmaster of the School kindly manipulated the system as he felt sorry for the child. Being an educationist in heart he said ” he couldn’t deprive a child of education “, for which the parents are ever grateful to the Headmaster. We are also aware that this guy who married a foreigner and has children now got citizenship for the whole family directly from the King. If this is not discrimination what is ???

    • pema

      I m Bhutanese But i m still in confussion… sad….

      • Dawala

        Majority of bhutanese people are not happy at all with the system,and this majority;I’m talking about those illiterate,poor and ignored,who did service the nation once .Nepotism,favoritism, corruption,everything happens yet everyone denies. It’s democracy yet I don’t see the freedom, u speak the truth, You’ll be fucked up real bad, I don’t see the future for those who come from not so strong and connected With minister.. Dzongda, whatever , the whole system is actually fucked up and the funny thing is people still take pride in saying Bhutan is not like India, you can’t help that.

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