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Bhutan Women in Leadership Network: Supporting continued education during COVID-19

Posted: 7 March 2023

Bhutan, COVID-19, Impact, Women empowerment,

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, we are highlighting a project by the Australia Awards Women in Leadership Network (WiLN) in Bhutan that epitomises the UN Women theme for this year: ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected education worldwide. In Bhutan, the multiple lockdowns and school closures created significant disruptions. Technology emerged as a vital vehicle to combat the crises and provide solutions during these lockdowns. One key development was the e-learning system, which allowed students to continue their education remotely. However, lack of technology and poor internet access meant that students residing in rural areas were less able to access e-learning, increasing a disparity in education across the country.

Understanding the urgent need to support these students, the WiLN team resolved to provide necessary resources and guidance to help girls studying in one of the most rural parts of Bhutan continue their education. An Australia Awards small grant provided financial support to put this project into action. By providing digital equipment (laptops and tablets) and training to 12 girls in remote Zhemgang District, this project allowed the girls to access e-learning systems, helping to minimise a learning gap and prevent students from remote communities dropping out of school.

Australia Awards alumni distributing tablets and laptops for the first time to girls in Zhemgang, Bhutan

Australia Awards alumni together with WiLN distributing tablets and laptops for the first time to girls in Zhemgang, Bhutan.

This project was not without its challenges. Due to the impacts of COVID-19, there were supply shortages in Bhutan of laptops with the preferred specifications within the project budget, and delays for the supplier in importing new stock. Given the urgency of the situation, the WiLN team decided to purchase the laptops available in the local market with the minimum necessary specifications.

After pre-loading the tablets and laptops with relevant study material (including e-books, videos and other resources tailored to the school curriculum), another hurdle was getting the laptops to their intended recipients. The girls were not only located in a very remote part of Bhutan but were also spread across four different schools. Combined with an increased number of COVID-19 cases in the community, this created challenges in travel and logistic support for delivery and training.

However, the WiLN team felt that it was all worth it when the girls received their new technology.  The students were given a demonstration on how to use the tablets (for the primary grade students) and laptops (for the secondary grade students). The WiLN team arranged for the Dzongkhag Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Officer to conduct basic training in using Information Technology (IT) tools for educational purposes, as well as safe use of ICT. The WiLN team intends to continue this training in the future.

The girls were all very excited to start using their new equipment. The older students expressed how useful their laptops would be even after the pandemic, because IT was one of their subjects. They added that it would be an advantage to have a personal laptop since it would give them plenty of time to learn, whereas the computers in the school labs had time limitations.

The WiLN team believes that technology can be an enabler and facilitator to achieve gender equality. This project certainly helped reduce the inequality in education exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdowns at a time when girls in vulnerable communities were expected to do household chores instead of continuing their education from home. In recent years, Bhutan has started to embed technology at the grassroots level to inspire young girls and women to be skilled in STI (Science, Technology and Innovation). For example, GovTech conducts the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) forum to create awareness and enhance knowledge about the subjects. As Bhutan embraces digital transformation as a way forward in the next decade, the WiLN team aims to continue to create an environment that empowers and encourages girls to consider an education in the STI field. This will include collaborating with private firms and GovTech to provide girls with ICT training, and inspire their interest in technology and innovation.