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Sonam Lhamo: Narrowing the digital divide in Bhutan

Posted: 7 September 2021

Bhutan, COVID-19, Inclusion, Women empowerment,

Australia Awards alumna Sonam Lhamo works as a Senior Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Officer at Bhutan’s Ministry of Information and Communications, which is the nodal government agency responsible for the overall development of ICT infrastructure and services in Bhutan.

She completed a Master of Information Systems from the University of Melbourne in 2018, with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. In anticipation of International Literacy Day, we met with Sonam to discuss her motivation for pursuing a career in ICT and how she is making a difference in narrowing the digital divide in Bhutan, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

What inspired you to get into your line of work?

I still remember the day I enrolled myself into a free Microsoft Office class in Grade Nine. Although I had seen computers in movies, it was my first time using one. I was fascinated by how they could do so many things and have been captivated by computers ever since. However, back then, we didn’t have an ICT curriculum or computer classes. When I completed my higher secondary education, I wanted to pursue a degree in Information Technology (IT) to continue my fascination with technology. After my graduation, I passed the Royal Civil Service Examination and joined Bhutan InfoComm Media Authority (BICMA) as an Assistant ICT Officer. There has never been a day I haven’t enjoyed my work as an ICT officer.

How has your Australia Awards Scholarship helped you enhance your career?

I am grateful to Australia Awards for providing me with an opportunity to study in one of the top Australian universities. Thanks to my Scholarship, I was able to study in a world-class and multicultural learning environment. My education helped me sharpen my analytical skills and creative thinking, which is relevant and applicable to my current job. I have also become more confident in myself, as my Australia Awards experience helped me develop my potential and skill set. I have been able to build a professional network that will be a lifelong learning experience.

Sonam sharing her Australia Awards experience with new scholars from Bhutan during their pre-departure briefing in 2019

As a woman in the ICT sector, have you faced any challenges during your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

When I joined BICMA as an Assistant ICT Officer, I was the only ICT employee and did not have any prior working experience. At the beginning I felt a bit lost. However, I never faced challenges for simply being a woman. As luck would have it, my workplace had more female colleagues than male, which made my initial days easier. Also, my senior colleagues were always helpful in guiding me through my journey, and I will always be thankful to them.

COVID-19 has enforced the adoption of digital learning globally, including in Bhutan. However, the switch to digital learning continues to be a challenge. How have you contributed at the Ministry of Information and Communications to narrowing the digital divide?

COVID-19 has further highlighted the importance of technology in our everyday lives. Due to the digital divide between the haves and have nots, most people—particularly students from financially disadvantaged families—were greatly affected by difficulties in accessing online classes. People in remote areas were also cut-off from Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), their only source of news and entertainment. To ensure students have uninterrupted classes, the Ministry and the regulator, in collaboration with service providers, have initiated discounted data for students. As a core mandate to improve access to reliable and affordable ICT and media services, the Ministry has also initiated the supply of Ku band satellite dishes, allowing people to access BBS. As a BICMA focal person, I have been able to contribute to narrowing the digital divide by accelerating regulatory process requirements and providing necessary support to service providers.

What initiatives are your agency introducing to improve access to technology and narrow the digital divide, and what will be your role?

‘Digital by Default’ is a key statement in the eGovernance Policy, and narrowing the digital divide is at the forefront of the current five-year plan. To achieve this, universal connectivity is one of the programs planned to provide access for people living in remote areas. Aside from connectivity, it is also important to have access to affordable ICT services. Consequently, the Ministry is making continuous efforts to bring down the cost of internet access, contributing to decreasing the digital divide. There is also a Digital Literacy Program to encourage, train and equip people, including students and people with disability, to use ICT services.

As a focal person for the eGovernance Policy implementation, I lead the monitoring and evaluation of the policy documents to ensure that action plans aimed at narrowing the digital divide are carried out on time.

This year’s International Literacy Day theme is ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’. What is your key message to your fellow alumni and citizens to ensure more people in Bhutan have access to technology?

Accessibility, affordability and availability of technology is important but the ability to use that technology will greatly empower citizens (including people with disability); as a country, we should strive to achieve that for all.