Behind The Bhutan Nuns Foundation: An Interview With The Director

  Executive Director Tashi Zangmo and Carmen visiting one of the larger Bhutanese nunneries.

Executive Director Tashi Zangmo and Carmen visiting one of the larger Bhutanese nunneries.

When we learned of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation through Carmen's visits, we were surprised to discover that these nunneries were less about religion and more about education. More than 50% of Bhutanese girls living in rural areas join nunneries as an alternative means of schooling, and the Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF) champions the cause of nuns and nunneries in recognition of this crucial role they play in Bhutanese society. In Bhutan, gaps in gender and geographic equality in the delivery of education are unfortunately considerable. Most parents living in the rural areas of the country cannot afford to send all their children to school, and it’s estimated that only 47% of girls are enrolled into education compared with 55% of boys. Furthermore, unlike the country’s monasteries that benefit from financial support, nunneries in Bhutan receive no government funding, do not have a standardized curriculum or evaluation systems, and are not staffed by qualified teachers.

To understand the heart of the issues, we had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Tashi Zangmo, executive director of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation.

Born and raised in a small village in one of the most remote corners of Bhutan, Tashi was one of nine children. Her five older siblings had never seen the gate of the local school, let alone been inside the building, and she was the first girl from her community to receive a school education. It was a day’s walk from her village so she started as a boarding student, even though there were no boarding facilities for girls. “I had to share a room with boys, and the teachers weren’t used to working with young girls so it was a horrible experience,” Tashi told us. “But every experience I had there made me stronger, and when I look back now I wouldn’t change a thing”. 

After overcoming a wealth of obstacles, Tashi was given the opportunity to attend Mount Holyoke College in the US. One of the oldest and most prestigious women’s colleges in the country, her time there also broadened her horizons. “It made me an even stronger woman,” she said. After graduating, she earned her doctorate degree in International Education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, before returning to her home country and setting up the foundation.

“I had always believed in this from the day one. As Carmen would say, ‘think big but start small’. In situations where I did not even have a pair of slippers on my feet or an extra set of clothes, I always dreamt of giving, sharing and doing something for the women in my country. I had a special feeling for women because we were majority female in my family and I have seen how hard my mother and older sisters worked to make ends meet for family without any education.”

“To me, knowing how to balance is to have self-control, and to be content with what you have and who you are. Otherwise, the wild goose chase never ends.” 
  Dr. Tashi Zangmo

Dr. Tashi Zangmo

When asked about how the inequality between the nunneries and monasteries come about, Tashi is philosophical. She explained that the country was founded by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a monk who fled from Tibet around 1616, who built Dzongs (fortresses) in every district while appointing monks in every Dzong. As such, Bhutan was basically ruled by the appointed clergy during this time. There were no nuns, and so by default the inequality appeared. “I do not believe it was deliberate,” she says.

  The Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong

Under Tashi’s guidance, the BNF has been working closely with several organizations, including UNFPA and UNICEF, to develop a systematic program to improve living conditions in the nunneries and provide practical education for the nuns. In addition to supporting the most needy nunneries in rural Bhutan in the construction of better living quarters and provision of running water, the goal for this initiative is to recruit, educate and train nuns, and encourage them to build networks among women in their localities, as well as between nunneries.

“The women’s training includes all the major issues that our country is facing in the 21st century - women’s reproductive health and hygiene, communicable  and non-communicable diseases, HIV/Aids, substance abuse, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, menstrual hygiene, and cervical and breast cancer.”

Empowering and training the nuns so that they in turn become agents for change and pass on the message to other women in rural villages is key. “Our goal is that by year 2020, we will have uplifted all the nunneries in the country with basic necessities and by then the qualified nuns will receive training in counseling, social services, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and other mind-body practices, fitness, meditation, and detox retreats.”

Over the next five years, in addition to upgrading all the nunneries in the country with basic necessities, the BNF hopes to have also completed their Training and Resource Centre in Thimphu, which is currently under construction. The centre, which will ensure that nuns and women who are on the spiritual path have a common platform, is seen as one of the BNF’s biggest achievements. “The other biggest achievement is that we bumped into people like Carmen Busquets,” revealed Tashi, “someone who thinks along the same lines and who is willing to support and help our dreams come true”.

While browsing the BNF’s website we came across the phrase “philosophy in essence is all about balancing material wants with spiritual needs”, and were keen to learn Tashi’s take on balance – and how this can be achieved. “If we know how to have balance, there need not be a struggle”, she said and reflected on how some of the wealthiest nations on the planet are not always content with what they have, always wanting more and more. With this in mind, Bhutan’s development philosophy is to try and balance the material wealth and the spiritual well-being of the people, which Tashi readily admits needs constant reminders and reflections on day-to-day actions. “To me, knowing how to balance is to have self-control, and to be content with what you have and who you are. Otherwise, the wild goose chase never ends,” she said.

“To me, knowing how to balance is to have self-control, and to be content with what you have and who you are. Otherwise, the wild goose chase never ends.” 

Tashi admitted that when the BNF first went into the nunneries, the girls were not able to share their life stories openly. She explained that many of them have never been to school, and culturally they have never had conversations regarding women’s health issues. But now, these girls feel more comfortable, and they approach the foundation with all kinds of requests for help, from asking for an English teacher, to a house roof and for medical attention. 

  Tashi and her majesty Gyalyum Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck awarding a certificate to a participant.

Tashi and her majesty Gyalyum Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck awarding a certificate to a participant.

Tashi explained that working with the young girls in the nunneries brings her lots of joy. “They are willing to learn, listen and willing to give back to society, in prayers if nothing else,” she said. She sees a lot of potential in them. But she is also mindful that the BNF is not the savior, and is not superior to the girls. “We can only work together,” she said.

This strong sentiment is echoed by the Patron of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, the Queen Mother, who has said, relative to her support of the foundation, that “it is not about gender competition, we have to work hand-in-hand among monks and nuns, women and men, for the well-being of not only our own country, but also for world peace. We have to think big”. 

Visit the website to learn about how you can support the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, read their annual reports, and more.