Rising child pregnancy worries Bhutan

A 12-year old girl had delivered a baby boy in Bhutan’s eastern Samdrup Jongkhar region last week, setting off a social storm in the tiny Himalayan kingdom.

A local administrator in Wangphu Gewog, where the girl lives, told IANS the her family had kept the pregnancy a secret and quietly organised the delivery at home.

“But the family now claims they were not aware of the pregnancy. Teachers in the local school, where the girl studied, also said they were not aware. We find this strange,” the administrator said on the condition of anonymity.

He said the administration became aware when the baby boy was taken to the Wangphu Basic Health Unit (BHU) which reported it to the ‘Gewog’ (village cluster) officials.

The Gewog alerted the police which arrested a 35-year old man, after the school girl claimed he had raped her.

The Bhutan government’s Gewog records, after central compilation, pointed to 237 cases of teenage pregnancies in 2020 alone in 18 ‘dzongkhags’ (administrative sub-divisions).

Statistics from Haa and Tsirang dzongkhags were not available.

The highest number of cases were recorded in Thimphu (55), followed by Chukha (30) and Trashigang (20).

Officials and social workers suspect the actual annual incidence of teenage pregnancy could be much higher because most families don’t report.

Collation of Bhutanese reports indicate that in 2020, there were 33 rape cases of children child above 12 years, and five cases of children below 12 years in the tiny Himalayan nation of nearly 8 lakh people.

The Office of the Attorney General received 37 cases of rape of children above 12 years in 2020.

Officials in Bhutan’s Health Ministry were evasive.

Calls to its reproductive, maternal and neonatal health programme went unanswered. One official said they are yet to validate the data for 2020.

RENEW, a Bhutanese non-profit organisation dedicated to empower women and children, says in its report that the protection system for children, be it at home, school or public places, is weak.

One of its officials said “negligence from parents and caregivers have resulted in most reported teenage pregnancies, as most know about the children’s condition only in advanced state”.

“Some parents and caregivers also try to cover up children’s pregnancy fearing social stigmatisation and adverse reaction from neighbours,” the official said.

A top social worker told IANS that only a few dedicated health officials and teachers take sexual assaults and child abuse cases seriously.

“Children confide usually to school counsellors, who then report the matter to the head of the school.”

She said that while some teachers take the matter seriously and report the cases to the police, most resolve it mutually, to protect the school’s reputation and image.

“This is totally against the law and no one has the authority to resolve the cases mutually but it is happening so often “

There are cases where minors, who are allegedly raped by their caregivers or family members, have confided about it to school counsellors but principals have mutually resolved the case.

“There is no accountability,” the social worker added.

An official from RENEW explained that when a child goes to the hospital after sexual assault, health officials fear that reporting such matters to police would discourage children from availing of health services.

“Even though the case is criminal, most health officials do not report it. We are grateful to those who do.”

The official said teenage pregnancy cases increased during the lockdowns, as there was movement restriction and victims have to stay with perpetrators.

Trashiyangtse dzongkhag referred eight minor girls, who were victims of sexual abuse in 2020 to RENEW for safe shelter, protection and counselling.

Lham Dorji of the Bhutan Statistics Bureau, in his 2015 research paper titled “Sexual And Reproductive Health of Adoloscents and Youth”, said teenage pregnancy was a serious problem in the erstwhile kingdom.

He said teenage pregnancy, defined as the first pregnancy at an age of 16 or younger was estimated to be 3,362 (10 per cent) in 2012.

Teenage pregnancy and sexual assaults against children are graded as a felony under Bhutanese Penal Code. There are other laws to protect and safeguard children.

But there are gaps in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) on gender-based violence .

Sexual cases with minors under 18 years are considered rape under the Penal Code but the SOP states it is not mandatory to report teenage pregnancy.

“Such conflicting provisions could cause confusion. The Penal Code is clear and people not reporting such cases should be charged for failing to report the crime,” says the RENEW official.

She said that besides implementing policies, guidelines and Acts of child protection seriously, there is a need to create awareness and undertake advocacies at all levels.

“We also have to educate and develop skills of those working with children,” an official said.

She said that RENEW had initiated the “good touch and bad touch” awareness programmes, an animation series called “Yeshey Dawa” to advocate the rights of women and children, and an animated child sexual abuse awareness video called “Acho Khegpa”.

RENEW officials also said it is high time organisations should come together and strategise how to strengthen the implementation of plans, policies and programs.

“It is time we do more to protect our girls than just conduct meetings. We have to implement the grand plans and policies than talk about them,” said a social worker.

She also said that taking the judiciary on board was important.

“All the hard work of police, social workers and prosecutors go down the drain when our judges do not see the gravity of the cases.”