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Expanding women’s livelihood choices


A group of 13 women living in lower valley of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, came together to study in the government’s “second chance” education initiative called Non-Formal Education Program. This initiative provides functional literacy and numeracy skills to those who have missed out on education. The 13 women are from low income families and work as daily wage workers, babysitters and home makers. They are united in their aspiration to try and do something to improve their economic circumstances. As their confidence in their literacy and numeracy skills grew, they formed an idea to try learning a vocational skill and to see if they could translate this into an income. Thus, was formed the group called Zheten Shayen Amsu tshogpa.


The group chose tailoring as their skill to learn. Although not a revolutionary or especially empowering topic, it made practical sense. It is not investment heavy, it can be done at home, and traditional tailored clothes are what Bhutanese wear everyday to work. Equally important, it did not feel overly unattainable as to discourage the members.

Karma Lhadon is one of the 13 women and her story is familiar. She dropped out of school to take care of her siblings and to help her parents. She entered the second chance education initiative to fulfill her dream of being able to read religious scriptures and prayer books. After her peers encouraged her to join the informal group, she is now an active member. Her skills in traditional weaving, learnt as a child, comes to good use as the combination of weaving and tailoring skills is very handy. She has woven and stitched women’s traditional wears as well as purses and bags.

Through a local training institute in which their non-formal education center is located, Karma Lhadon and the others heard of the EU funded project to support civil society organizations in Bhutan. As a part of this project, small grants are provided to civil society organizations including community-based groups to assist their work in the following themes: civic awareness and actions; women’s empowerment; socio economic empowerment focusing on women and youth; and vulnerability reduction initiatives. The group approached the training institute for support in putting together a proposal that combines women’s empowerment and vulnerability reduction for their members.. The proposal was successful and the group was able to get a trainer to build their capacities and explore potential markets, and technical support to strengthen their internal governance as the members discovered early on what it entails to work in a group.

The group now have a by law to govern themselves, a joint account in a local bank, and skills to keep transparent accounts and take small scale tailoring orders. The accounts keeping skills builds on their functional numeracy learning in their non-formal education center.

“I have made Ngultrum 16,000 so far,” says Karma Lhadon. “I continue to learn and work together with the other members and I am using my new skills to make facemasks which are in demand due to the pandemic.”

Some of the factors that supported this initiative are: the on-going literacy and numeracy classes that the 13 women are enrolled in has laid the foundation for the group to come together and to build new skills upon; a private training center which provided space for their skilling as part of its social corporate responsibility; and the access to a small grant to launch their first idea.