A Dream for Improved Education for Women Benefits Bhutan’s Nuns

She was the first girl in her village area to go to school. And now, three decades after leaving home to pursue her dream of securing a good education, Tashi Zangmo’s (Ed.D. 2009) plan to improve the educational opportunities for all girls in Bhutan has become reality, launched with the blessing and the help of the Queen.

From a home in Amherst where she was staying while preparing to return to Bhutan to begin her work with Bhutanese girls, Zangmo talked about the progress that has been made in making education accessible for children in her country. Since 2002, providing education opportunities for all Bhutanese children, especially girls, has been a Royal priority, she said. More schools have been built, particularly in rural areas, where once there were no schools at all. Yet, today, only about 10% of Bhutanese girls attend school.

Although views about education are changing in her home country, some families still hold on to the traditional belief that daughters should remain close to home, Zangmo explained. But the number of girls in schools was far less than 10% when Zangmo was nine years old and living with her seven siblings in a remote corner of Bhutan.

Her father, a spiritual teacher, and mother “took a big step” by sending their daughter to school. “My mother was amazing. She could not read or write but she had such vision,” Zangmo said.

Zangmo followed her brother on the day’s walk to the closest school where she would board, the only girl in a “dormitory” of boys. Two years later, she would be joined by other girl students. “I was a kind of role model, I think,” she said.

After finishing elementary school, Zangmo attended school in the capital city. A government job came next. Always a spiritual person, she followed her interest in Buddhism, enrolling in India’s Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies where she earned her bachelor’s degree. It was there that she met a professor from Mt. Holyoke College and learned about the Five College area in Massachusetts. Encouraged by the professor, she applied to Mt. Holyoke and was accepted. Winning a public service fellowship there in her senior year, she travelled home and used the money to teach literacy in villages and to create a library in a nunnery, a common institution that offers girls rudimentary education and a culturally-approved way to live a spiritually-rich, but Spartan, life.

“Any woman can go into a nunnery,” said Zangmo. “A divorced woman who is fed up or a woman who wants a spiritual life, a woman who wants to pray and younger ones who want to learn something. They are places where women can have a chance. “

In the meantime, Zangmo had applied to and been accepted as a graduate student at UMass Amherst’s College of Education. She returned to Massachusetts in 2001, earning both her master’s and doctorate degrees here. And it was here in the College of Education that her life’s mission began to have a clear focus, she said.

“The work I was doing at the Center for International Education, this helped me think how to apply what I was learning to what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was a student, a mother, I was working. As a doctoral student, it all came into shape. It was very beautiful how it unfolded.”

“The adult literacy and community development study - it really helped me see how I could put it into practice back home,” she said. “I think what CIE does, they put theory and practice together. In the classroom, we read a lot. I used to think, ‘What does this do?’ I learned from CIE, you take your courses, you go out in the world and develop projects, and you see how you can balance thinking and practice.”

At a Gross National Happiness conference in Nova Scotia in 2005, Zangmo met Bhutan’s current Prime Minister. He had heard about her literacy work and her interest in Bhutan’s nunneries.

“He suggested I come up with an organization to help all the nuns in Bhutan,” Zangmo said. “He introduced me to the Queen. She was helping to rebuild a nunnery in western Bhutan. The prime minister knew we had a similar vision. We’ve been in constant contact by email or phone.”

Zangmo’s thoughts about the lack of access to education for Bhutanese girls, about her longtime interest in Bhutanese nunneries, the role they play in Bhutanese society, and especially the role they play in the lives of girls coalesced. “I went home. I did baseline research for my dissertation on how nuns can contribute to Gross National Happiness,” Zangmo said.

And through the clarity of thinking that came with working on her dissertation, and with the support of many faculty, friends, and Bhutan’s Queen, she formulated a plan: she decided that she would work to bring education to Bhutanese girls by transforming nunneries into places of organized education.

“Nunneries don’t follow any curriculum now,” she said. “The nuns loosely learn prayers, cultural values. There is some teaching. I’d like to help them to organize curriculum and become trained teachers so they can not only teach at nunneries but also at public schools. I truly believe, Bhutan being a Buddhist country, it is important for women to go to school to learn and teach traditional values. This is part of Gross National Happiness.”

Typically dependent on alms and donations, Bhutan’s nunneries are generally in poor physical condition. Most have no running water or no sanitary facilities. “Buddhism says you are supposed to be content with your life,” Zangmo explained. “You know how in the West we hear people say, ‘Why me? Why me?’ In my culture in Bhutan, the way of thinking is, ‘It is my Karma.’ So the nuns never ask for anything.”

Last year, Zangmo went home again and formally organized the Bhutan Nuns Foundation under the patronage of Queen Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck. This year, with the nuns’ needs and the ways of her culture in mind, Zangmo will now officially go about the business of building nunneries into comfortable places for girls to learn.

“How can I help them, the nuns, the girls, fit into modern society?” she asks. “It has to be done in a gentle way. I have to be very careful. I don’t want to put my values on them. I have to do it in a way that does not disrupt. A question I ask myself is, ‘What is new that we can adapt that can help them and what is old that we can hold onto?’”

Zangmo’s foundation will work to improve life conditions for the nuns and their girl students a bit at a time. “We are there to uplift a little,” she says. “To give students small things - a notebook to write in, a pencil, a comfortable sitting place and a change of clothes. And not to be hungry when they are studying.”

Zangmo says that her first job will be to do basic things: build bathrooms, ventilate living quarters, put up solar lights, install running water.

“The nuns will help,” she said. “They have to have ownership. They can carry wood and stones.”


Read more about the nunneries of Bhutan and the Bhutan Nuns Foundation at Tashi Zangmo’s website.