It was a sunny autumn morning in Bhutan but for Thinley Namgyel no day may have been darker. He arrived at a small house in a small community called Melphey after troubling news from the police that very morning regarding a Class VI student of his school.
The police had reported that 12-year-old Tshering Lhamo had skipped her exams at school and sought shelter at a neighbour’s house after her uncle had physically abused her the previous night. The neighbours had reported the matter to the police who took her under their protection and arrested the man with whom she had been sent to live by her family after her parents’ divorce.
Thinley Namgyel remembers every detail like it happened yesterday as he narrates the incident.
“I went numb from what the police and the girl’s neighbours told me,” he says. “It was shocking to learn that the uncle was physically abusing her all these years. When I met her, she was shivering and traumatized.The situation was extremely painful and heart wrenching.”
He immediately got in touch with RENEW, an NGO that he volunteers with.With their help, the girl moved to Thimphu where she now attends school and lives with an aunt.
“Sending her to Thimphu was the right thing to do not only because it was a change of setting for her but also because she would get professional counselling and help from RENEW,” says Thinley.
Thinley, a teacher by profession, is one among the thousands of Community Based Support System volunteers working in far-flung areas across the country. The volunteers are from diverse backgrounds who are constantly in the field and in direct touch with people in their communities. They are trained to identify signs of abuse among children and women, and respond by providing victims with the right referral and counseling.
“Other countries have social workers but here in Bhutan, we don’t,” says RENEW’s Tshering Wangmo. “That is where we come in and that is why we – together with our volunteers – have an important role.”
She adds that UNICEF has, over the years, been their partner both in terms of providing training, monetary and technical support and carrying out studies on gender-based violence and violence against children. UNICEF, for the only shelter in the country for victims of domestic violence and child abuse, has also helped develop a curriculum for children and a study trip for shelter staff.
“We set up the shelter in 2008 in Thimphu, as we wanted to expand our services from women to children,” says Tshering. “We also did this because there was a drastic increase in the number of children being abused in the family or by people they know. As our staff was not experienced, they learnt a lot from their trip to Nepal.”
At present, there are around 20 children in the shelter. Some of them,who’ve been abandoned or orphaned, have been there for more than 10 years. UNICEF helps these children by arranging summer camps and by providing sports and learning kits.
For the children in the shelter, Gawaling is home – a place where they feel safe and protected. But not all children, especially those residing far away from Thimphu, are fortunate enough to avail that kind of protection.
Dechen Choden is 15 years old. At first glance, she looks like any average student, but a deep trauma lies beneath the surface.
She was abandoned by her real parents as a baby and her maternal grandmother took her under her care. But, when her grandmother passed away, 4 year old Dechen was taken in by a young couple.
“I was treated like a slave,” she says. “I had to look after their four young children, cook, clean and do all the chores. I would sleep at three in the morning and wake up two hours later. My ‘mother’ would beat me mercilessly.”
As young as she was, the only respite Dechen found was in alcohol and drugs.
“I was barely eight when I started drinking and soon I began experimenting with marijuana,” she says. “I liked being high and, in time, I started doing other drugs. Every penny I got, I spent it on drugs. There is no drug found in Bhutan that I haven’t taken.”
Today, Dechen is drug free thanks to Thinley Namgyel’s counseling, support and continuous guidance.
“I counsel people in the spirit of voluntarism and because I want to do something good to make a difference,” Thinley says. “I take my job as a counselor very seriously because the people that come to me are in desperate need of help and at a low point in their lives.”
Thinley Namgyel set out as a volunteer way back in 2009 and attends most workshops, training’s and conferences organized by RENEW and UNICEF if he can squeeze in time from his hectic teaching schedule.
“Most of the children in need of help are from broken families. As Bhutan is a close-knit society, things seem fine on the surface but internally there is a lot of chaos,” he says, adding that two major factors that trigger disputes and violence in families are alcohol and infidelity.
In Trashigang alone, there are 62 volunteers registered with RENEW. But, due to a lack of funds and time, only six members are active in their communities. Thinley is one of them.
“We have our own share of problems. But when people need help, I cannot turn them down,” he says. “In the end, all I get out of what I do is immense satisfaction from the fact that I could make a difference in somebody else’s life.”
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The names of the girls have been changed to protect their identities.
Mitra Raj Dhital, UNICEF Bhutan