UNICEF brings children’s rights to monasteries in Bhutan

'The Little Monk', photo: Dagmar Vyhnálková

The world of monastic schools in Bhutan is veiled in mystery. It is home to around 4,000 boys, some of them as young as five, training to become monks. In a ground-breaking project UNICEF is entering this closed-off world to establish a child-protection framework in a centuries-old order.

Pavla Gomba,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
The Czech branch of UNICEF is involved in the project and in order to raise awareness of the problem it has joined forces with Czech Television to film a unique documentary (The Little Monk) that takes viewers where few have gone before – behind the walls of Bhutan’s monastic schools. I spoke to the head of the Czech UNICEF branch Pavla Gomba and began by asking how difficult it had been to arrange the shoot.

“Getting a shooting permit in Bhutan is challenging in itself, but of course filming such a documentary inside the monasteries is even more of a challenge and we only received the shooting permit thanks to our local colleagues from UNICEF Bhutan.”

Were there any restrictions?

“We had to submit the story line and of course we identified a few places where we would shoot, and yes, there were some restrictions, we had to respect the daily routine in the monasteries and there were some special arrangements for shooting at night.”

So you spent three days with each boy, followed them around and filmed their daily routine –is that right?

“Yes, and I think that what is also unique about this documentary is that we were able to follow-up on a story that we shot in Bhutan five years ago. We identified the same boy and followed up on his story and this is quite unique I think even on a world scale.”

“Many monasteries in Bhutan still employ corporal punishment.”

So what is the daily life of these boys like in these monasteries?

“I think that the life of these boys – and some of them are as young as five or six –is quite challenging. They usually get up at around 5am –on special holidays even earlier – and have a very simple breakfast-usually butter tea with a biscuit. And then they spend almost the entire day memorizing texts. Their life is very modest in terms of food, in terms of environment. Sometimes they don’t have the chance to play, they lose the ties to their families and in most monasteries they do not get any kind of formal education. Also it may come as a surprise that in many monasteries in Bhutan you can also still find corporal punishment. “

We tend to imagine that although the life of a boy training to be a monk may be physically hard it is considered a huge privilege, a vocation that makes the child very special. But very often the children in these monasteries are the poorest of the poor or physically handicapped children whose parents cannot support them and who have no place to go. These monastic schools are primarily orphanages are they not?

'The Little Monk',  photo: Dagmar Vyhnálková
“I think one cannot expect that these very young boys could have decided to become monks out of their own conviction. The main reasons that lead these boys into monasteries are poverty, loss of parents and in some cases tradition, a tradition that is deeply respected in Bhutanese society.”

You mentioned corporal punishment. Until fairly recently no one knew what went on behind the walls of these monasteries –they have their own order, even their own courts…Now UNICEF Bhutan is trying to change that and introduce the concept of children’s rights into these monastic schools. How does UNICEF try to change a centuries-old order and is there a huge resistance to this? Are the monks afraid of traditions being disrupted?

“I think that the situation varies from one monastery to another, but UNICEF tries to work with the central monastic body and also quite recently – I think a year and a half ago – we supported the establishment of a special commission for children’s rights in the monasteries that is made up of the monks themselves and lamas and they educate the other lamas in children’s rights. But, of course, it will require a lot of time and there is very little evidence on child protection issues in the monasteries. Corporal punishment is widespread and there are stories about the sexual exploitation of boys in these monasteries but that is indirect information. We just know that some of the boys and young monks suffer from STD so this is indirect evidence that this kind of thing may be happening at some of the monasteries, but it is illicit and there is very little in terms of statistics or evidence to fall back on.”

Are the monks receptive to what you are saying, to what you are trying to change? Or do they simply want to continue living the way they have for centuries?

“Wherever we work, we always try to accept the local culture and local traditions –with one exception – and that is traditions that may be harmful to the health or even lives of children.”

“Wherever we work, we always try to accept the local culture and local traditions –with one exception – and that is traditions that may be harmful to the health or even lives of children. And the practice of sending very small boys into monasteries is one of those exceptions. But of course we work with the whole community and we try to sensitize the community to these problems, we encourage them to send their boys, their sons to monasteries at a later age when it is more of their own decision. That is one thing, and also I was able to visit several fantastic monasteries where the monks, or the boys, had what they needed –they were able to play, they were even able to play football, they were able to continue their education and they studied English for example, so I think that it very much depends on the heads of these monasteries. But of course we would like to spread these positive examples to the whole country.”

What are you trying to change most? In what are do these young boys suffer the most –is it psychological or physical?

“I think it is both. There are two kinds of monasteries in Bhutan –some are governed by the state and funded by the state, they receive ratios and are better off, others are community monasteries supported only by the villagers and the local communities and they operate in very modest circumstances. So we can still find monasteries without a source of clean, safe water where hygiene may be one of the challenges, also provision of health care to these boys may be a challenge in some parts of the country, especially in isolated regions where it is a several days’ walk to the nearest health facility. So these are the basic challenges, of course nutritious food can also be a problem. But I would say that psychological support and especially the possibility to maintain ties to their families and for these children to be able to continue their education are UNICEF’s biggest priorities in Bhutan.”

Was it hard to establish a rapport with these young boys?

'The Little Monk',  photo: Dagmar Vyhnálková
“Well, for me it was very rewarding to meet with the boy about whom we shot a documentary five years ago and to see how his life had evolved. He still remembered the TV crew and so that was easy. But of course when you come as an outsider to this environment it takes a while for the boys to feel comfortable, but we had the support of the local UNICEF branch and everywhere we went we were supported by the teachers and the heads of monasteries.”

When you try to introduce the concept of children’s rights at these monasteries what leverage do you have –is it financial assistance?

“Yes, of course. There are programs that need financial assistance, especially training of the teachers and lamas and also the functioning of this children’s rights committee that we helped to establish, but there are a lot of things that we can change without money. It is more about awareness and, let us say, the positive motivation of those that are involved. And the Czech branch of UNICEF is now running a campaign to support these programs to protect children in monasteries. So far we have raised about 1.5 million Czech crowns.”

That was something I was leading up to – what was your intention in filming this unique documentary - apart from raising awareness of the problem – are you trying to raise more money for these orphans, for these monasteries?

“Yes, for us it is not enough just to show the reality and sensitize the Czech public to what is happening in such a far-off country. Our main priority was to raise funds to support these programs and hopefully we will be able to go back there in a few years and provide feedback to our donors in the Czech Republic about how their funds have helped in these specific places.”

And what has the public response been like?

“Well, it is difficult to compare to other campaigns because this theme is so special and also Bhutan is a very special country. Of course it is not a natural disaster, it is not an emergency, but so far we have had a very positive response from our donors and supporters. We even heard from a few primary schools that were inspired by the documentary and say they want to organize events or smaller campaigns in aid of this project at their school.”

'The Little Monk',  photo: Dagmar Vyhnálková
How did the Czech branch of UNICEF come to select this particular project? Why did you pick Bhutan and monastic schools specifically?

“We have supported Bhutan for over ten years and I had the opportunity to visit the country four times so I can see very positive developments and progress made in the areas we have supported so far. Our priorities were clean water, education and also protection of these child monks, and we do have results over those ten years. And because we are a smaller country we tend to focus on smaller countries as well where even with restricted funds there are tangible results.”