Children’s rights for Bhutan’s young monks

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.  Corporal punishment and even sexual exploitation may be happening behind closed doors, says an observer.

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.

Czech UNICEF country representative  Pavla Gomba, told media ,“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.”

“We had to submit the story line and we identified a few places where we would shoot. 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.”

The team spent  three days with each boy, followed them around and filmed their daily routine

What is also unique about this documentary is that it follows-up on a story shot in Bhutan five years ago. They identified  the same boy and followed up on his story.

The film portrays 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 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.

Gomba says,  “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.”


“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.”

UNICEF tries to accept the local culture and local traditions except those 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.


“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.” says the UNICEF spokesperson.

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


There are two kinds of monasteries in Bhutan –some are governed by the state and funded by the state, they receive rations and are better off.  The  community monasteries supported only by the villagers and the local communities operate in very modest circumstances. There are monasteries without a source of clean, safe water where hygiene may be one of the challenges. Provision of health care to the 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. Nutritious food can also be a problem.


Unicef uses financial leverage to promote its children’s rights agenda. There are programs that need financial assistance, especially training of the teachers and lamas and also the functioning of the children’s rights committee.

“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,” says Gomba.


“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.”

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Posted by on April 10, 2015. Filed under Bhutan,Breaking News,SOUTH-ASIA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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