Leading with empathy, humility, and an attitude to learn

H.E. Dechen Wangmo, on the driving seat of Bhutan's success in containing the COVID-19 spread

The Royal Government of Bhutan’s Minister of Health, Her Excellency Dechen Wangmo, is a role model and inspiration to many young women; especially for those who aspire to become national and global leaders. She dismantled stereotypes as the only female Minister in the current cabinet of the Government of Bhutan. During the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021, she was elected as the first Bhutanese President of the World Health Assembly.

H.E. Dechen Wangmo leads with an ‘open door’ policy. She upholds the belief that anyone can be a leader with the right guidance, support system, and opportunity. For her, everybody, irrespective of who they are, has things to contribute. This is a reflection of her humble values, and extends to the environment that she created for everyone in her team to prosper and attain their highest potential. In her own experience, she values the support from her family and guidance of His Majesty, both of which enable and inspire her to lead with compassion. H.E. Dechen Wangmo has demonstrated gender transformative leadership through several different actions, more recently, in her leadership of Bhutan’s national COVID-19 response task force.

COVID-19 planning led by H.E. Dechen Wangmo
One of the many handwashing with soap facilities installed for public use

Her attitude of ‘listening and learning from others’ has been valuable in helping the task force continuously adapt to the rapidly changing scenario. Her humility, values, and bold steering of the country’s COVID-19 response with special emphasis on leaving no one behind, have shaped a unique style of leadership which fosters gender equality and empathy.

‘I firmly believe that everybody, irrespective of who they are, has something to contribute. Getting ideas from people with good intentions is more important than following protocols and seeking appointments. No one knows everything, including me, and therefore it is important to listen and learn from others.’

During nationwide lockdowns in Bhutan, H.E. Dechen Wangmo ensured that there was no disruption in the delivery of essential services, such as maternal and childcare, and reproductive health services. Under her leadership, the task force provided a dedicated national helpline to support elderly people. The support of local civil society organisations, including Disabled People’s Organisations, was also mobilised to ensure that outreach services for people with disabilities continued seamlessly.

Adequate provision of essential items such as sanitary napkins for menstruating people, necessary supplements for breastfeeding mothers and diapers for babies were made available in quarantine centres. Moreover, as a leading member of the Government of Bhutan’s national Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Programme (RSAHP), she ensured that water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) was part of COVID-19 response activities. Her leadership saw through the installation of handwashing stations in public places, health care facilities, and schools across the country.

Authors: Avni Kumar and Diana Gonzalez Botero from ISF-UTS, with input from Tshering Choden, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Advisor, SNV in Bhutan
Photos: Tshechu Dorji for SNV
More information:
[1] H.E. Dechen Wangmo is one of 19 leaders interviewed for the ‘Gender transformative leadership in WASH during the COVID-19 pandemic’ research project led by SNV and ISF-UTS. The project is funded by the Australian government's Water for Women Fund. Key findings of the research are presented in this learning brief.
[2] This blog was produced as part of SNV in Bhutan's Beyond the Finish Line programme.
[3] Additional stories of leadership here: Toumkam Phetsalath, Deputy Head of the Champhone District Health Office in Lao PDR  | Chomsy Ngamvilay, Deputy Head of the Atsaphone District Health Office in Lao PDR | Rajesh Sahani, Member of Disabled People's Organisation in Nepal | Namgay Pelden, Gup (local leader) in a sub-district in Bhutan | Ambika Yadav, WASH Advisor, SNV in Nepal 
[4] To learn more about SNV's rural WASH work in Asia, contact Gabrielle Halcrow, Multi-country programme manager, by email.