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FEATURE STORYMarch 23, 2023

Happiness in a Food Bowl: Women at the Forefront of Revitalizing Bhutan’s Villages


Members of the Nobgang Tsherim Detshen Group in front of their community-led restaurant in their historic village in central Bhutan (Photo: Department of Culture, Bhutan)  


  • In Central Bhutan, a women-led community group, Nobgang Tsherim Detshen, was created in 2021 to revive the cultural vibrancy of the village after many of its youth started migrating to the cities in search of better opportunities.
  • Supported by the Royal Government of Bhutan and the World Bank, the group prepared a stewardship plan for the revitalization of the village and was trained to manage community-led social enterprises.
  • The initiative is part of the Buddhist Circuit Development Program in South Asia, which aims to unlock the region’s shared heritage to drive women’s empowerment, inclusion, and prosperity.

In between sips of a delicious tea made with herbs from her garden, Madam Pem, the community head of the Nobgang village, shows the menu of their restaurant.  “Some of these authentic dishes have rarely been tasted by the Bhutanese, for instance Nobgang Aezay Nyergum, which was served to the kings and high-ranking officials since the olden days when Punakha was Bhutan’s capital,” she says.

Pem, along with five other women and a man from her village, owns and manages Nobgang’s traditional restaurant and a Bed & Breakfast—sharing authentic tastes and experiences with the rest of Bhutan and the outside world.

The restaurant also gave a new life to one of the few remaining L-shaped kabu-darcham houses in Bhutan, built in the 18th century by hermits. The building—previously used as a health center by the government— was restored, adapted for new use, and handed over to the community.  Behind it, the government and the community built a Bed & Breakfast, following Bhutan’s traditional architecture.

The social enterprises are part of the community’s strategy to revive the village’s vibrancy, which had been lost due to the migration of its youth to cities in search of less laborious jobs and improved living conditions. This is a trend that is shrinking Bhutan’s traditional villages and the rapidly growing its cities.


The restaurant and B&B surrounded by another traditional kabu-darcham houses typical of Nobgang. (Photo: Department of Culture, Bhutan)

A pilot project to revitalize villages

Concerned over this growth imbalance and increasing ‘loss of happiness’— which is Bhutan's main development goal— the government prioritized the revitalization of its traditional villages. Among many actions, in 2016, it approved a unique Cultural Heritage Bill that declared the entire country as a cultural landscape.  

The government chose Nobgang as a pilot to test its novel approach. Led by the Department of Culture and with World Bank-support, a community driven process was put in place and an alliance was formed among the ministries and agencies working on urban planning, service delivery, tourism, trade, forestry, and agriculture at both the central and local levels. This brought together multidisciplinary expertise and optimized scarce financial and human resources.

 After many consultations, a “Cultural Stewardship Plan” was prepared to guide the revitalization of Nobgang. Based on the community’s vision of becoming “a vibrant and self-sustained community by 2030”, three broad actions have been identified and are now under implementation, including (i) the physical regeneration of the village in a culturally sensitive and climate resilient manner, (ii) the value addition to its agricultural products, and (iii) the creation of income generating opportunities for women and youth.

Stefania Abakerli, Senior Urban Development Planner at the World Bank and the task team leader of the Buddhist Circuit Program, says that the pilot in Nobgang focused on fostering the village’s multiple assets, which are managed by women.

“Paradoxically, in Bhutan women’s ownership of land has limited their economic mobility and opportunities,” she says, adding that the participatory planning process along with community-led social enterprises addressed this issue by bringing new opportunities for women and youth right at their doorsteps.


The Buddhist Circuit Development is a regional program that aims to build people-to-people connectivity amongst countries, and at the same time, supports employment and incomes for communities and small and medium enterprises, which are mostly women-led.
Cecile Fruman
Director, Regional Integration and Engagement, South Asia

Focus on people-to people connectivity and inclusion

The Cultural Heritage Bill and the Nobgang pilot are part of the World Bank-supported Buddhist Circuit Development Program in South Asia, which focuses on unlocking the untapped potential of South Asia’s cross-border heritage as a driver of inclusive growth and prosperity. The program initially is focusing on India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Cecile Fruman, Director, South Asia Regional Integration and Engagement says that the Buddhist Circuit Development is a regional program that aims to build people-to-people connectivity amongst countries, and at the same time, supports employment and incomes for communities and small and medium enterprises, which are mostly women-led. Globally, tourism employment consists of 50 % women, but in South Asia’s Buddhist destinations, only 2% of women are employed by the tourism sector—a gap that this program seeks to bridge, she adds.  

To contribute to such an ambitious goal, the program has supported regional dialogues that led to a shared strategy for the development of the Buddhist Circuit in South Asia. At the country-level, the program has informed the planning and regeneration of Buddhist destinations and financed community-level initiatives with a focus on women’s empowerment and inclusive growth.

In Pem’s own words, “the whole process of planning the revival of our community has given us an opportunity to listen to each other and set a new vision for the stewardship of our culture, and the nature around us”—a vision that Pem and her group are now happily serving in a food bowl.

Support to the Buddhist Circuit Development Program was provided by the South Asia Regional Trade Facilitation Program (SARTFP) - a World Bank trust fund supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).



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