By Paula Hirschoff
I recently traveled to Mongolia, drawn by legendary stories of Mongolian women’s strength and resilience developed through a nomadic lifestyle and harsh climatic conditions. Half the population of 2.7 million is still nomadic or semi nomadic, although many are now migrating to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital, where they live in gers—traditional round, one-room dwellings. “Nomadic women have to do so much!” said B. Onon, program director for the Gender Center for Sustainable Development, one of three Global Fund for Women grantees that my friend Darlene Kunze and I visited in Ulaanbaatar. We observed the typical woman’s workload. For our hostess Sarantuya, a day’s work comprised milking a herd of cows, producing a wide variety of dairy products, and handling the horses and goats, while holding down a job in the nearby capital. “She’s superwoman! Grandma too,” remarked her friend. “Centuries ago Mongolian women had rights and privileges not accorded to most East Asian women,” Onon explained. “For example, they owned property and could divorce their husbands. Gender relations were more equal in Mongolia.” On the steppe, women rode horses, shot arrows, and according to a popular folktale about a princess, even wrestled. This legendary daughter of a king bested all male opponents, which allegedly led to the current requirement for wrestlers to wear open vests, thus proving they do not have female breasts. The history of these powerful Mongol women is about to become better known with the publication of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, by anthropologist Jack Weatherford in February 2010. Mongol men are famous for conquering most of the known world, but women ruled the empire during much of the thirteenth century. These daughters headed the kingdoms along the Silk Road and created the commercial networks that knitted Europe together with Asia, according to Weatherford, who also wrote Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, about the rise and impact of the great conqueror. These Mongol women excelled in commerce, but some also put on the helmet of war and led their troops to victory in battle. The spirit of these queens of the past still lives today on the Mongol steppe, Weatherford said. History forced Mongol women to be strong and to act independently—traits that they bring to the sometimes daunting challenges of the globalized society. “They may lack the material means and some of the tools of more technologically sophisticated societies, but they stand second to none in their strength, spirit, and determination,” said Weatherford, who lives in Mongolia for half of each year. The two decades since Mongolia emerged from Russian dominance as a fledgling democracy have been good for women in some respects and not so good in others. As civil society has taken root, women’s rights have had more attention; the growing rate of poverty, however, typically has affected women more than men. Moreover, 70 percent of women employed in rural work are not paid and have limited control over assets. For example, women own only 16 percent of livestock and rural housing. Another discouraging statistic is the proportion of women in Parliament has fallen from 25 percent in 1990 to 6 percent in the last election. These statistics come from the Gender Center’s database of research and gender-based analysis on Mongolian women.
A Modern Struggle
Today Mongolian women are fighting to rebuild that historic equality by strengthening civil society, and GFW grantees are solid blocks in the foundation. The National Center Against Violence, for example, which runs five shelters for battered women and their children, has taken a lead role in advancing women’s rights. According to D. Enkhjargal, an attorney and its director for the past 12 years, domestic violence was kept secret -- a private family matter -- in the decades under the Russians. The Center is fighting to expose the problem, noting that one-tenth of Mongolian women suffer from domestic violence at some point in their lives. Almost since its founding in 1995, the National Center has been building a legal basis for prosecuting cases of domestic violence and protecting its victims. Armed with thorough research of records from courts, law enforcement organizations and hospitals, the staff raised public awareness and advocated for a domestic violence law. Government officials were initially skeptical, protesting that domestic violence was not a problem in Mongolia, and claiming that the Center was trying to introduce “western culture” to the country.
By 2003, however, the Center’s advocacy had paid off. The government officially acknowledged its support of the draft law against domestic violence and in 2004, Parliament passed the law unanimously. The Center’s work extends beyond domestic violence. In July 2008, the government declared a state of emergency and cracked down on demonstrators who protested election irregularities. Some children and people with disabilities were jailed; a number of detainees were tortured and denied food and water. Women and children were held for days with adult men. All media, except the government television were shut down. Calls to the Center’s hotline demanded, “Why aren’t you doing something?! Aren’t you the national center against violence?” “We decided we had to do something,” said Enkhjargal. Joining a coalition with some 20 other human rights groups, the Center’s staff and lawyers took a lead role in defending the victims of human rights violations and documenting the abuses that had taken place during mass arrests and detentions. In the midst of work at the national level, The Center Against Violence continues its advocacy for battered women, as we learned when N. Pvrevjav, coordinator of the shelter house network program, took us to the Madeleine Albright shelter, first funded when the former U.S. Secretary of State visited Mongolia in 1998. The shelter had 18 beds for women and children, a private room dedicated to counseling victims, and a large sunny living room filled with books and toys for the children. In addition to running shelters, the Center Against Violence also trains police, counsels perpetrators, and leads annual national campaigns against violence. The Center also has a group of lawyers who provide pro bono defense in cases that come to court. The work can be grueling and dangerous.
Last November, the entire staff was deeply affected when one of the attorneys died under suspicious circumstances while working on a contentious case. The Global Fund for Women remains the chief source of support for the Center’s operating costs, according to the director. Other donors give money for projects with specific goals usually designated by the donors themselves. The Global Fund, on the other hand, allows grantees to decide for themselves how to spend the funds. The second GFW project we visited—the Gender Center for Sustainable Development—also challenges official policy. In addition to its research function mentioned previously, a core mission is to provide access to education for the most vulnerable children. The Center documented a gap between government statistics and its own research regarding the number of children attending school in two neighborhoods. Of 800 families, the official statistics indicated that only two or three children between the ages of 7 and 17 were out of school. The Gender Center’s research, however, revealed the number was ten times higher. Then the staff interviewed the families to learn why the children were out of school. Some of the boys had gone out to earn a living, while the girls were caring for younger siblings or relatives who were ill. Surprisingly, girls are more likely to attend school. More girls than boys are enrolled in high school, and nearly 60 percent of university students are women. This is partly because boys have more options for employment, including joining the army, herding the family’s livestock or driving vehicles. The Gender Center’s follow-up actions followed a dual track—making educational policy recommendations to the government and offering informal education to the children. In addition to the headquarters in the capital, the Gender Center has a branch in a ger district located close to a major garbage dump. There the Center provides basic literacy and computer classes for children from very poor families, children with disabilities, and the children who scavenge at the dump. Princesses—All of them Some girls drop out of school because they become pregnant.
These are the girls served by the third GFW grantee that we visited in Mongolia— The Princess Center for the Protection of Girls and Young Women's Rights. The name harks back to that legendary princess who won the wrestling contests. Why do they call it the Princess Center? “Every girl should be brave, like a princess—without fear—like the daughter of a king,” C. Undrakh, the director, told us during our visit to her office. Undrakh founded the Center in 2003, shortly after she earned a degree in social work (a new field in Mongolia). She noted that her mother, a lawyer and non-governmental organization (NGO) activist, influenced her to create an entity that would address urgent social problems. Her internship with the National Center Against Violence (see above) also shaped her choice of career path. The center is the only NGO in the country focusing on single adolescent mothers. Counseling pregnant teens on reproductive and sexual health and providing them with vocational training are two of the Center’s major services. The Center runs a hairdressing salon where some of the girls find employment. It also has a project in which the girls decorate pullovers with beads and sequins and sell them. It operates a hotline that advises them on abortion, HIV/AIDS, and other reproductive health issues. Mongolians tolerate the idea of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, she said, and AIDS is not yet a major problem in Mongolia, with a total of only 58 cases so far.
Each year, the Princess Center focuses its work on one of the nine districts of Ulaanbaatar (six in the central city area and three on the outskirts of town). Much of the work is done through girls’ clubs run by volunteers who are university students majoring in social work. The clubs continue after the year of intensive services ends, and some 20 percent of the young mothers continue to contact the Princess Center for mentoring. “We measure our success by attitude changes—whether the girls become more self-confident and acquire the skills that will prevent them from future risks such as additional unwanted pregnancies,” said Undrakh. The Mongolian birthrate is climbing, along with the rate of teen births, she added. The average Mongolian woman has 3.5 children. At the Princess Center, as at the National Center Against Violence, the staff are grappling with social problems that disproportionately harm women. The Gender Center for Sustainable Development is providing the tools in the form of gender research, analysis, and policy recommendations. In the process, these organizations strengthen Mongolian women by building on a tradition of independence, leadership and power wielded by Mongol women of long ago.