Women power will shape Mongolia's future

Posted: 15 August 2005

Author: Don Hinrichsen

Contributing Editor, Don Hinrichsen, recently made an extended visit to Mongolia, where he found that the improved status of women is having a remarkable impact on this remote and sparsely populated Asian country, sandwiched between Russia and China. This is his special report.

Mongolian landscape with yurt. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Mongolian landscape with yurt. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Most of the country consists of short grass steppe; with only 2.5 million people spread across an area the size of western Europe, it is the last frontier in Asia.© Don Hinrichsen
Mongolia, remote and roadless, squats in Central Asia between Russia and China. Half of it consists of the Gobi Desert, shared with China, the other half is short-grass steppe that gives way in the north to forests and pristine rivers, brimming with fish. It is the last frontier in this part of the planet. Asia, after all, is the most crowded continent, with 3.7 billion people, just under two-thirds of the world’s population.

Mongolia is an anomaly in this landscape of humanity. Covering an area of 605,000 square miles, roughly equivalent to the size of northern Europe, it is the most sparsely inhabited country in the world (after Western Sahara in Africa) with just 4 people per square mile. The country’s 2.5 million people share this primeval landscape with 30 million domestic animals – camels, sheep, goats and horses – and some 3 million Mongolian gazelles and other wild ungulates.

Driving south from the capital, Ulaan Baatar, into the trackless wastes of the Gobi Desert, it seems as though I am caught in a time warp, transported back to the Neolithic age before agriculture began to root people to the earth. Before towns sprang up along caravan tracks and coasts. Before empires rose and fell. Before commerce and trade tied distant peoples together. Before the earth began to shrink.

Herding sheep and goats in the Gobi Desert , Mongolia. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Herding sheep and goats in the Gobi Desert , Mongolia. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Herding sheep and goats in the Gobi Desert is hard and dangerous work, especially in winter when temperatures can plunge to –40 degrees 0C. Water is essential; here a herder waters his flock of sheep and goats from a communal well.© Don Hinrichsen
The landscape is larger than life. It is untrammeled and untamed. Cumulus clouds scudding along the horizon seem to disappear into a maw of deep blue, as if they are being sucked off the edge of the earth. Here, nature has a harsh and haunting beauty. But it is an unforgiving land. As the Toyota land cruiser jolts along, using satellite positioning to find our way, sand and grit ripped off the desert by a fierce wind sideswipe the vehicle, sending it lurching left then right, in a drunken frenzy. It is only October, but winter has descended with a vengeance. The temperature outside is minus 10 degrees Centigrade, but even with three layers of clothes topped off by a down jacket, I am still freezing. The wind chill plunges the temperature to minus 30 C. It feels like I am being blown to the far ends of the earth in a time capsule.

Soviet dominance

After six hours of being tossed about in the truck, like a ship in a gale, I thought any sign of habitation would be welcome. But reaching the windswept town of Umnu Gobi, near the southern border with China, I am not so certain. The place seems completely desolate, as if this is the end of the earth, the last stop before reaching the edge and oblivion. Through the howling sand storm, I can make out a collection of gers (yurts) – small domed structures made from canvas or felt that can be assembled and taken apart in a matter of hours. These are the traditional portable dwellings of nomadic Mongols. Smoke from central stovepipes snake sideways and disappear in the wind.

As we roar up into a fenced-in enclosure, I see our destination – a tourist camp with three gers that has stayed open way beyond the normal tourist season. As I dash for the main house, one of the few brick houses I have seen, the hostess is there to greet us. After a cup of strong black tea, I am settled into one of the gers. The ger is remarkably cozy and warm – a central stove in the middle of the ger burns coal and the floor is lined with thick woolen carpets.

I have been invited here by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to see how this country is coping with growing demands on its health and social services after 70 years under Soviet dominance. So far, I have seen raw nature and thousands of domestic animals, but very few people outside the capital city.

Mongolian family. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Mongolian family. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Mr Badamkhand and his wife Mrs Batgerel (on left) and Mrs Batergerel’s sister (right) and her husband (not shown). Each couple has two children, all girls. They would like to have a boy, but both women are taking modern contraceptives because the timing is not right.© Don Hinrichsen
By next morning, the sand storm had run its course and the sky is cobalt blue. A light wind blows from the north. After a breakfast with yogurt and fresh bread, I visit a Mongol family, living an hour’s drive out into the desert. As soon as I am settled cross-legged on the carpeted floor, I am immediately offered a cup of fermented camel’s milk, a strong alcoholic drink with a taste reminiscent of home-made vodka. The husband, Mr. Badamkhand and his wife, Ms. Batgerel talk about their lives and hopes for the future. (As in China, Mongolian women keep their family names after marriage).

Cashmere harvest

Actually, there are two couples living in this ger, each with two children. Ms Batgerel’s sister and her husband share the ger and the work of looking after 700 animals, mostly sheep, goats and camels. The camels are milked twice a day by the women, while the men tend the sheep and goats. In June and July they harvest cashmere from the goats. This is the softest, most luxurious cashmere in the world. It is sold to middle-men who buy for the big cashmere company, Gobi, which exports finished products all over the world. This cash income, though modest, allows them to buy staples such as rice and tea. For meat, they live off their herd of sheep (the goats are too valuable alive). It’s a rough life, “but we are independent and free to roam as we wish,” says Mr Badamkhand. They pack up and move two to three times a year, depending on weather conditions and the availability of water and grasses for the animals.

Ms Batgerel, 28, a striking woman with raven hair is more outspoken than her quiet husband. “I have two girls. I would like to have a boy, but the timing is not right,” she explains. She had an IUD inserted at a local clinic in Umnu Gobi last year. That same clinic offers emergency obstetric services, along with a complete range of family planning counseling and contraceptives, made possible by a grant from UNFPA. “Right now my priority is my girls,” continues Batgerel. “I want to make sure that they go to school next year. Since they will have to be boarded, we need to save money to pay their fees. I want my girls to get a good education so they will have options I did not.”

Women graduates

This is the litany heard everywhere I went in Mongolia. The girl children, it seems, are going to school in greater numbers and staying in school longer than boys, who often drop out to help their fathers herd animals. The women in this country are getting much better educated than the men. Currently, over 80 per cent of all the country’s college graduates are women.

“Under the old Soviet system, women had equal rights only on paper,” recalls Tserma Delger, 54 year-old mother of six children. “My generation did not have the possibilities that my daughters have for work and advancement. We were seen mostly as breeding machines as well as working machines. I wanted to study at the advanced level after my university diploma, but I was not able to plan my family or regulate my fertility, because we did not have access to contraceptives or good reproductive health facilities. I had six children. Now, it’s a brave new world for women, one in which they can balance work and family. All my daughters have one or two children at most and they are all professionals,” she concludes with a broad grin. Women’s roles are changing rapidly. They are taking on more responsibility in government, the professions and the private sector. In Ulaan Bator, several women parliamentarians even formed an organization called the Liberal Women’s Brain Pool, dedicated to advancing women’s rights, including their increased involvement in the political process, and opening up new avenues for women to work in the professions and the emerging market economy.

’Brain pool’

Though women are beginning to dominate in business, health, education and other sectors, they are still under-represented in Parliament. The Liberal Women’s Brain Pool (known as LEOS) launched a major initiative in 2004 in order to increase the number of women in parliament from five (of out 76) to between 15 and 20 over the course of the next few years.

Uyangaa Tsakhilgaan, Executive Director of LEOS. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Uyangaa Tsakhilgaan, Executive Director of LEOS. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Uyangaa Tsakhilgaan, Executive Director of LEOS© Don Hinrichsen
“We are very confident that the number of women in Parliament will increase dramatically over the next few years,” says Uyanpaa Tsakhilgaan, Executive Director of LEOS. “We have branch organizations in all 21 provinces of the country and a growing grassroots network of supporters.”

One of the Brain Pool’s biggest challenges, one faced by all political organizations, is funding. “In order for women to compete for seats we need money,” points out Uyanpaa. “We have gotten grants from the National Endowment for Democracy and the Soros Foundation, among others. These funds have permitted us to beef up our capacity to run successful election campaigns and also to identify potential women leaders in various aimags [provinces] and cultivate them for office. We already have women capable of running for Prime Minister.”

Schoolgirls learning about RH and sexuality, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Schoolgirls learning about RH and sexuality, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
The Secondary school in Ulaan Baatar is dominated by girls. Here they are learning about RH and sexuality.© Don Hinrichsen
Back in Umnu Gobi, I am reminded of Uyanpaa’s words during a visit to the town’s largest secondary school. The school is dominated by girls, who make up three quarters of the student body. True to the trends nearly all of them want to go on to college, get degrees and go into business or become professionals.

One girl in particular caught my attention. Byamba Syren is just 15 but already a leader. She has an expressive oval face with large eyes and long dark hair. She is outspoken about the changing role of women in Mongolia. “I want to go on to study medicine at the university,” she states matter-of-factly. “My generation will change the face of this country. I am not going to get pregnant early like my mother and spend my life herding animals. I want to live and work in a city, like the capital. I want to work for a better future for everyone. We will push Mongolia into the modern world.”

I heard similar statements from nearly all the girls I talked to during my time in Mongolia. This country is on the cusp of some dramatic changes if this new generation of women gets their way, and there is every indication that they will succeed.

Difficult transition

The future may look rosy, but right now Mongolia is going through a crippling transition, while trying to forge a new identity. It is, as one observer remarked, somewhat of an enigma - neither East nor West, modern or traditional. It is a country in transition in every sense of the word, but no one can say where that transition is leading them. It is located in the heart of Asia but the most commonly spoken language after Mongolian is Russian, not Chinese. With its wide squares and ornate 18th Century architecture, Ulaan Baatar even has the look and feel of a Russian city, rather than an Asian one. Educated Mongolians look both ways.

“The really amazing thing about Mongolia,” asserts Douglas Gardner, former United Nations Resident Coordinator for the country now based in Ukraine, “ is that they managed both an economic and political reformation at the same time, without tearing the place apart in the process.” The country doesn’t have the corruption of Russia, or its hopelessness. This Gardner attributes to the “toughness” of the its people and the fact that Mongolia’s “pastoral economy helped cushion the transition and made it less damaging for families used to the helping hand of the state to provide all basic necessities.” Mongolians have had to fend for themselves, even under Russian suzerainty. The country’s major exports are copper, gold, coal and cashmere. But as prices for these fluctuate erratically, the government is having trouble financing its net of social services (which now account for 40% of the annual budget). “Still, as bad as things get another telling thing about this country,” continues Gardner, “is that the government wants to replace donor assistance with direct foreign investment as quickly as possible. They do not like the idea of getting dependent on handouts from the international community.”

This is another indication of the fierce independence of the place and why western donors, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), love the country.

Untapped potential

Mongolia’s potential is as yet untapped. But after three different trips to the country over the course of the past few years, the really striking feature of Mongolia is not its exotic nature, but the steely resolve of its womenfolk, especially the younger generation. “We are already seeing a scarcity of young women in rural areas,” points out Miga Chultem, a former United Nations program officer, now living in Toronto. “All my friends have university degrees and live in the city. No educated woman wants to marry a herder and live in a ger.”

Adolescent school girls read the popular teen magazine <em>Love</em>, Mongolia. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Adolescent school girls read the popular teen magazine Love, Mongolia. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Adolescent school girls read the popular teen magazine Love which now circulates to every secondary school in the the country. In all, 150,000 copies are distributed every quarter. It is the most popular teen magazine in Mongolia.© Don Hinrichsen
On my last day in Ulaan Baatar, before flying out to Beijing, I visited the editorial offices of the ‘teen magazine, Love, published by young people for young people with assistance from the Margaret Sanger Center and the UN Population Fund. Nearly the entire editorial staff consists of young women, all of whom are going on to the university – three quarters of them are heading for journalism school. One of the staffers is 17-year- old Norovoo. Wearing dark rimmed glasses with long, luxurious black hair , she talks to me while knocking out a story on her computer. Norovoo started working with Love three years ago and has learned a great deal in the process. “We discuss everything of interest to teenagers in this quarterly magazine,” she says with an impish grin, “including everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask.”

The magazine is now the most popular teen publication in the country – 150,000 copies are distributed to every secondary school in Mongolia. It also goes to clinics, government offices, teachers, the NGO community and the United Nations system. “The popularity of this magazine has proved that kids are interested in these subjects – it also shows that we put out a really great publication,” says Norovoo.

Women are set to play major roles in both public and private life in Mongolia. It is a tantalizing prospect that within a decade, women will dominate much of the government and most of the professions. This vision was underscored by Byamba Syren, the lovely 15-year-old girl I talked to in Umnu Gobi. As I was leaving, she grabbed my arm and whispered, “why shouldn’t we succeed in our goals. After all, while the men will be herding animals, we will be running the country! Just think about it,” she adds with an enigmatic smile, “the last frontier in Asia controlled by women.”

Don Hinrichsen is a freelance journalist and author of Coastal Waters of the World, published by Island Press. He is also a Contributing Editor of this website.