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Mongolian Women’s Hard-Won Victory

Hartsaga Erdenechimeg5 130X190

A small group of committed legislators in the Mongolian parliament are taking on the challenge of meeting the basic needs of women and children.

Many would be surprised to learn that China was not the fastest growing economy for 2011 but rather its smaller neighbor Mongolia.  Owing to its mining wealth, the fledgling democracy that shucked off communism in 1990 has earned medium-human development status in the Human Development Index (HDI) rankings.  

Mongolia has been a bit of a star in HDI – a UN measurement based on life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living, and quality of life – showing the fastest growth from 2000 to 2010, compared to the countries ranked above it.  However, taking into consideration the new inequality-adjusted HDI, in use from 2010, the picture looks less promising: Mongolia registers a 14 percent loss, according to the latest UNDP country report.  Poverty has stayed at 36 percent since the mid-1990s.  Political representation of women in parliament was a mere 3.9 percent prior to the 2012 elections – one of the lowest rates globally. 

However, females are more strongly represented in education than males – 60 to 70 percent of university students are women.  Women also outrank men in professions such as doctors and teachers, with 80 percent of these positions filled by women.  Even so salaries remain very low, according to Member of Parliament Luvsan Erdenechimeg.

Erdenechimeg is the chosen leader of the newly formed Women’s Caucus, consisting of nine female MPs elected to parliament on June 28, 2012. Their election tripled women’s representation from three members out of 76 to nine, thanks to a 20 percent quota established from the 2011 law on gender equality.  They immediately formed a political group to work on a shared vision and to collaborate with civil society organizations (mostly staffed by women, according the 2009 Mongolian Women’s Fund report). Their focus is the lack of maternity hospitals and kindergartens in the countryside and informal settlement areas on the edges of Ulaanbaatar.  Ger districts (Mongolian for the nomadic dwelling yurt) now make up 60 percent of the population of the rapidly expanding capital.  Ulaanbaatar is home to an estimated 1.3 million people, over 40 percent of the country’s population.  The city has grown rapidly due to migration from the countryside, and its infrastructure was intended for only half the current population, according to government reports.

Luvsan Erdenechimeg has visited all of the maternity hospitals in Ulaanbaatar and some 30 kindergartens.  About half the women that come to maternity hospitals in ger districts are turned away, and about half of the children being registered for kindergarten are denied, according to her.  She is familiar with this situation representing the Songinokhairkhan district of the capital, where 80 percent of residents live in gers.  Erdenechimeg herself experienced being turned away from the hospital when pregnant and due to give birth. She was sent away for four or five hours until a bed became free.  The district has only one hospital with 75 beds.  With the city’s expanding population – especially the city's largest district of Bayanzurkh – the lack of hospital capacity is an urgent issue.

In order to register their children in kindergarten, parents camp out the night before. “If you cannot get a seat [for your child] in kindergarten, you pay,” said Erdenechimeg, pointing to corruption.  Mothers of the half that are not registered must stay at home to watch them, cutting household incomes in half.   She estimates 40 percent of Mongolians are at risk of not going to school because of these infrastructure problems.  Building enough schools would cost an estimated 300 million USD.

Mongolia’s previous parliament awarded each Mongolian, regardless of their economic standing, 15 USD monthly last year. The move, which cost the government 600 million USD, was widely criticized as a maneuver to help political parties gain seats in the 2012 election.  The money came out of the Human Development Fund created from mining wealth. Without adequate political representation, issues that women deem important are left underfunded.  Men see kindergartens and hospitals as “women’s work,” according to Erdenechimeg.

MP Tsedevdamba Oyungerel, a woman with 20 years of political activism behind her, explained that despite their professional achievements, women’s perspectives are not heard when laws are created and implemented.  This translates to deficiencies in “planning, policy and the police force.” She noted that the new law on gender equality – gearing up for full implementation in 2013 – also includes a 30 percent quota for male teachers and doctors to narrow what's seen as a “reverse gender gap.”

For her part, Erdenechimeg hopes that attracting more men as doctors and teachers will also bring greater government funding. 

The “reverse gender gap” has been used to imply that men are at a disadvantage. Undarya Tumursukh, a feminist activist, does not think so.  “Many people have little understanding of gender equality. That women constitute a larger percentage among teachers does not necessarily amount to women having dominance in the sector – but that is how it is often said. Are male teachers losing out by not being teachers? No. Are women? Often yes, as this is a very underpaid sector – if we look at kindergarten and secondary school teachers. Still, as ranks go up, there are more men. In the lowest paid – mostly women.” Undarya is the national coordinator for MONFEMNET, an umbrella organization of civil society groups dedicated to human rights-based gender equality.

Despite formidable obstacles, there is a greater sense of hope in the political arena.  Luvsan Erdenechimeg said that ten years ago, “We were dependent on men.  [Now] we are more independent, we can say everything.  We can have our own ideas and plans.  Before, we were like satellites.”  Tsedevdamba Oyungerel concurred.  “Oh, it’s improved a lot.  The mentality of the people has improved.  Before it was, ‘what are you doing in politics?’  You were a helper only, but now you are seen as a decision maker, especially in my party.” 

Luckily for Mongolia, the Women's Caucus doesn't dwell on the past. For holistic development to occur, which includes the needs of those not directly benefiting from mining, women’s political empowerment will be required.

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