A Steppe Forward
New Roles for Women in Mongolia
To many, Mongolia probably conjures up images of marauding hordes on horseback, the garish epitome of masculinity, riding under the brutal directives of Chinggis Khan. Even today, the country’s largest national holiday is Nadaam, “the festival of three manly sports,” a reenactment of the Khan’s army’s training exercises.
With history’s emphasis on the pursuits of Mongolian men, the position of women in modern day Mongolian society may seem surprising. Compared to other countries at its level of development, women’s rights are fairly advanced. Women have full employment rights and access to maternity leave, equal rights of property ownership, unrestricted access to abortion, protective domestic violence laws, and-- partly because men are engaged in the country’s traditional nomadic herding lifestyle, approximately 70 percent of students pursuing higher education are female.
But being better educated has not translated into holding corresponding positions of power. Women for Change (W4C), a Mongolian women's rights NGO, is working to promote female leaders and help remove obstacles in society. “Women play a supporting role," says Bolortsetseg Ankhaa, the group’s program coordinator, "We are the administrators and secretaries while men make all the important decisions.”
Zola Batkhuyag and other feminists founded Women for Change in 2010. Mongolia’s 2008 elections had been met with protests and riots, and Zola and other activists responded by forming civic groups to engage peacefully in politics. They soon realized that even within this progressive movement, traditional power structures were replicated. “Women were the secretaries; women are always the secretaries,” Zola laments.
Today, Women for Change pursues an ambitious agenda, addressing domestic violence, body image, and harassment in education and at work. For the past three years, they have staged a production of The Vagina Monologues, which they translated into Mongolian. Speaking about women’s sexual reproductive organs is taboo in Mongolian society, and many were shocked to see utray, the Mongolian word for “vagina,” printed on promotion material throughout Ulaanbaatar. After the production, the group received several letters from survivors of sexual violence saying how much hearing these topics spoken about in public for the first time had helped them.
Sexual and domestic violence are major issues in Ulaanbaatar. According to YWC, approximately 70 percent of calls to the city police report domestic violence, and in 2007, approximately half of all arrests were due to domestic violence. Violence against women is an even bigger issue in the countryside, where women are often less educated and less economically self-sufficient. YWC is planning an outreach program to educate rural women on sexual and reproductive health and their rights under the country’s Law to Combat Domestic Violence. If the group’s activism in Ulaanbaatar is any indication, Mongolia will continue on its path to become a better place to be a woman.