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Asia Friday, 28 July, 2000, 16:57 GMT 17:57 UK
Women steppe out in Mongolia
While many return to a traditional lifestyle, Mongolian women are spearheading change
By Tim Whewell

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When Mongolia emerged in 1990 from nearly seven decades of Communist-imposed isolation, few people could have guessed that within a few years it would be praised as one of Asia's most vibrant democracies.

The golden age of the Mongols began 800 years ago when the great warrior Genghis Khan - known more correctly as Chinggis - laid the foundations of an empire that was to stretch from the borders of Vietnam to those of Hungary. But after his death the state disintegrated, weakened by inter-tribal warfare. Eventually it fell under the sway first of Imperial China, and then, in the 20th Century, of Soviet Russia.

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As comunism collapsed in the Soviet Union, street protests eventually forced a change of regime. The withdrawal of Soviet subsidies led to industrial collapse, throwing tens of thousands out of work and fuelling massive inflation. Many families fled the cities and reverted to traditional nomadic livestock herding on the open steppe.

Economic crisis forced some families back to a traditional life in gers
And yet, ten years on, there's a remarkable spirit of resourcefulness and optimism in the country. Mongolians, it seems, have survived what was probably the world's most abrupt switch from communism to capitalism, and started in addition to build something of which they have no real experience: civil society, the web of independent citizens' groups that acts as democracy's roots.

But what's even more surprising is that many of the most dynamic of those groups are run not by men -- the traditional rulers of society -- but by women. And they've become driving forces of social change.

More girls than boys go on to higher education
Enkhtuya, who like most Mongolians uses only one name, is a small, irrepressibly enthusiastic woman who was part of this revolution from the beginning. In 1990 she seemed destined for a career in the tourist industry, managing the front office of the country's only five star hotel, the Genghis Khan.

But as demonstrators took to the streets, she was swept along by events, able to use the Western contacts she'd acquired through her job to help the pro-democracy movement. Enkhtuya and fellow women activists soon realised that in male-dominated structures, they would inevitably end up doing backroom work. And so they founded Mongolia's first non-governmental organisation, the Liberal Women's Brain Pool - initially a mistranslation of the English term "think-tank", but a name they've come to value for the attention it generates.

Women from the Brain Pool fanned out across the country's vast distances, teaching democracy not only in towns but also to the 40pc or so of the population who still live isolated lives in gers - traditional round felt tents. Since then the organisation's grown to include more than 190 branches and 7,500 volunteers, and it's inspired the creation of dozens of other campaigning women's groups.

Presenter Tim Whewell at the hairdresser's
One is Women for Social Progress (WSP). It's responsible for many imaginative schemes to raise women's earning-power: one aims to re-establish a hairdresser in every settlement that had in one in Communist times. But the group's better known for the political work it's done for all Mongolians, women and men.

Its voter education programme has ensured astonishingly high turn out rates of over 90pc in all elections in the last decade. And it's done battle with the male-dominated political establishment to force state institutions to open up to public scrutiny.

Thanks to Women for Social Progress, Mongolians can now find out how their elected representatives have voted in parliament. And they can make use of a special "Government Owner's Handbook" published by the group which contains the previously-secret phone numbers of state officials.

Although WSP proudly keeps the word "women" in its title, more and more men are volunteering to join the organisation because no other groups have proved as dynamic in bringing about reform.

Women instigated social change
Why have women been more successful than men in setting the political and social agenda? Some say it's because they're less personally ambitious, and so can concentrate more on principles than on advancing their own careers. But there are also many specifically Mongolian reasons.

One is women's astonishingly high level of education compared to that of men: 84pc of the country's university graduates are female, as are 77pc of doctors and 60pc of lawyers. That's partly a legacy of socialism. But even further back in history, women were accustomed to being decision-makers. They ran their households and their communities for long periods while men were away hunting or herding, or on military campaigns. For a single woman to head a family has long been common and socially acceptable in Mongolia.

The tradition began before the Communist revolution, when almost half the young men used to become Buddhist monks. And more recently in harsh regions such as the Gobi Desert, men have tended to drift to towns in search of an easier life, leaving women to look after herds and have children by passing peddlers and truck-drivers.

Where Mongolian women have failed to make a break-though is in the formal political arena. Even after fresh elections earlier this month (July 2000), there are only a tiny number of female MPs. But while women's organisations are working hard to change that, it's considered less of a set-back than it might have been a few years ago.

WSP takes voter education programme right into people's homes
Increasingly, all over the world, non-governmental organisations are challenging the state for power and influence. And Mongolia's women, having been the first to see that possibility at home, are now spreading the message abroad: women's organisations right across the region, from Kazakhstan to Cambodia, are being coached by their Mongolian counterparts in skills ranging from organising electoral campaigns to re-educating domestic violence offenders.

They may even be sowing seeds of democracy in Stalinist North Korea. "When the official North Korean women's organisation sent a delegation here," says Enkhtuya, "they started off by asking us to sing a song in praise of our leaders. They were shocked when we said we didn't know any. But by the end of the visit, they seemed to have relaxed a great deal. They wept when it was time to go home."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents, a look at the Green Revolution that's turning Mongolia into a nation of gardeners and teaching the meat-loving descendants of Genghis Khan to appreciate salad.

Interview with Oyun, Mongolia July 2000
"we've only just begun to change the country"
Lutaa, Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia, July 2000
explains the complexities of Mongolian names
Throat sining music, Mongolia, July 2000
(khoomei) from the Erdene Zuu monastery, Kharkhorin
See also:

24 Nov 99 | Asia-Pacific
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30 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
14 Apr 99 | Asia-Pacific
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