By Kristine de Leon
“When we were part of the human rights campaign, we realized that, as young women, we needed a special space for women to develop themselves,” said Zolzaya Batkhuyag, who goes by Zola, as she introduces herself with the two other women working in the office. In the office, a medium-sized table with chairs separates the two desks at each end of the room. The women I met were hospitable and generous: they offered me tea as we began our discussion on this female Mongolian solidarity movement.
“In 2010, we started our NGO as ‘Young Women for Change’, which is now ‘Women for Change’,” Zola explains as she points to Nomingerel, one of the original co-founders. “The idea was to have a space that would be led by young women for young women.” Nomingerel chimes in, “All four of us were lawyers who met at law school.” The women were determined to take their education further – to do something to empower and elevate women in her own country.
In Mongolia, women are the primary providers and caretakers, especially among rural herder populations. They are also statistically more educated and better off financially than their male counterparts, although gender equality poses an issue in a mostly-patriarchal culture. For instance, inequality in the labor market is a constant challenge. Despite their high level of educational attainment, women in Mongolia merely earn an average of 85 percent of men’s wages. Women are often engaged in less paid professions and irrespective of their individual competencies; women tend to occupy lower ranks than men in the job hierarchy both in the public and private sectors. To add to the challenge, Mongolian women spend double the time of men on household and care duties. The lack of social support systems for unpaid family responsibilities exacerbates the problem forcing women to choose between employment and care, or to carry a double burden.
“We started from four members and now we are up to 90 members,” Zola proudly explains. Regarding the women who are part of her organization, “Our members are very diverse. We have young mothers, small kinds of ‘wing’ named as ‘mothers for change’, students, business women, women in government, housewives – very diverse background groups.”
Women for Change work on three main areas: gender equality, women’s leadership, and youth activism. They address issues such as domestic violence, gender-based violence, sexual harassment, street harassment, and discrimination in workplace. “We work with women from all levels by supporting and empowering their leadership.”
“The uniqueness of Women for Change is that we really try to implement our projects by letting others participate and trying to be more inclusive. We really try to make space for diverse groups, like women with disabilities, or even women from the LGBT community, or women from the ger district.” In addition to their diversity, Women for Change uses creative outlets to reach out to the general public by using street art, comic books, and social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. For example, to promote youth activism in Ulaanbaatar, their Youth Development program recruited 200 youths to participate by observing the most recent election.
“We make space for diverse backgrounds. And we try to make our activities in a creative way.”
One of their first projects hosted the theatrical show, “The Vagina Monologues”, a theater piece by Eve Ensler on female sexuality that is typically performed in an amateur fashion. The organization hosted “The Vagina Monologues” for three years, and tickets would sell out for every show. As a result, Zola and her colleagues were able to raise
20,000 USD to contribute to ending violence against women and girls.
When asked why they stopped organizing “The Vagina Monologues”, Zola explains, “‘The Vagina Monologues’ took a lot of time. We didn’t have the time for other projects we wanted to do.” The concept of an “amateur theater” showing presenters from a voluntary audience would have made it difficult for the organization to find an appropriate venue willing to host the show. “We had to present it as a professional theatrical performance. So, it was a huge project for us. We decided to stop for two to three years, and then we might continue. And we thought it would become opportunity to other groups to organize ‘The Vagina Monologues’, too.”
“For over six years, we worked actively to raise awareness about gender equality issues.” Their more recent creative venture, an event called “My Short Skirt”, was a street march “to raise public awareness about street sexual harassment and victim-blaming.” The event “My Short Skirt” was based on a transnational movement of protest marchers, called “SlutWalk”, fighting to end rape culture.
“‘My Short Skirt’ is about letting people know that nobody should tell [women] what we should wear. It is about changing stereotypes for women. Stereotypes are what lead to victim blaming; if she wears a mini skirt or if she has street harassment, the police will blame the girl.”
“We started on ‘extreme’ things like ‘The Vagina Monologues’,” Zola laughs, “so now, nothing is extreme for us.”
Now, their intention to promote positive change carries them in other ways. Every Sunday, Women for Change call for women to discuss women’s issues, come up with outreach events, and generally empower each other. During their meetings, women talk about issues and trade their ideas – one woman’s determination to succeed ignites and fuels another’s.
The more I talk to women of different backgrounds, the more I see how women bind Mongolian society and families together. I see how women like Zola and Women for Change inspire other women to reach their full potential. And I see how that deep commitment to positive action is not only something valuable for Mongolians, but for women across the world. Mongolia’s digital landscape is developing at an accelerated pace. In response to a recent boom in mobile technologies, information access is changing the nature of the once socialist society and arguably, traditional values and priorities. Social media has taken Mongolia by storm. With increased access to information there is a heightened need for information management. As technological tools reach Mongolians from diverse sectors and communities, it is clear that there will need to be some way of educating and training youth about the power and implications of the digital world. I cannot help thinking that women like Zola should lead that movement.
After an hour and a half talking with Zola and Nomingerel, it is time to move on. A buzzing phone calls for Zola’s attention, and Nomingerel hurriedly packs up, as she has to leave for another meeting. Two other women have been waiting in the office — one is currently in law school and one is currently finishing up dental school. When Zola returns, she explains that they have another meeting starting shortly. I pack up and walk out of the building, into the cold air. The sun is just setting on the horizon, and I can hear the bustling vehicles of people trying to get home. The streets are cold, and the surrounding hills are covered in snow. Before walking out to the main road, I look back at the inconspicuous apartment building adjacent to the Red Cross that houses the office of Women for Change. Behind those walls, on the first floor, are a few women living busy lives, running around Ulaanbaatar for meetings, and empowering women.
Zola is right – what we need is “more women’s leadership” to combat the continued oppression. Underrepresentation of women at the province and capital city level deserves special attention in this regard. Last year, Parliament announced to include a mandatory 30 percent quota of female candidates in the amended election law. But a quota alone will not get women elected. Political parties need to embrace women candidates and actively promote them. For this reason, the Millennium Development Goal target of 30 percent representation of women in Parliament has not been reached: only 13 women were elected to Parliament, out of 76 seats. According to Nomingerel, just one month before the most recent legislative elections, the female candidate quota was cut down to 20 percent.
“There is no will to bring women into political leadership,” she said. So next on their agenda: roundtable discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals with female policymakers. The event is planned for November 2016 and anyone interested is welcome to attend.
Such stories like Women for Change inspire us to listen more closely, to follow an underlying thread of resilience. They remind us that we are on this journey because we fundamentally believe in the powerful combination of women and knowledge; and we know that Mongolia is a land of exceptionally strong women. This strength is something I have come to admire in the women fighting for change.