In October, UNICEF Director of East Asia and the Pacific Region, Karin Hulshof, visited Mongolia’s UNICEF office to meet with members of Parliament, representatives of the private sector, as well as members of the academic community. The UB Post spoke with Hulshof to discuss the goals of her visit, as well as her assessment of the current situation of Mongolia’s children and the government’s commitment to support and invest in children.

A highlight of Karin Hulshof’s visit was to assess UNICEF’s ongoing initiative, called “Children and environmental change in Mongolia”, and encourage participation from national stakeholders, including children and communities, and international experts to cultivate a coordinated approach to mitigate the damaging effects of air pollution.

What are your thoughts on the government’s accountability to implement the new child protection legislation?

The adoption of the Law on Child Protection is a good thing for Mongolia and for the country’s children. It is a significant step that should contribute to the fulfillment of every child’s right to protection from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect, and to strengthening the national child protection system. UNICEF is particularly pleased to see that it prohibits physical and humiliating punishment of children in all settings including schools, institutions and homes. Of course, to be fully effective this law must form part of a system of law and practice. Evidence clearly shows that experiencing, or even witnessing, domestic violence frequently has a significant negative impact on children’s development, so the adoption of the draft Law on Combating Domestic Violence and the amendments to the Criminal Code will also be important to children. The new child protection law is an important first step that we hope will be supported by the adoption of other laws that are essential for the protection of children and the consistent implementation of these laws. UNICEF stands ready to support the important work the Mongolian government has commenced for the protection of children.

According to the UNICEF report, Mongolia was among the very first countries to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. How does Mongolia compare to the other East Asian and Pacific countries in terms of their commitment to make its principles and provisions?

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a landmark for children and their rights and Mongolia was one of the first countries to ratify this important international treaty. A committee of experts – the Committee on the Rights of the Child – monitors countries’ implementation of the fundamental rights outlined in the convention. Mongolia submitted its fifth report to that committee this year. In previous reports, the experts on the committee have noted with appreciation that Mongolia had addressed many important issues related to children and achieved impressive progress for children, including significant reductions in child mortality, nearly universal coverage of vaccination, almost universal antenatal care, high gross enrolment rate in basic and secondary education and a considerable decrease in monetary poverty rates. There are other areas where the rights of Mongolia’s children are still not realized. Mongolia is a country that is rich in natural resources, but experiencing a severe economic crisis at present. During this crisis, it will be important to ensure that basic social services, especially for children, are adequately and sustainably financed so these achievements are not lost. It will also be important to make special efforts to ensure that the benefits of Mongolia’s progress are experienced by all children, even the most disadvantaged and the hardest to reach. At present, there are still some geographic areas where children are not seeing the full benefits of Mongolia’s development and income disparities still make a big difference to children’s access to clean water and safe sanitation, health and education. These are certainly some of the areas that we would like to see addressed as matters of priority.

What are your thoughts regarding the government’s decision to change the distribution of the Children’s Money to only support targeted groups?

In the past, UNICEF commended the government’s commitment to making the Child Money Program “universal” through its plan for action. A universal approach is a good way to maximize child protection and reduce the risk of children who need it are not receiving benefits. It also helps avoid children being stigmatized. At the same time, UNICEF recognizes the challenges in providing universal coverage when funds are scarce. All around the world, UNICEF advocates for progressive realization, working with countries to identify and build the best possible mix of interventions that will help the most children in need. Whatever that mix is, it must ensure that children in need receive the maximum possible help. A temporary suspension of universality is understandable, as long as the new system ensures that the children who most need help receive it. Evidence shows that the best way to be certain of this is to provide universal coverage, so we would strongly believe the universality of the program should resume as soon as humanly possible.

How will UNICEF help to bridge Mongolia’s current child trends and disparities given this time of political uncertainty and economic downturn?

UNICEF has been operating for years in countries affected by economic crisis and we provide governments with evidence-based technical advice and support to minimize the impact on children of economic slumps. One thing we argue for strongly is the maintenance, or where possible even an increase, of social expenditures when times are tough. This might seem counter intuitive, but there is a great deal of evidence to show that the most disadvantaged suffer more when services are cut, and that the negative consequences for children of reduced access to education, health and other services, are irreversible, so the children never catch up again. If the gains in the realization of children’s and women’s rights and long-term national development that Mongolia has achieved are not to be lost, social spending has to be a high priority. In times of economic turmoil, some programs are even more effective in helping children who would otherwise be in trouble. Quick-impact social protection initiatives such as cash transfers to households, among other measures, become more important and deliver excellent results. Other programs UNICEF has been introducing are low cost and high impact, like cost-effective sanitation models and integrated health and nutrition approaches, exclusive breastfeeding, or parenting skills. These can make a big difference, and they do not require large amounts of funds.

With a growing presence in the private sector in Mongolia, what kind of relationship does UNICEF hope to develop with the private sector? How will UNICEF advocate for mining companies to support a safer world for Mongolia’s children?

UNICEF’s engagement with private sector in Mongolia is about positive business behavior and practices as they affect children. For children to receive the support they need and that they have a right to, many partners, including companies, governments, civil society, children and young people, must work together. This applies to the mining industry as it does elsewhere.

UNICEF’s role is to seek to help mining companies understand how their operations impact on children and to encourage them to make sure those impacts are positive – to the benefit of children. Children are more vulnerable to the impacts of large scale mining than adults, so special attention to their needs and the risks they face are absolutely necessary.