“Through Women’s Eyes” Annual Forum: A Human Rights-Based Approach to Gender in Mongolia

MONFEMNET was established in 2000 as a network of women’s NGOs and civil society organizations dedicated to human development and women’s rights within Mongolia. The group expanded their reach in 2007 by including any Mongolian civil society organization or informal group committed to promoting gender justice, human rights, social justice and substantive democracy.

Every March since 2006 in honor of International Women’s Day MONFEMNET, hosts a forum—“Through Women’s Eyes”--to analyze and increase the knowledge of a specific policy issue from the perspective of human rights and gender equality. Previous topics include: Governance, Economic Development, Human Rights and Civil Society (2006), Ethics in Politics and Media and Movement Building (2007), Civil Society Women’s Policy Objectives (2008), National Security (2009), Protection of Fundamental Human Rights (2010), and Open Governance (2011). For example, in 2009 MONFEMNET sought to reframe “National Security” from a traditional state-centered perspective and increasingly popular ethno-nationalist framework centered on the purity of the Mongolian gene pool towards a concept of human security squarely framed based on human rights and gender equality. MONFEMNET proposed to view human/national security taking into account gender-specific vulnerabilities, viewing violence against women and children, sexual exploitation and prostitution, labor exports and migration as human/national security issues. Furthermore, MONFEMNET advocated viewing the development of a strong civil society as a guarantee of Mongolia’s national/human security and foundation of Mongolia’s democratic development.

This event draws about 300 people from a variety of areas such as media, arts, international organizations, the government sector, communities and civil society. The forum has developed into a strategic platform for building national consensus on key policy/strategic issues and building capacity not only for analysis but also for collective action to promote progressive social change in Mongolia.

Undarya Tumursukh, National Coordinator for MONFEMNET, has agreed to discuss the organization’s current activities.

UB Post: The 7th Annual “Through Women’s Eyes” Forum is scheduled for Wednesday the 7thof March at Chinghis Khaan Hotel Conference Hall in honor of International Women’s Day. What theme is MONFEMNET focusing on this year and what do you hope to accomplish with this year’s event?

Tumursukh: This year, our theme is “Human Rights Based Development Policy.” This forum and the theme is particularly important given 2012 is the parliamentary and local election year. We want to use this opportunity to promote human rights/gender-equality based development policies to political parties and candidates so as to ultimately influence the Government Plan of Action for 2012-2016.
We are strongly concerned that the political parties, particularly the two main parties, lack strong understanding of the human rights based approach to development and propose policies that are elitist, populist as well as paternalistic. We are also strongly concerned that the processes whereby the predominantly male political institutions develop policy propositions seriously lack meaningful and equal participation of various social groups, including women, rural population, low-income people, youth, ethnic and sexual minorities, people with disabilities, etc.
Thirdly, we want to promote policies that are balanced, not so centered on mere economic growth fueled primarily by the mining sector, policies that support human development in all its aspects (not just material wellbeing), that empower women, youth, children and communities, that promote social equity and social justice instead of broadening the gap between the haves and have-nots, maintain ecological balance and promote democratic consolidation.
To achieve the development that is beneficial to all members of the society, we are convinced, we must implement the human rights based approach at all levels and in all areas. And just to be clear, gender equality, i.e. equal participation of men and women, full protection of women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms, and progressive achievement of gender equality are integral to the human rights based approach, sustainable development and substantive/participatory democracy.
Hence, in the first part of the forum, we will expressly address the increasing trend of discrimination against women in both private and public spheres, the rise of traditionalism and cultural fundamentalism, and revival of socialist party-state’s pro-natalist policies that view women primarily as reproductive machines, i.e. as instruments to be used for the promotion of the national (and nationalist) goal of increasing the population size – a goal defined by male-dominated institutions (political parties, government and parliament) without women’s own participation.

UB Post: I noticed that the previous theme in 2011 addressed “Open Governance.” Do you feel that the passage of the Law on Preventing Conflict of Interest in Public Service is a positive step in addressing the concerns of last year’s forum?

Tumursukh: Yes, absolutely. The law is very important. However, what is even more important is IMPLEMENTING this law as well as other important laws and regulations such as the Law on Freedom of Information, Budget Law (which includes new sections on ensuring transparency and citizen participation), and Income Statements of Public Officials (currently, while these are filed with the Anti-Corruption Agency, there is no system of verifying their validity and ensuring those who filed untruthful statements are held accountable). As a civil society organization committed first and foremost to citizen empowerment, however, MONFEMNET believes that the key is to raise critical consciousness of the people, awaken their self-confidence and sense of people power, build their capacity to take collective or individual action to hold the state bodies/public servants accountable and responsive to their needs and inspire them to action. Unless this work is done, no amount of good laws will bring the changes we wish.

UB Post: The last time I interviewed you was at the beginning of November, 2011 for the story about women’s organizing: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/index.php/community/29-community/6658-the-collective-action-of-mongolias-women. The article described MONFEMNET’s 2008 research paper, which you co-wrote, about the strong history of women’s representation in civil society in Mongolia, while discussing the problem of political representation, especially the 2008 revocation of the 30% quota system of women in Parliament. In light of that unfortunate loss for Mongolian women while considering their organizational strengths, in what ways is women’s representation in civil society crossing over to politics? What does MONFEMNET hope for in the next year in regards to increasing women’s political involvement?

Tumursukh: The new election law does include a women’s quota. However, it is too low – 20% and there are no guarantees that women candidates will have the same chance to be elected as male candidates. The field is far from being level for women as well as many other social groups who lack money power or culturally legitimate status (ethnic minorities, low-income people, rural population, etc.). This is a serious drawback of the Mongolian political system in general and the party system in particular – lack of representativeness.
However, activists are engaged in activism precisely because the reality we have is not the reality we want to have and we have faith in our collective ability to bring about positive changes. Therefore, our strategy has been to develop effective capacity-building strategies to raise political/critical consciousness of women, build their solidarity and equip them with transformative knowledge and skills to conduct gender-sensitive democracy education. With the support of the US Women’s Issues Fund, we developed an innovative and participatory training package on “Building women’s political leadership and advocacy” capacity, involving both older and younger women activists, developed a pool of skillful trainers, and conducted TOT workshops in half of the aimags. We received extremely positive feedback from both trainers and workshop participants and we believe we are on the right track with this approach of empowering women from the grassroots, from the local levels.
At the same time, at national level, we hope to promote solidarity, networking and consultation mechanisms with partisan women’s NGOs, women politicians, and women in public service as well as women in media and other sectors of society. Solidarity building is not going to be an automatic process as women, just as men, are a diverse group. Women come from different backgrounds and have diverse, sometimes conflicting views. Hence, solidarity-building is not going to be an automatic process and not everyone is going to join us as allies. Rather, we are looking to build a critical mass. I should also say we don’t only work women and we don’t see women’s issues as only women’s issues. We continuously build partnerships with men who share our values and beliefs and our commitment to justice, human rights and democracy, as well as with other civil society sectors. We also intensively work with youth. Needless to say, this work goes beyond 2012 – we see our work is a long-term process.

UB Post: I really enjoyed watching one of your translated workshops on gender equality last November and seeing the positive response from both men and women. In a country that embraces masculinity as much as Mongolia, it was interesting to see how you discussed gender power imbalances without criticizing men. What do you think is a common misconception men in Mongolia have toward feminism?

Tumursukh: Well, to start with not many Mongolians are even familiar with the word ‘feminism’ – men or women. Then those are, again both men and women, seem to have a generally negative relationship to this word. It is hard to say definitively what the general public thinks when they hear this word since there has not been a single study on this. Hence, I can only convey my impressions, which are that people generally hold that feminism is against men, against culture and tradition, that it is about establishing a matriarchy in lieu of a patriarchy, i.e. gaining higher privileges for women, and that it is very militant and aggressive and strips women of their ‘natural’ softness and, in general, a dangerous and foreign ideology that threatens the ‘natural’ order of things.
I can speak with more confidence about what women active in the various NGOs think about feminism as we included this question in our survey while conducting the study you mentioned on the fields of women’s organizing in Mongolia. I should first clarify that when I say that while there are perhaps over a 100 women’s NGOs in Mongolia, only a minority of them are actually women’s rights NGOs, the rest tend to be conservative groups, which function within the patriarchal framework. Majority of the women who participated in the survey stated they were not feminists and gave various reasons. Some were overtly opposed to feminism and supported patriarchal power system and ‘natural’ roles of men and women. Some saw feminism as too radical and therefore unnecessary or even counter-productive to the goal of achieving gender equality in Mongolia. Interestingly, several women maintained that patriarchy is a thing of the past in Mongolia – that we got rid of it during socialism, hence feminism was not so necessary in Mongolia.
MONFEMNET, of course, is a feminist organization. We have and continue to make an effort to help people understand feminism as a framework of analysis and action that is fundamentally based on universal principles and values of human rights, fundamental freedoms, non-discrimination, humane and compassionate society, social justice and substantive democracy. MONFEMNET adheres to what we have come to call holistic feminism, which is committed to resisting and seeking to fundamentally transform all the interlocking systems of power hierarchy, based on gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, age, etc.
In the Mongolian context, given the most consistent (and human rights based!) advocacy for humane, democratic and just society in fact only comes from women-led civil society, it is necessary and inevitable that we, as feminists, promote human rights, social justice, democracy, sustainable development and environmental protection as well as gender equality as these concepts and phenomena are fundamentally interlinked.
And vice versa, we also seek to enlighten those who are engaged in promoting justice and democracy that gender equality is a part and parcel of what they hope to achieve and that, therefore, they (meaning primarily other civil society sectors such as environmental groups, anti-corruption groups, etc) must adhere to the principles of gender equality both in terms of the process and in defining their conceptual frameworks and goals.

This article originally appeared in the UB Post in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*