The focus on a few specific men in the history of Mongolia can be attributed to the long focus on a monarchy-led country—with few leaders exercising great control over the majority. Socialism changed this focus to a degree, investing in educating both women and men; however women’s representation was still limited. Democracy even further transformed the social landscape of Mongolia, yet women’s ability to create change has been largely formed within organizations, rather than political representation.
A report commissioned by Mongolian Women’s Fund (MONES)—“The Field of Women’s Organizing in Mongolia” (2009), co-authored by T. Undarya, National Coordinator for the National Network of Mongolian Women’s NGOs (MONFEMNET) and D.Enkhjargal, Director of the National Center against Violence (NCAV)--sheds light on the history of women’s groups in Mongolia.
Socialism Supported Mongolia’s First Women’s Organization
According to the MONES report, the recorded history of the women’s movement from an organizational perspective began during the socialist era the former Soviet Union. This time period invested in social structures that educated both women and men, purporting to be egalitarian. In 1924 the Mongolian Women’s Committee (MWC) was formed under the umbrella of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP). This action was also a symbolic move to transition from Manchu rule’s feudal system. The MPRP evolved in a communistic direction with the MWC assuming a supportive position, aided by Soviet women.
From 1924 to 1940, the MWC’s primary goals were to increase literacy levels among women and to get women to attend the MPRP’s public meetings. The time period of 1940-1960 was characterized by enduring the war efforts of the time and after that, creating cooperatives, collectives, and social improvements such tailoring, home economics, and local cultural performances (singing and dancing) and better hygiene. The MWC brought women further into the development of education, employment opportunities, sciences, and public administration during the period of 1960-1990.
The nineties were a tumultuous time, where the former communist structure was disbanded which affected women’s groups as well as the economy. New political groups were formed, which included pro-democracy Women for Social Progress Movement (WSP)—which was previously the Mongolian Social Democratic Women’s Movement during the transitional late 80’s. The Mongolian National Democratic Party created an offshoot for the women members called Liberal Women’s Brain Pool (LEOS).
The MWC, directly related to the dominant MPRP and seeking to keep its large network from the days of socialism, rebranded itself as the Mongolian Women’s Federation (MWF). The group became a non-governmental (NGO) entity with no political party affiliations, hoping to include all women’s groups. They invited other groups to join under their umbrella. The newly emerged Mongolian Women Lawyers’ Association accepted the invitation but the LEOS and WSP—democratic in nature—rejected the invitation as they saw the MWF as communist in origin, according to the MONES report.
Women’s Groups Birth Civil Society in Mongolia
The MONES report details that not only were LEOS and WSP the first women’s groups created since the fall of communism, they were also the 1st citizen initiated groups not created by the State. Though they were birthed out of political entities, they functioned as independent organizations. Thus the beginning of the civil society movement in Mongolia found itself stewarded by women. Whereas men controlled the political sphere, women focused on civil society initiatives.
“While men gravitated towards political parties and eventually the decision-making positions, women gravitated towards civil society wherein they quickly came to play an active and visible role. So much so that some analysts have referred to the Mongolian civil society as matriarchal” (“The Field of Women’s Organizing in Mongolia,” 2009, pg. 16).
T. Undarya and D.Enkhjargal theorize that this was facilitated in part by the focus the development community had towards women in Mongolia, seeing them not just as women but particularly as women from Third World countries and in need of empowerment. Rather than donors consulting with women’s groups on what their unique needs were, funding favored “women’s issues” rather than political ones (a common requirement for NGO funding). The newly formed women’s NGO’s were in need of financial assistance and with a lack of options, framed themselves within the limitations imposed by donors, which the authors felt contributed to the predominance of women in the civil society arena.
Types of Women-Led Organizations in Mongolia
The MONES report found the predominantly women-led civil society structure to be heterogeneous in nature. The mixture reflects a continuum of women within Mongolian society as a whole, as well the perspectives on activism within the country.
T. Undarya and D.Enkhjargal note that women’s organizations were created with varying purposes. Some hold traditional values yet advocate for democracy using different terms, while at the opposite end of the spectrum are feminist-identified groups which actively promote gender equality. All groups have in common goal of working toward the betterment of civil society, ending gender violence, and increasing women’s representation in politics but go about it in different ways. For example, conservative women’s groups tend to focus on economic issues such as poverty reduction, while the more liberal groups work on gender equality. Yet there is some crossover.
A more in depth breakdown of the differences can be explained thus (“The Field of Women’s Organizing in Mongolia,” 2009, pgs. 59-60):
On the traditional end of the spectrum are groups which are: “Patriarchal organizations and individuals who generally advocate complementary and harmony between men and women. If they support gender equality, it is more likely to mean equivalence in separate spheres seen as naturally and distinctly masculine and feminine.”
Then there are groups which work on women’s issues and who “see themselves as promoting gender equality but stay within a patriarchal paradigm. These actors either support gender equality in only certain spheres or only to moderate degrees. Thus, they may prescribe and even advocate patriarchal gender norms and gender division of labor within the family while strongly supporting gender equality in the economic or the political realm.”
Occupying the middle-ground are groups which work on women’s issues and gender equality yet: “…do not identify themselves as feminist. This group tends to identify itself as working for development and serving all members of the society, without distinguishing anyone by gender.”
Moving further toward the human rights end of the spectrum are groups which: “…do not identify themselves as feminist and do not actively promote gender equality and women’s rights but do, as a matter of principle, support gender equality as an integral element of democracy and human rights. These actors often closely cooperate with the feminist actors, forming tight coalitions such as for civil society development, anti-corruption, democratic governance and human rights and tend to be consciously political.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum are organizations that identify as feminists and “actively promote gender equality as an integral part of democracy and human rights, frame women’s and gender issues explicitly in a human rights framework and consciously challenge patriarchy.”
According to the MONES report, all the women’s groups worked together in late 2007 when it was discovered that two conservative members of Parliament introduced a measure to cancel a 2005 amendment which had supported a 30 percent quota from women in parliament. With surprising speed, Parliament passed this measure but was caught off guard by the great outcry from women’s groups ranging from conservative to more liberal. Eventually, through the lobbying of women’s groups as well as advocates from men’s civil society groups combined with wide media support, the President vetoed the measure and restored the quota with support from Parliament. However, a presidential veto does not have the same powers that can be seen in countries such as the US. The 30 percent quota was again revoked by Parliament. While the outcome was unfortunate, the incident illustrated the strong commonalities shared by women’s groups with divergent belief systems.
The following election in 2008 resulted in one of the lowest levels of women in parliament globally just 3.9 percent. The MPRP, a holdover from the communist time period, won the majority vote which was challenged and resulted in widespread dissatisfaction, riots and looting. The MPRP building was burned during the riot.
Mongolia in 2012
The MONES study was commissioned in 2009 to explore ideological differences and similarities for the purpose of understanding the future direction of promoting women’s rights and to expand their representation within Mongolia beyond civil society. T. Undarya and D.Enkhjargal’s research revealed common areas of interest in both conservative and more liberal women’s groups. Their insights have proven fruitful. The 2012 parliamentary elections—which utilized the newly reinstated 20 percent quota for women in parliament—resulted in nine women gaining seats. This is three times the number of the previous parliament. After being elected, the women who hail from different parties (Democratic to the MPRP), chose to form a Women’s Caucus to further their shared goals and to connect with civil society better, according to their official statements made to local press in July of 2012.
Author’s note: This article originally appeared in the UB Post in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in 2011 and was updated to include the recent changes to women’s political representation in 2012.