Munkhchimeg, an entrepreneur in Eastern Mongolia

What makes a daring woman? Lack of fear, commitment and vision for a great cause.

And why do we need more daring women? From gaps in paychecks, to domestic violence, to underrepresentation in political sphere, women face plenty of challenges and the time to act is now.

Whether it is the fight against poverty or efforts to shatter glass ceilings, women are on the front lines in Mongolia. From Dadal, Khentii to Delgerkhaan, Tuv to Bayan-Undur, Orkhon, there are incredible women who are a force for change in their communities. They are our mothers, daughters, and sisters, and our community’s small business owners, teachers, political leaders, herders, community workers, activists, and more.

As the theme for the year is announced as “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”, we, at UNDP Mongolia, are highlighting the stories of women changemakers who are acting locally for a cause that is relevant to every corner of the world. By showing that their actions matter, we hope to send a powerful message about the role of women as a force for change. Below, meet a few of the women who are inspiring us on this International Women’s Day.

“Building it smart”: Munkhchimeg from Dadal, Khentii

Munkhchimeg.N., 32, is a young entrepreneur in the remote soum (district) in Eastern Mongolia. Her journey as an entrepreneur began when she was in her twenties, a young bride who had just moved to the soum from somewhere distant. With a husband who is a skilled craftsman, the couple started making handmade souvenirs taking advantage of the beautiful boreal forest surrounding the soum and sell their products to tourists.

Looking back, she has come a long way in her career, but it was not easy for a young girl like Munkhcimeg to become a full-time entrepreneur with no seed money to start with and with no education or experience in business. “When I first started, it felt like the whole world was against me. But it was about survival—whether we will have food on the table for the night or not—hence, I didn’t have much of a choice. I had to roll-up my sleeves”

Munkhchimeg describes her typical day as an entrepreneur and a mother, which begins at 4:30 in the morning and ends at late at night. On the day that I had interviewed her, she described her previous day as following. “First thing in the morning, I went to the hills to pick up some fruits. I came home and made some jam to sell. Then I went to fetch water, milked the cows, fed the animals. After that, I cleaned the house and started cooking.  Then I got the supplies ready for our handicrafts. In the evening, after dinner I visited the nearby camps to sell the jams and handicrafts to tourists. I am usually dead exhausted by the time I go to bed. All that is while taking care of my two young daughters,” describes Munkchimeg cheerfully.

Munkchimeg was determined to do something with her life. But her circumstances didn’t allow her the opportunity to arm herself with education or resources. Despite all odds, she, with her vision and determination, dared to start a small business, which is now big enough to support her family of four.

Looking ahead, Munkchimeg has a vision of building a two-storey souvenir shop as she sees business opportunities expanding with Dadal soum becoming more and more attractive to local and foreign tourists.

I watched her as she shows off all different of jams she makes. Her jams are delicious and properly packaged with the ingredients written on them. Out of curiosity, I asked her who helped her with the packaging. It turns out she had attended a packaging and sales training by UNDP and FAO Mongolia organized through the UN-REDD project that offered support to improve the livelihoods of rural women.

 “I was worried that I might not be able to grasp what they were teaching, but it wasn’t all that hard. Now I want to learn about marketing. City people are hungry for my homemade organic jams,” she adds laughingly.

According to the latest figures by the National Statistic Offic , almost 1 in 3 people in Mongolia lives in poverty. The rate is even higher in rural areas where herders struggle with decreasing income due to the increasing effect of climate change. Zoljargal, being one of a very few female entrepreneurs in the soum, is the true example of a changemaker in her community. With the expansion plan for her business, I have no doubt that soon enough she will be creating jobs for the others in the soum, too.

As UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner highlighted, “Transformative innovations to address inequalities don’t have to be costly or flashy. Simple technologies, local innovations and new practices that shift social attitudes, norms or biases can also make a difference”.

We salute Munkchimeg, a girl known to be the “young bride from faraway” to the locals, for building it smart and for gaining herself a financial independence.

Think equal: Baigalmaa from Bayan-Undur, Orkhon

When asked if she is confident enough to run for a seat of the provincial governor, Baigalmaa with more than 20 years of leadership experience in Human Resource management who had also been elected as a representative in local Parliament (Khural), said she wouldn’t, due to lack of experience. We asked the same question from a younger male colleague in the room who possesses much less experience in the field, he answered, without a hit of hesitation, he would.

 “Mongolians have the traditional belief that men have to be above women. When I come to attend the Khural session, I feel the pressure that my voice is not heard enough. When we have a religious celebration at the sacred area where only men can go, I could not participate,” she says - sharing her experience.

Baigalmaa is one of only two female representatives in the local Khural in Orkhon that has 33 seats. Only three female candidates ran in the election to begin with. This is a disappointingly low rate for a place like Orkhon, one of the most progressive and developed aimags in the country.

In the recently released 2016 Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), Mongolia ranks 58th out of 144 countries, slipping from 42nd place in 2014. This puts it behind Estonia (22nd) and Bulgaria (41st) – but ahead of many others, such as the Russian Federation (75th), Hungary (101st), Japan (111th) and South Korea (116th).

Despite her disappointment in her male colleagues for ignoring her voice and excluding her from certain activities, Baigalmaa is more than hopeful. With the election approaching in less than a year and a half, Baigalmaa has started her campaign of encouraging women to run for seats in the elections. When asked if that might jeopardize her own seat in the next election, she laughed loudly.

“Women shouldn’t see each other as rivals. The talk that women are not standing up for each other and are not voting for fellow women is nonsense. I could name handful of women who have mentored me and supported me throughout my entire career. I want to follow in their footsteps. Sitting representatives are also the greatest example to voters. I always kept this in mind that every successful step I take as a representative will gain voters’ trust for future female candidates.”

As Mongolia enters the 4th year into the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is important to recognize and support the contribution of woman like Baigalmaa. They set the path for women leadership in politics and civil service, shattering glass ceilings and beating the odds of rigid traditional norms, perception stereotypes and prevailing political power structures.Baigalmaa has attended the leadership workshop for elected women representatives by UNDP Mongolia last year. Inspired by the peers she met, she is now planning to organize a local forum for women in the province where she hopes to create a network of women who might step forward as potential candidates to run for the elections in 2020. Once the pool is created, she is willing to train them, to support them and to prepare them for the uphill battle.

“Because there are too few of us, our natural rights are denied and jeopardized. Why does a group that contributes to half of the economy have to beg for a quota to be able to participate in the decisions that affect the community we live in?” she exclaims.

I couldn’t find a better way to put gender equality in politics. As UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner also highlighted,“When women are left out of the conversation, they are excluded from creating the innovations shaping out future.” And it should be our job to give women the seat they rightfully own.

Innovate for change: Female leaders from Delgerkhaan, Khentii

When it comes to women’s representation in civil service and political offices in Mongolia, the patterns resemble more of a pyramid where women’s space is wide but only at the bottom.

In the civil service, just 26.6 per cent of state secretaries are women. According to National Statistics Office,in Mongolia’s private sector, it is estimated that women comprise only around 30 per cent of middle level managers and 15 per cent of higher level positions. They also earn just 85 per cent of what their male counterparts make. In other words, there are fewer women in decision-making positions than men in Mongolia. The UNDP’s National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2015 found Mongolian women spend twice as much time on household duties. This forces them to choose between their families and a career, or taking on a ‘double burden’. This hampers their ability to participate in the labor market, with only 56.6 per cent of women active in Mongolia’s workforce, versus 69.3 per cent of men, according to the NHDR.

While not more than 30% of the elected representatives are women at both local and national level, Delgerkhaan soum in Tuv province is an exception with 14 out of the 15 elected representatives being women. While it is one of the most isolated and the least populated, poverty-striken areas of the province, the powerful women of the soum are tireless. We sat down with them to find out what exactly they are doing differently.

As a soum governor, Jargalmaa Dashdondog describes the decreasing population in her soum as the main development challenge. As a result of the fragile local economy relying on animal husbandry as the sole income source, young people are leaving the area and are migrating to the cities.

Two years into her job, Jargalmaa has started taking steps to address the issues. Their one and only local school only had a middle-school status and now Jargalmaa is campaigning to change it to high school status so that the children don’t have to leave their homes at such a young age in pursuit of education. Bringing educated young people back home is another challenge as the youth are leaving small towns for bigger cities for education and employment opportunities. Jargalmaa managed to invite 19 university graduates back home offering them positions in the soum. The return of educated youth will help the economy and the society she firmly believes. When it comes to economic solutions, creating jobs and diversifying the economy is her priority. Jargalmaa has managed to attract 40 million MNT investment into creating micro and small businesses in farming, animal-skin processing and wood-processing. Together with an international non-governmental organization, Jargalmaa also has an ambitious dream to turn the soum into a tourist destination taking advantage of the historic sites on their land. When asked if there is any link between more women being decision-makers and the social well-being, Jargalmaa confidently agreed.

“Our natural roles of being women definitely offer an advantage. We see the soum as our own home and attend to the smallest details wholeheartedly. We have had all-male khurals before and I am sure they did their best, but I can assure more women in the khural also means better decision-making.

With unusually clean streets and street lamps, Delgerkhaan soum definitely looks better maintained than the others I have been to. The tireless women leaders invested in a new garbage truck and street lamps with additional funding they have raised. They have come up with an innovative solution of raising funds from private sector instead of relying on the budget alone. “Even rural soum like ours can be a friendlier place to live in”, the leader adds.

UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said, “Innovation can remove barriers and accelerate progress for gender equality”. From domestic violence, workplace harassments to gaps in paychecks, there are plenty of obstacles for women and that cannot be fully addressed by 2030 unless transformative actions, integrated approaches and new solutions are offered. Hence the focus brings innovation to the center stage and leverages it for gender equality and women’s empowerment globally.

We don’t necessarily need to associate innovation with with new technological advancements somewhere far away. Sometime innovation can simply mean approaching and doing things differently. In fact, our communities can be improved because of novel and different perspective, creativity and confidence women like Jargalmaa and her colleagues bring into what they are doing.

 

By Bulganchimeg Bayasgalant, Communications Analyst at UNDP Mongolia

 

 

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