Can helping men in Mongolia improve life for women?


Over green tea at a Western-style cafe in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar in late summer, Temuulen rattles off reasons why Mongolian men need help: poor health, high unemployment and heavy drinking. As vice director of the nonprofit Men’s Association, Temuulen, who, like many Mongolians, uses only one name, has a lot to say about the status of Mongolian men. He also has research to back him up.

According to surveys conducted by the Men’s Association in partnership with the national Public Health Institute, 48.8 percent of men here have a drinking problem, 45 percent are smokers and only 2.9 percent regularly consume fruits and vegetables. On average, Mongolian men live a decade less than women; they suffer higher rates of unemployment and account for the majority of the Mongolians working abroad.

Yet in Mongolia, says Temuulen, while there are several prominent national and international organizations focused on women’s issues, such as Women for Change and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), there are too few resources like that for men. 

Some people argue that it's because they don't need it. Mongolian men still dominate the highest levels of power, such as in parliament and business, and are far likelier to be the perpetrators of domestic violence than the victims. UNFPA Mongolia representative Naomi Kitahara says that whenever she posts about domestic violence on social media, men complain about the lack of coverage of male victims. It isn’t that there aren’t male victims, Kitahara says, it’s just that “most violence, meaning something like 90 percent, is against women.”

“Women are disproportionately affected by this issue,” says Kitahara. “So, it makes sense for us to target women.”

But what if focusing on men’s issues could help women? Some people maintain that Mongolian men's lack of education puts them on a path to unemployment and alcoholism, which, they say, leads some to become violent. Kitahara doesn’t believe it is quite so simple. Alcoholism may trigger domestic violence, she says, but the underlying cause is gender inequality. That doesn’t mean Kitahara wants to exclude men from the discussion.

“Unless we are on the same page between men and women, the balance issue, or equality issue, will never be resolved,” she says.

Members of the Men’s Association are worried about a different kind of inequality. In most developing countries, girls have fewer educational opportunities than boys. In Mongolia, the trend is reversed — the state of affairs has been referred to as a "reverse gender gap." In recent history, in herding communities, boys were pulled out of school to help manage the herd, while girls were encouraged to continue their schooling. Today, males still lag behind females in education, with women accounting for 62 percent of university, college and institute graduates in 2015, according to the National Statistics Office. 

“Unless we are on the same page between men and women, the balance issue, or equality issue, will never be resolved.” — Naomi Kitahara, UNFPA Mongolia representative  

It was largely this need to address the disparity in education that led to the founding of the nonprofit Men’s Association in 2003. Temuulen, a socially conscious 29-year-old businessman, joined the association for philosophical, not personal, reasons. While studying business at the National University of Mongolia, a professor introduced Temuulen to the group. In the beginning, Temuulen was just a supporting member, but after his own career advanced until he was vice director of a private company, he became a leader in the group.

“People like me, we can take care of our lives, but that doesn’t mean I should abandon other people’s issues,” he says.

Temuulen says an individual — even someone well-educated like himself — “can’t live prosperously in a problematic society.”

One way the Men's Association spreads their message is by holding lectures on the dangers of excessive drinking, smoking and even online gaming. Many of the talks are aimed at adolescent boys. To ensure these boys have role models, the association is working with the government to increase the number of male secondary school teachers. According to Ministry of Education data for the 2015-2016 academic year, 66 percent of school dropouts were boys.

Temuulen says this educational disparity opens up a host of other problems. Limited education means fewer employment opportunities, and men become economically dependent on their wives. This affects men's self-esteem; oftentimes, here, it also makes them vulnerable to comments about their inadequacy as providers. Wives and family members may call them “alcoholics” and “bastards” and tell them “you should just go onto the street,” says Temuulen. He believes that being subjected to verbal abuse like this makes it likelier that men will become violent toward women. This is wrong, he knows, but he believes women’s organizations need to offer men support so that they can change.

“Of course, we try to see both sides in the relationship, men and women,” says Temuulen. “But we can’t cover the whole population's concerns. So, we try to focus on men’s issues.”

The Men’s Association has branches in all 21 Mongolian provinces, but only six are currently active. Govisümber, a tiny province about 148 miles southeast of the capital, is one place where the group has a strong presence. The chapter’s founder, Boldbaatar, is the main reason it is there at all. Unlike his more polished big-city counterpart, Boldbaatar got involved in the organization for personal reasons. He was an alcoholic and unemployed. He got sober a few years ago and recently found a job.

Boldbaatar started the local chapter in 2013 in Choir, the province's main town. Like the province, Choir is tiny, numbering only around 12,000 people. It is a windy outpost split into two main sections separated by a small hill. Boldbaatar lives in the lower area where blocks of old Soviet-style apartments, recently repainted pink and yellow, dominate. Each morning, he pays a taxi driver the equivalent of 50 cents to get to his job in a modest museum in the upper area of town near several government buildings and a cluster of gers, circular felt tents. In Choir, the honking car horns of the country’s congested capital are replaced by a deafening silence. At the edge of town is an imposing Russian monument. Beyond the statue is the steppe.

Horses can often be found grazing outside a series of apartment blocks in Choir.Katya Cengel/PRI 

Boldbaatar, who is 57, grew up in a nearby herding household. He also went to the university. Under socialism, herding was not an individual but a collective activity so there was no need for boys to quit school to help their families. Although both men and women worked, men were considered the heads of households and at meals, they were served the best pieces of mutton — the shoulder blade and fat.

“Back then, above the man in the family there was only his hat and his deel belt,” says Boldbaatar, referring to the traditional Mongolian cloak.

In Choir, Boldbaatar was well-respected for the knowledge he gained as a Mongolian language teacher, reporter and school director. Then the long-standing socialist system collapsed in the early 1990s, creating much social, economic and political uncertainty. Under communism, everyone had a job, says Boldbaatar. In the new market economy, unemployment reached as high as 9 percent in 1994, according to the World Bank. For some, alcohol became an escape.

Boldbaatar says it was his role as a director and administrator that led him to drink. As the man in charge, he was often plied with alcohol as a sort of bribe. Then he started drinking too much and lost his job. People began to avoid him. He saw his own status decline the same way he believes the status of men, in general, is declining in Mongolia. He blames both on unemployment and alcohol, afflictions that he believes go together and that leads to anger and aggression.

“In any family with a member who is addicted to alcohol, it is always turbulent,” says Boldbaatar.

His wife, Tsetsensuren, 57, remembers how that anger was directed at her in the last year of Boldbaatar’s addiction. He never hit her, she says, but he would verbally abuse her, yelling at her to get him food. After he sought help for his alcoholism and joined the Men’s Association, Boldbaatar calmed down. The Men’s Association “is necessary,” says Tsetsensuren, who chooses her words carefully.

“Since the stereotype is men should be tough and take care of the household, their needs are not taken into consideration,” she says.

Instead of asking for help, something they have never been taught to do, many men turn to alcohol. Tsetsensuren believes the answer is not to throw men like her husband out of the house but to support them so they have the strength to change. 

“One person doesn’t become a household, and one match doesn’t become a fire,” she says, speaking in metaphors.

Boldbaatar’s wife Tsetsensuren is shown here in a neighborhood shop where she sometimes works. Katya Cengel/PRI 

Even the governor’s press officer, Turbold Ganbold, says that in Govisümber, like in any province in Mongolia, you will see drunk and unemployed men. Iderzorig, an elected leader of a local neighborhood in Choir and member of the Men’s Association, also saw a need for a group that focused on issues affecting men in the community, especially alcoholism. As a representative of the Men’s Association, Iderzorig, who once served in the military, attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It scared the 25-year-old, seeing how successful some of the members had once been before alcohol overtook their lives.

“Personally, I’m afraid of turning out like that,” further down the line, says Iderzorig.

Like Boldbaatar, he sees a link between unemployment, alcoholism and violence. Although government data lists the provincial unemployment rate at only 4.9 percent, the rate for men is 7.1 percent versus 2.6 percent for women. For someone who doesn’t have a job, drinking is a way to spend time, says Iderzorig. And when Mongolians drink, they “cause trouble.”

“Beating their wives, that’s an ordinary thing,” says Iderzorig.

Ordinary enough that UNFPA estimates that one out of three Mongolian women suffer from domestic violence, and it was only in 2016 that domestic violence was finally made a crime. 

In Govisümber, despite the fact that more men than women are out of work, fewer men than women seek help at the regional unemployment office, says employment specialist Enkhtsetseg. Female job seekers are more active, calling daily to check on jobs. Men tend to register and then never return. The men, says Enkhtsetseg, are lazy.

Erdenebat does not fit this stereotype. The 47-year-old taxi driver is rarely idle. Although his transition from the rural life of a herder to the more urban life of a taxi driver was relatively smooth, he knows that isn’t the case for everyone. In an urban environment, men tend to go for labor jobs, like mining, while women usually end up in office jobs, a situation that changes the power dynamics within families.

“Now women view themselves as being equal to men, or sometimes even being above men because they have higher education,” he says.

Back in the capital, Bolormaa Mashlai, former head secretary of the National Committee on Gender Equality, still thinks the focus needs to stay on women. Like Kitahara, she emphasizes that the majority of domestic violence victims are women and children. Women are still underrepresented in high political positions and the National Committee on Gender Equality doesn't have as much pull as it once did. As the committee's first chair in 2005 and then later again from 2012 to 2015, Mashlai says there was a staff of eight. Today, there is a staff of four. Instead of reporting directly to the prime minister, the committee is no longer independent and is now under the Ministry of Labor.

“Now women view themselves as being equal to men, or sometimes even being above men because they have higher education.” — Erdenebat, taxi driver 

“This is a very big step backward,” says Mashlai, who currently chairs the nonprofit Women Leader Foundation.

While she agrees that gender issues should include both men and women, she maintains there are already quite a few organizations that serve men, including Federation Men of Mongolia, Federation Against Alcohol, and groups geared for men and families and masculinity training programs. Sports organizations, too, while open to women, involve mainly men. Instead of dealing with gender issues on their own, she wants men to join the events and discussions and training that groups like UNFPA, the committee and others organize.

“If more men come to our activities and learn, I think it will affect other men,” she says.

Katya Cengel reported from Mongolia on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP)

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