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Building Feminist Advocacy in Mongolia

April 24, 2024

By Tsolmontuya Altankhundaga and Burtguljin Tumentsogt

“Introduction to Patriarchy,” one of several conceptual training sessions conducted by the MONFEMNET national network with support from The Asia Foundation. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Women’s economic empowerment has moved to the top of the development agenda in Asia. This reflects the growing recognition that gender equality and economic development are inextricably connected, and that women’s participation in the economy, including the workforce, is essential to address a spectrum of social inequalities.

Women in developing Asia are, on average, 30 percent less likely than men to be in the workforce, though there is considerable cross-country variation. In Mongolia, where workforce participation by women actually decreased by 10.7 percent from 1999 to 2019, The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Project (WEE), generously supported by Global Affairs Canada from 2020 to 2024, has employed feminist approaches to build a stronger women’s economic empowerment movement and to educate and encourage civil society organizations (CSOs) to engage with women’s economic issues.

In this article, we look back on WEE’s four-year project working with some of Mongolia’s most fervent activists and gender equality advocates, and we review some of the project’s action research methods that can be adopted as best practices for advancing women’s activism and economic rights more broadly.

Building a Core Group and Developing a Strategy

An essential partner in the WEE initiative has been the MONFEMNET National Network, a nonpartisan NGO established in 2000 to build and strengthen broad-based movements for women’s human rights, gender equality, substantive democracy, and social justice in Mongolia. MONFEMNET and its 19 member organizations played a key role in WEE’s project to build a social movement rooted in the feminist values of equity, inclusivity, and the dismantling of systemic barriers.

Executive Director Enkhjargal Davaasuren of MONFEMNET. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

In the final months of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was creating havoc around the globe, the foundational idea emerged from MONFEMNET for a core group of organizations to develop a feminist blueprint for the women’s economic empowerment movement in Mongolia. The idea of “movement building” expressed in this blueprint was relatively new to the general public. In the Mongolian language, the expression suggested misleadingly that the initiative would build a women’s movement where none yet existed, so the MONFEMNET team chose a slightly different term, “movement strengthening,” to capture the true intent of the new initiative.

The concept of “feminist movement strengthening” was meant to attract more than CSOs that identify as feminist, since very few CSOs in Mongolia actually do. The more elastic term “CSO” allowed the project to welcome various groups beyond just MONFEMNET’s existing membership. In this way, the project drew the participation of cooperatives, informal community groups, and other kinds of organizations that might not have been formally registered as NGOs.

The first cohort of CSOs to participate in the WEE project was chosen with great care. MONFEMNET already had extensive experience in coalition building, exemplified by All for Education, which in 2013 became an independent coalition dedicated to securing the right to quality, gender-inclusive education for all. MONFEMNET’s intention with WEE was to assemble a core group that embodied the principles of cohesion, commitment, ethics, diversity, inclusiveness, and internal democracy.

To achieve diversity, careful attention was given to the balance of Ulaanbaatar and provincial CSOs, the sizes of participating organizations, and their track records of policy advocacy and grassroots organizing. A range of women-led NGOs were selected from various social demographics, including youth, the elderly, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI+ communities, and gender activists. Associations of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and informal networks of women in local governance were also considered as part of the strategic mix to foster a comprehensive and inclusive approach to movement building.

Women’s Economic Empowerment coalition strategy-development workshop in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 2022. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Participatory Action Research

After screening more than 100 CSOs and NGOs, the project chose 22 for the core group. Those selected were then invited to participate in strategy workshops using the tools and methods of Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR first emerged in the late 1940s to address the blind spots of social science methodologies that rely on outside experts sampling carefully controlled variables to understand the circumstances of a population. Based on the insight that group members may have access to dimensions of their own predicament that “objective” outsiders cannot capture, PAR enlists the studied population itself in an iterative process of practical problem solving and critical reflection, identifying objectives, developing strategies, and implementing actions aimed at realizing desired results. Using PAR to articulate their concerns, the core group developed the WEE movement-building strategy.

Throughout 2022, as Covid-19 restrictions eased, MONFEMNET organized in-person, incubator-style training sessions for the core group. These sessions covered a range of topics including an introduction to patriarchy, the inequalities of power, and the impacts and intersectionality of power hierarchies. These sessions introduced the participants to Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR), a specific flavor of PAR that centers feminist insights and the voices and experiences of women. While it is historically a reaction to patriarchal structures, FPAR emphasizes intersectionality, considering other forms of oppression such as race, class, sexuality, and disability.

Feminist Participatory Action Research methodology workshop with 22 representatives of Mongolian CSOs, 2022. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Women’s economic empowerment is a complex issue that extends beyond income generation to include issues of agency, access, and inclusivity. FPAR makes this complexity accessible by enlisting women themselves as the creators of knowledge through a process of collaborative inquiry that recognizes women’s perspectives and experiences. With this approach, the core group identified four main tasks for dismantling the barriers to women’s economic empowerment in Mongolia:

  • Improving the enabling environment for MSMEs.
  • Improving the infrastructure for women’s labor-force participation, and decreasing unpaid care work.
  • Eliminating labor exploitation and workplace discrimination.
  • Challenging gender stereotypes.

The four case studies.

Following the FPAR workshops, core-group members, guest researchers, and visiting experts versed in FPAR considered several case studies (discussed in short videos at the links below). Case studies, with their particular details, often yield a more nuanced portrait of gender dynamics and allow for the exploration of intersectionality. Collectively, and in four working groups, the core group conducted four case studies, each aimed at addressing specific challenges to women’s economic empowerment in Mongolia:

A series of discussions beginning in 2023 that built on insights drawn from these four case studies culminated in a MONFEMNET position paper addressing the care economy and women’s economic empowerment. The primary objective of this paper was to add women’s voices to the Mongolian parliament’s midterm draft development policy, a component of the country’s long-term human development agenda, “Vision 2050.”

As the Women’s Economic Empowerment Project concludes this four-year initiative, the coalitions and networks built and supported by MONFEMNET show the power of feminist approaches to address entrenched gender inequalities and promote economic inclusion. In the words of Enkhjargal Davaasuren, executive director of MONFEMNET:

We believe a movement is a broad, inclusive process with a unified structure that shares a common vision and values. It consists of many organizations, groups, and individuals striving to bring about positive change through their varying strategies at different times and places. [Many] initiatives focusing on women’s economic rights are implemented in Mongolia. However, most of them are short-term and [focused] on the visible consequences of the problem, rather than seeing the structural root causes. Collective advocacy and inclusive leadership is fundamental to see these structural issues. And WEE has definitely played a crucial role in facilitating the formation of collective voices through our feminist movement-building journey.

We are confident that these accomplishments will serve as blueprint for advancing women’s economic rights in Mongolia and beyond.

Tsolmontuya Altankhundaga is the acting director of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion, and Burtguljin Tumentsogt is a program officer, for The Asia Foundation in Mongolia. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Mongolia
Related programs: Good Governance, Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality

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