Building Feminist Advocacy in Mongolia

“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.

Nepal’s New Federal Civil Service Bill

A large white building stands with the sun shining from behind.

Office of the municipal executive in Tikapur Municipality, Sudurpaschim Province.  (Photo: Krita Raut / The Asia Foundation)

Since the adoption of Nepal’s landmark federal constitution in 2015, a new federal civil service law has been among the most-anticipated legislative actions. Without it, civil servants across Nepal’s three tiers of government have been in limbo, uncertain of their professional careers, powers, and jurisdictions. This has damaged public services and deadlocked much of the new federal governance system. Disagreements among political factions and civil servants and their trade unions scuttled a previous bill in 2022. But in early March, the coalition government of Prime Minister Puspa Kamal Dahal registered a new civil service bill in parliament.

Why is this law so significant?

The 2015 constitution adds a mandate that provincial and local governments arrange and manage their own civil services, but in conformity with a requisite federal framework law that was expected to be enacted soon after the 2017 elections. Instead of waiting indefinitely for the federal framework legislation, seven provincial and a few local governments have adopted their own civil service laws and begun hiring civil servants, with each civil service differing in service terms and conditions. This has created a situation where provincial and local governments must rely on up to five different categories of civil servants to conduct their business, each with different lines of accountability, terms of service, career paths, and benefits.

In the first category are those on deputation from the federal government, who head the administrative wings of provincial ministries and local governments but are beyond the control of those elected officials in terms of their performance, promotion, and transfer. For the last seven years, an average of one-third of chief administrative officer (CAO) positions in local governments have remained vacant, mainly due to frequent transfers by the federal government.

Second are those who transferred to the provincial or local level after 2019 under a federal administrative restructuring. Under this scheme, some 97,000 civil servants, most of them reportedly nearing retirement, moved permanently to work within the provincial or local civil services. They are now stuck where they chose to work, as there is no clarity about career progression, intergovernmental transfers, benefits, or other conditions.

Third are those hired on temporary service contracts by the provinces and local governments after 2017, often following weak or noncompetitive hiring processes. Employees in this category are fully dependent on the provincial and local governments for the terms, conditions, and benefits of their service. Lacking explicit legal standing, they have no substantial authority or signatory power and are considered “second class” staff.

Fourth are those who were hired for permanent local positions before the 2015 constitutional change. Their status is the same as those in the previous category.

Fifth, in a few provinces, are those recruited under the new provincial civil service laws adopted mostly after 2020. The terms and conditions of their employment differ from province to province.

A person sitting at a desk with their hands and mouth in conversational movement.

The former mayor of Tikapur Municipality in his office.  (Photo: Krita Raut / The Asia Foundation)

These anomalies could have been avoided if the federal civil service law had been adopted on time, establishing a uniform code for all levels of the civil service. While the new bill under consideration may bring some clarity to the current confusion, it is uncertain whether it will pave the way for a truly federal administrative state. Two factors give rise to this uncertainty.

First, the bill makes the provincial principal secretary a federal civil servant—albeit one who is accountable to the provincial government and who cannot be transferred without provincial consent for at least a year after taking office. Other provincial secretaries will be provincial civil servants, but only after 10 years. Until then, federal civil servants will fill these positions as well. Until they complete one year of service, these provincial secretaries cannot be transferred to any other ministry or assigned any function without the federal government’s consent. In addition, they will report to the provincial principal secretary—again, a federal civil servant. Under these provisions, it is hard to imagine any administrative autonomy for the provincial governments for at least a decade.

Second, the bill provides for local CAOs to eventually be chosen from the local civil service, but for the next 10 years it requires the federal government to appoint them from the federal civil service. If the federal government fails to do so, the provincial government can appoint the local CAO from the provincial civil service. In either case, the CAO’s performance will be overseen by the provincial secretaries and principal secretaries, not by the municipal mayor. This means that the elected officials of local governments will wait another decade to have CAOs accountable solely to them. The proposed bill could instead have allowed the provinces to keep federal civil servants only as long as they need them, since few of the provinces will initially have a trained corps of civil servants ready to assume the new CAO positions.

A group of people looking at a map on a wall.

Former deputy mayor of Mithila and local civil servants studying a map of Mithila Municipality.  (Photo: Krita Raut / The Asia Foundation)

There are some provisions in the new bill that could be considered favorable to provincial and local civil servants. These include an option for local civil servants to transfer to other local governments within the province; an option for provincial and local civil servants to move to the federal civil service; and a provision to count the length of provincial or local service toward the seniority of staff who transfer to the federal civil service.

Under the proposed bill, civil servants reassigned from federal to local positions by the 2019 adjustment scheme can be transferred after two years to another local government in the same province. The bill does not go on to clarify whether the two-year tenure would be counted from the day those reassigned moved to local government, or from the day the new federal civil service law takes effect. If the former, then all of those 90,000-plus civil servants are now qualified for transfer. As most of them are nearing retirement, it is uncertain that they would wish to do so; but what if the local governments decide to transfer them en masse, since elected officials often complain that their civil servants lack local government skills?

In addition, the draft bill raises the civil service retirement age from 58 to 60 years. It also requires provincial and local governments to align their civil service laws within six months of the bill’s enactment. While the bill goes on to require the federal civil service to make “necessary arrangements” to reduce its bloated workforce by 10 percent, it does not say what these arrangements should be or when they should be made, leaving the federal civil service free to maintain its current state of redundancy. Instead, the bill should have called for scrapping all redundant positions immediately.

The bill calls for an entity to maintain personnel records for all three tiers of government. Currently no such body exists, and there is no accurate record of the provincial and local civil service workforce. It also requires provincial and local employees to contribute to their own pension plans, whereas no such requirement applies to federal civil servants.

In conclusion, this long-awaited bill lacks many provisions that would clear the way for provincial and local civil services to operate smoothly and efficiently. But these challenges aside, it may be prudent to get the bill passed, ideally with a few of these suggested revisions, and start testing it in implementation rather than waiting indefinitely for perfection.

Bishnu Adhikari is governance director and Parshuram Upadhyay is senior policy and governance advisor for The Asia Foundation’ in Nepal. 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.

Hearing Local Voices at the “Ground Zero” of Climate Change

The flood-prone island of Gabura is one of the most climate-vulnerable subdistricts in Bangladesh. The growing salinity of the water has reduced food security and damaged livelihoods in the area. (Photo: Tasnia Khandaker Prova)

Bangladesh is facing a climate emergency. Although it is one of the world’s least polluting nations, it is already experiencing some of the most severe effects of changing weather patterns. The country lies close to sea level, and much of the land is river delta that is prone to seasonal flooding, erosion, and salinity intrusion and faces the risk of devastating cyclones, all of which can be catastrophic for local communities and their livelihoods. Many families are unable to recover from such climate disasters and are forced to move to other parts of Bangladesh or across borders to rebuild their lives.

Unsurprisingly, Bangladesh has become a prominent voice in global conversations about climate change and the need for international responsibility-sharing. Developing nations generally shoulder an outsized share of the costs of climate change compared to wealthier nations, a fact recently recognized in global forums such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which convenes the annual Conference of Parties, or COP. In its 27th sitting, in 2022, the COP established a loss and damage fund for vulnerable countries, which was operationalized a year later at COP 28. While proponents celebrated this as a win, many practical challenges remain, including raising sufficient funds and figuring out how to measure losses and distribute resources equitably among nations.

The many intersecting consequences of environmental degradation require long-term solutions and a holistic approach. Mechanisms like the loss and damage fund will not increase climate resilience if social, political, and economic factors are not considered alongside the environmental ones. Migration and displacement of affected populations is one of the most significant consequences of climate change. Along with the downstream impacts on labor markets, social networks, and transnational relationships, these will need to be accounted for in national and international climate strategies and development policies.

The boats of fishers in the Sundarbans. Climate change has created new challenges for fishers in this transboundary mangrove forest, which is shared between Bangladesh and India. (Photo: Tasnia Khandaker Prova)

As “ground zero” for a shifting climate that is turning many environments inhospitable, Bangladesh offers a case study of these overlapping vulnerabilities. In parts of the borderlands with India, longstanding social and political fragilities lie beneath the new environmental stressors. The border itself has been an historical point of contention between the two countries, and security measures in the past have led to violence. The distance from central governance institutions in Dhaka can result in border regions being underrepresented in national climate strategies, including the distribution of resources, which can further marginalize ethnic and religious minorities within border communities. The risks from climate change in such areas of existing vulnerability cannot be overstated: economic instability, food insecurity, unreliable access to justice, and increased inequalities that can trigger communal violence.

Attempts to institutionalize sustainable solutions in climate-vulnerable areas must be rooted in a situated understanding of how communities experience and respond to environmental disruptions. Outsiders may struggle to grasp these nuances, which can lead to poor planning and interventions that cause further harm. In southwestern Bangladesh, for example, seasonal and informal migration to urban centers in India have become more and more of a survival mechanism for those who have lost their agricultural livelihoods. This can clash with policies that regulate cross-border movement, including the steady increase in border fencing. Researchers and practitioners working in affected areas can play an important role in collecting information and building evidence that speaks to local experiences, but this must be done with sensitivity and recognition of the power dynamics of classical research settings. Historically, the study of vulnerable populations in particular has been steeped in inequality and defined by an essentially extractive relationship between researchers and researched.

Along the river in this part of the project study area, an invisible, porous border divides India and Bangladesh. Community members couldn’t say whether the ducks swimming in the river were “Bangladeshi” or “Indian.” (Photo: Tasnia Khandaker Prova)

As the world mobilizes to support climate adaptation and resilience, decision-makers need analysis that reflects the needs and priorities of communities at the forefront of climate change. The Asia Foundation is working with the Centre for Peace & Justice (CPJ) of BRAC University in Bangladesh to develop a framework for assessing how existing drivers of fragility interact with the onset of climate change, in order to understand the risks for future climate resilience and development programming in the country. The Foundation’s partnership with CPJ originates in the UK-funded development research program XCEPT, Cross-Border Conflict: Evidence, Policy, and Trends, which works with local researchers to provide analysis of conflicts in border regions that is grounded in the affected communities.

With support from this program, CPJ has developed a new methodology for community-driven data collection, based on “participatory research,” that seeks to avoid the vertical power dynamics inherent in traditional research models. CPJ first employed this methodology among the Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in the Bangladeshi coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, on the border with Myanmar. A network of researchers drawn from within the refugee community itself enabled the affected population to become coproducers of knowledge and solutions, building trust between aid providers and recipients and strengthening the credibility of the research findings. The insights this yielded have helped foreign donors and humanitarian agencies operating in the world’s biggest refugee camp to work more effectively. This approach is a major contribution to localizing aid, as it shifts power over information towards the affected populations.

How researchers reached the Gabura study site. (Photo: Tasnia Khandaker Prova)

This year, CPJ is piloting the same research approach in southwestern Bangladesh, applying it to the question of how climate adaptation strategies reflect and respond to broader social and political fragilities in the local context. A scoping study first undertaken by the team in 2022 determined that this question is a major factor in the long-term success of such strategies. Subsequently, a research project was designed replicating the approach used in Cox’s Bazar, starting with the recruitment and training of young people to work as “community researchers.”

The team faced some initial challenges: refugee camps are an entirely different operational context than areas of the general population, because of the institutional control within the camps and the relative immobility of the camp population. Furthermore, the severity of the refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar was a powerful motivator for camp residents to participate. In southwestern Bangladesh, on the other hand, researchers wondered how to build interest among local youth in participating in the data collection and how to encourage respondents to open up about their experiences and aspirations. Researchers have also reflected that the obstacles facing Rohingya refugees in their fenced camps are immediate and tangible, while slow-onset climate factors that distress and uproot communities in climate-affected border towns are less immediately apparent.

Project researchers walk to a household at one of the study sites in the Bangladesh-India borderlands. (Photo: Era Robbani)

To apply a proven methodology in a completely new context, both major and seemingly minor aspects of the research study may need to be revised. CPJ’s community-based research approach acknowledges the complexity and unique social order of the borderlands, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the study sites. Climate realities around the world are not equal. These locally grounded methods of exploration avoid the mistakes of knowledge systems that force top-down assumptions on local communities, and instead empower them to be the voices of their own experience.

The initial phase of this new project is nearing completion, and community researchers are receiving training for the first round of data collection. From where we stand now, there is much to discover, to learn, and to unlearn, and we hope to do it together.

Tabea Campbell Pauli is a senior program officer with The Asia Foundation’s XCEPT program, and Tasnia Khandaker Prova is a research associate with the Centre for Peace and Justice of BRAC University. 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.

Cultivating Women’s Forest Stewardship: The 100 Champions Network

Women and youth planting mangrove seeds in Surabaya’s Mangrove Park social forestry concession, November 2023. (Photo: Zenia Zahara / The Asia Foundation)

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which can be found in products from chocolate to biodiesel. But palm oil plantations, along with mining, logging, and other extractive industries, have taken a heavy toll on Indonesia’s forests, with grave consequences for both the global climate and the local communities that rely on these forests. In the unequal fight to protect their lands and their livelihoods from these powerful economic players, access to information has become a vital strategic asset for Indonesia’s forest communities.

Dewi Sartika is a woman in one such community. Because of their traditional role as family caregivers, women are often more alert when vital forest resources such as local foods or fresh water are threatened by development. When palm oil interests began to encroach on her community’s land, Dewi set out to educate herself. She sought public information from the government, information such as legal documents confirming her village’s land rights and maps of village boundaries.

As is often the case, Dewi faced resistance from all sides. Invoking traditional cultural norms, the community questioned whether her husband should allow this activity. The government resisted her requests. But eventually, Dewi obtained the information she needed to make her land rights case to the local government. We call Dewi a village champion.

Founding the network

Since 2015, The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office has been implementing the SETAPAK program, a UK-funded environmental governance program that supports sustainable livelihoods, particularly for women and other vulnerable groups, while protecting Indonesia’s forest resources from destruction by extractive industries. Encouraged by the resourcefulness and determination of women like Dewi, the Foundation has helped to establish the 100 Champions Network, which encourages women to assume leadership roles in preventing deforestation by producing sustainable forest products, a solution called social forestry. A Foundation survey of 1,865 households, using the University of Michigan’s LivWell tool, found that when women are meaningfully involved in social forestry and community forest management, it leads to increased household incomes, more sustainable forest governance, and greater gender equality.

To reach these women, The Asia Foundation works closely with a network of local civil society organizations (CSOs) in each province to foster “gender focal points.” These are experts who help organizations to bring gender equality into the mainstream of their programs, to identify women champions in their area, and to hold periodic local and national meetings to advance environmental governance. Importantly, these gender focal points promote dialogue between the women champions and government officials, the private sector, members of parliament, and other stakeholders to give their advocacy maximum effectiveness.

Women champions from 14 provinces of Indonesia gather to discuss forest policies and related issues, November 2023. (Photo: PUPUK Surabaya)

The network’s impact

The 100 Champions Network initially struggled to enlist other women forest defenders. They focused first on developing a core membership of women champions who could take the lead in reviewing public information; demanding enforcement of laws against illegal poaching, mining, and logging; drafting proposals; becoming paralegals; and leading social forestry programs and participatory mappings. These champions were recruited from communities heavily affected by deforestation, and they worked closely with local CSOs.

These CSOs also needed help, to work effectively with the women champions. The Asia Foundation conducted a series of trainings, including how to mainstream gender equality in climate and environmental programming and how to use analytic tools familiar to CSOs to conduct gender analyses. These trainings helped start the conversation about why women were largely absent from social forestry work and how to elevate their voices, capacities, and confidence.

An Indigenous woman from West Kalimantan Province during a policy dialogue with the national government and other stakeholders, November 2023. (Photo: Zenia Zahara / The Asia Foundation)

Within a year, the CSOs reported that local women affected by extractive industries were making more and better use of public information, writing policy briefs, checking permits and the legality of company operations, and filing legal cases against those companies when they broke the law. This type of information is often hard to find, sometimes nonexistent, and frequently withheld by government officials despite the legal right of all Indonesians to access public information.

Through these efforts, women leaders were able to stop illegal poaching, mining, and logging in many parts of Indonesia and launched efforts to reclaim some of the damaged forests. In Sumatra’s Bengkulu Province, for example, the 100 Champions Network convinced the governor to allocate 65 percent of designated social forestry concessions specifically to women’s groups. These concessions have become a formal part of provincial policy. In South Sulawesi, women-led social forestry enterprises developed a partnership with five buyers of their nontimber forest products. This partnership has brought them access to markets that they previously could not reach, improving their livelihoods while preserving forest resources.

The 100 Champions Network today

Today, the 100 Champions Network has more than 200 gender champions, who continue to lead the work. Each year, they participate in a national meeting to share their ideas, experiences, and aspirations. These gatherings also include training in applying for social forestry permits, gaining jurisdiction over land, and establishing face-to-face contact with representatives from government ministries, including the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, to take their case directly to policymakers. The response from ministry officials, it should be noted, has been positive.

The 100 Champions Network shows what can happen when women have an opportunity to lead in climate-sensitive domains such as forestry. Women’s leadership is essential for solutions that leave no one behind and address the needs of all. As Dewi Sartika’s story demonstrates, women’s leadership is not just nice to have—it is essential to create lasting, community-led solutions.

Women newly elected to 100 Champions Network committees, November 2023. (Photo: PUPUK Surabaya)

Rahpriyanto Alam Surya Putra is the director of The Asia Foundation’s Environmental Governance Program in Indonesia, and Anuja Patel is a program officer in the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Program. 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.

A New Chapter for a Storied Books Program

A camel transports crates of books from Books for Asia in 1950s Pakistan. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

This year, The Asia Foundation’s longest-running program, Books for Asia, has taken a momentous step as it completes its metamorphosis into the Let’s Read children’s storybook initiative. Launched at the time of the Foundation’s birth in 1954, Books for Asia has been a centerpiece of Foundation programming for seven decades as it donated millions of much-needed books, magazines, and professional journals to schools, universities, and libraries across Asia.

As this new chapter begins, the renamed Let’s Read program is saying goodbye to the print-distribution model, with its massive warehouses and international shipments of donated publications, and embracing the digital era, with a new focus on original works in local languages for young people, distributed free of restrictive copyright licensing on our Let’s Read online platform.

 

After 70 years of Books for Asia, the need for information is as strong as ever, but now, universities and libraries have online access to vast collections that previous generations could only have dreamed of. The business of publishing has also changed, as electronic distribution has reduced the number of surplus publications available for donation. And the environmental costs of shipping physical books over long distances have become difficult to justify.

Yet, the importance of widespread literacy for inclusive development has never been greater, and the fundamental skills and habits of reading are best acquired in childhood, through books and stories that speak to children’s own experience in the voices of their mother tongues.

The Foundation’s Let’s Read program has already made a name for itself with book-creation projects that recruit local authors, illustrators, and editors to create new storybooks for children that support early literacy and build the love and habit of reading. These locally created storybooks are readily available on Let’s Read’s online platform, where they can often be downloaded in several local languages. They can also be locally printed at low cost, and many have been introduced to the public at popular story-time events that encourage reading in families, schools, and communities.

As Let’s Read becomes our new flagship, we offer a chronicle of the seven-decade history of Books for Asia and the Foundation’s impact on access to information in Asia and the Pacific.

Packing books for shipping at Books for Asia’s San Francisco Warehouse. In 1959, shipments reach a milestone of one million books. (Photos: The Asia Foundation)

The 1950s. In 1954, The Asia Foundation is born with the stated purpose of supporting peace, independence, personal liberty, and social progress in Asia. From the beginning, the Foundation emphasizes education, with international exchange programs and the new Books for Asian Students initiative, soon rechristened Books for Asia. The first shipments of donated publications are distributed to schools in the Philippines and Japan.

Donations in this first decade also include precious newsprint for Asian publishers, programs for indigenous writers, and, in Sri Lanka, a Volkswagen van converted to a mobile library. By the end of the decade, Books for Asia has donated more than one million books to schools and libraries.

The 1950s: Bulls hauling newsprint for school textbooks to Korean printers (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The 1960s. The Foundation continues to provide support for Asian academic institutions, including the professionalization of elementary and secondary education. In Taiwan, the Foundations supports elementary school science education with mobile science units for all elementary grades. In Vietnam, the Foundation helps universities develop their libraries and improve the academic qualifications of faculty members. By the Foundation’s fifteenth year, more than 8 million books and journals have been donated to 828 schools and libraries in Asia, and 350 post-secondary schools and universities have received significant development support.

A container ship carrying donated books passes through the Golden Gate. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The 1970s. In 1970, The Asia Foundation conducts a thorough review of its programs and identifies education as an Asia-wide focus. By the mid-1970s, most of the Foundation’s grants address education issues, particularly in the sciences and social sciences. In 1972, The Asia Foundation and the Peace Corps assist the Malaysian Ministry of Education in modernizing its primary -school math and science curricula.

Books for Asia is part of The Asia Foundation’s commitment to education. In 1972, the Foundation and the Peace Corps support a special project of the Malaysian Ministry of Education to modernize the math and science curriculum in primary schools. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The 1980s. In a push for greater literacy in Pakistan, The Asia Foundation begins a three-year project to provide “box libraries,” containing a selection of basic books in Urdu and other local languages, to villages in each of the 4,200 Union Councils of rural Pakistan, including tribal areas. The Box Library Project eventually delivers a million books to Pakistani villagers. In 1984, a special report by the U.S. Library of Congress cites Books for Asia as a “model” for its size and effectiveness in distributing educational materials to schools and libraries in Asia.

Box Libraries in Pakistan: children reading on the Alif Laila Book Bus in Lahore in 1985. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The 1990s–2000s. By the early 2000s, more than 38 million books have been donated. This includes nearly half a million in Cambodia, where, in 2000, the Cambodian organization Kampuchean Action for Primary Education launches a scholarship program, in collaboration with The Asia Foundation, to help rural girls bridge the gap between primary and secondary school.

Children’s storybooks are now becoming increasingly popular with recipient institutions. Even though the donated books are in English, storybooks, textbooks, and reference books for children become the most-requested books from Books for Asia.

A water-borne “library boat” in  Bangladesh. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The 2010s. As the aughts give way to the teens, Books for Asia continues to seek ways to increase access to information, including getting more books to kids. The multicountry campaign Choose a Book, Change a Life raises awareness and puts books in the hands of thousands of children across the region. Books for Asia also works with local organizations to serve remote locations, delivering books by boat in Bangladesh and the Indonesian archipelago, and creating mobile libraries in Pakistan, Laos, and Timor-Leste. The program is recognized as a Program Best Practice Honoree at the U.S. Library of Congress Literacy Awards.

In March 2017, Let’s Read debuts its online library with the creation of four original storybooks by a group of writers and illustrators in Cambodia and new book translations for the S’gaw Karen community in northern Thailand.

Girls reading a book from the Books on Wheels initiative in Pakistan in 2012. (Photo: Sara Farid / The Asia Foundation)

The 2020s. When Covid-19 closes schools around the globe, tens of thousands of Asia-Pacific students, teachers, and families turn to the Let’s Read digital library for books and reading activities. Meanwhile, donations of books and other printed materials to the legacy Books for Asia program are dwindling amidst changes in the publishing business. With its last deliveries—to the Philippines in 2023—Books for Asia has shipped a total of 52,850,813 publisher-donated books from the United States to Asia and the Pacific.

By the start of 2024, books on the Let’s Read platform have been read more than 15 million times. The library now includes more than 10,500 books in 60 languages. Working with local writers and illustrators, Let’s Read has created more than 600 original storybooks in the languages that children speak in their homes and with characters that look like them and share their culture. A total of 1.9 million copies of Let’s Read books have also been printed for occasions such as public read-aloud events and distribution to the most remote destinations.

After 70 years, the books program is alive and well.

Visit the Let’s Read digital library at www.LetsReadAsia.org or find us on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Kyle Barker is the director of The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read. He can be reached at [email protected]. the views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Myanmar: Resistance and the Cost of the Coup in Chin State

A camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bungkhua Village, Thantlang Township, Chin State. (Photo: Parku)

The first of February marked the third anniversary of the military coup that upended Myanmar’s decade of democracy in 2021 and plunged much of the country into open conflict. Three years later, popular resistance, from peaceful protests to armed insurgency, remains strong, particularly among communities in the country’s border regions, where central control has been contested since Myanmar was a British colony.

Research supported by The Asia Foundation illustrates how Chin State, on the country’s northwestern border with India, is both a center and a broader microcosm of today’s resistance. Home to half a million people, and with historically strong tribal diversity, Chin State has suffered throughout the years of violence and instability that affected much of Myanmar as the country’s military struggled to impose central rule. The result has been persistent underdevelopment, and many people have left Chin State, often as refugees. They now constitute a substantial diaspora regionally and in countries of the Global North.

Townships and border areas of Chin State. (Google Map, Myanmar Township Boundaries MIMU v9.3–MIMUY Geonode [themimu.info])

Violent crackdowns on the peaceful protests that sprang up immediately after the 2021 coup led many previous noncombatants to take up arms to defend themselves. Tensions grew rapidly as dozens of new, local resistance groups emerged, many known collectively as Chinland Defense Forces. The Chin National Front, an armed group with a long history of resisting Myanmar’s central authorities, which had been closely involved in peacebuilding efforts over the last decade, gained significant popular support.

These armed groups made significant gains in 2023, taking control of resources, territory, roads, and infrastructure in both urban and rural areas. Mirroring the successes of fighters across the country, both the new Chin resistance forces and established armed organizations have pushed back against the military, reportedly capturing 12 military bases and liberating five towns in the last year.

With parts of the country suffering internet blackouts, and information on social media unreliable, it is difficult to grasp a complete picture of the trajectory of the conflict, particularly for observers outside of the country. Airstrikes and arson attacks by Myanmar forces have led to hundreds of deaths and driven tens of thousands of Chin civilians from their homes and livelihoods. The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have fled to the Indian border states of Mizoram and Manipur, while another 61,000 remain internally displaced. Chin humanitarian organizations estimate that the real figures are much higher. Camps for the internally displaced are increasingly insecure as the conflict drags on and resources dwindle, but heavy fighting and the remoteness of the region pose a major challenge for aid and support.

The principal humanitarian response has come from Mizoram, which is estimated to have received more than 5,000 refugees from Chin State in 2023 alone. Refugees in Mizoram have some access to healthcare and children’s education, thanks to a long tradition of cross-border kinship.

As the crisis in Myanmar competes for global attention, international support has diminished. In the meantime, the Chin diaspora, reaching from the border regions of India to communities across Asia, Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, has mobilized to provide financial and material aid to refugees and those who remain in Myanmar. Local humanitarian responders estimate that up to 90 percent of the funds they receive come from Chin groups overseas, though this support is often distributed on the basis of local or subethnic ties that can result in unequal access.

Sihmul refugee camp, Mizoram, India. (Photo: JNS)

These developments underscore the central role of Myanmar’s borderlands. Distant from the historical control of the central authorities, these porous, peripheral zones are crucial for the safe passage of refugees, for aid to the internally displaced, and for support of the organized resistance. Border communities in India have set up camps, provided essential services, and even extended financial support to refugees from Chin State. The continued movement of people and goods is critical to maintaining safe havens and humanitarian support for civilians.

Myriad forces are at play today in Myanmar’s resistance. The local roots of the resistance movement have produced a diverse array of actors with different agendas and approaches, and building a united front is challenging. The divergence of approaches and visions among the political leadership and the multitude of armed groups adds a further layer of complexity, as politicians point to their pre-coup electoral mandates, while armed groups cite strong public support. On the ground, communities also hold uncertain views about who is in charge.

IDP camp in Paletwa Town, Chin State, Dec. 2022. (Photo: Chin Human Rights Organization)

Multiple councils and coordinating bodies have emerged from the Chin opposition. Efforts initially focused on the Interim Chin National Consultative Council as a liaison between state actors and the rest of Myanmar’s resistance network, but internal disagreements between a few powerful actors led to a split in early 2023. Subsequently, the rival Chinland Council was created, which has garnered greater support among key resistance forces as well as the public, likely the most crucial factor in its legitimacy as the state’s leading political body. The immediate need is to create a functioning state government and establish statewide systems for public administration and the provision of essential services.

As nonstate forces in Chin State and across Myanmar continue to resist the military’s attempts to impose its central rule, communities caught up in the conflict face severe consequences. International support for civilians is crucial, particularly for the most vulnerable, who have lost homes and livelihoods through violence and displacement. In the immediate term, humanitarian actors can connect with existing local and diaspora networks in the border region to increase the reach and effectiveness of aid distribution. Looking to the future, in Chin State as in other parts of Myanmar, effective investments in peace will hinge on the continuing dialogue between communities and resistance leaders to find common ground for future governance.

Tabea Campbell Pauli is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Conflict and Fragility Unit. She can be reached at [email protected]. June N.S. is an independent researcher whose latest report, Resistance and the Cost of the Coup in Chin State, Myanmar, is the principal source of this story. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

“Let’s Read” Indonesia Helps Children Understand Mental Disabilities

Reading can exert a powerful influence on children’s social and emotional development. Storybooks and young-adult fiction can introduce children to characters and situations that expand their capacity for empathy and help them become adults who are more accepting of others and less likely to lash out at those they perceive as “different.” Reading, in this respect, can prepare children to be part of a more humane and inclusive society.

Early in their social development, both at home and at school, children begin to encounter and wonder about physical and mental differences among their family and peers. Intellectual disabilities or behavioral disorders can be particularly confusing to youngsters, who lack the social experience to understand what they are seeing. Reading can help them navigate these situations. As young-adult fiction author Rebecca Westcott has written:

Children live in families; they are surrounded by adults with all their adult problems…. Life happens, and they are a part of that. Their books need to reflect what they hear, what they see. They need to recognize their situations in a book.

Let’s Read Indonesia Raises Awareness of Mental Health Issues

The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read in Indonesia has recently developed several new picture books for children with plots and characters that revolve around various mental disabilities. Play Me the Harmonica depicts bipolar disorder, Colorful Messages focuses on selective mutism, and Let’s Have a Water Fight! portrays a child with an intellectual disability. Each story is designed to help young readers make sense of these disabilities and remove the stigma that surrounds them.

Play Me the Harmonica by Shoba Dewey Chugani, illustrated by Singgih Cahyo and edited by Damar Sasongko and Eva Y. Nukman, tells the story of a little girl whose older brother, who loves to paint, has bipolar disorder. In one passage, the illustrator shows the brother, lost in his own despair, painting a picture so dark that it scares even the boy himself.

Illustrator Singgih Cahyo uses colors and facial expressions to convey the character’s inner experience to the reader. Bipolar depression is lonely and isolating, but the colorful illustrations invite the reader to understand and sympathize.
 
In Let’s Have a Water Fight! by Anna Farida, illustrated by Evi Shelvia and edited by Damar Sasongko and Eva Y. Nukman, a girl tells the story of a boy in her village named Alif who is obsessed with playing with water. But Alif is strange. He doesn’t know how to play with the other children.

The children make Alif go away. But when the girl sees him rejected and alone, she feels guilty and wants to help him. Her village in Central Java has a local tradition called gebyuran, which features a “water war” on the day before Ramadan. She invites Alif to join them, and he can’t stop laughing with happiness. Instead of shaming or shunning him because of his mental disability, the children in Let’s Have a Water Fight! learn to accept Alif and share in his happiness.

Colorful Messages by Dina Antonia, illustrated by Adinda Novalyawati and edited by Shoba Dewey Chugani and Damar Sasongko, is a story about acute selective mutism, a condition that renders sufferers unable to speak when they are anxious or under stress, even though they can speak normally at other times. In Colorful Messages, a little girl named Pelangi can’t sing along in class or join the fun at parties because of her disability.

Pelangi can cook. She can draw beautiful pictures, and the girls even overhear her speaking to her mom. But the book’s illustrations capture her loneliness and shame in public situations. In the end, the other girls reach out to her to make her their friend and help her overcome her social anxiety.

Reality in Fiction

Children occupy a world of imagination, and that is what makes childhood such an innocent time. But they also live in the real world, with all its troubles and contradictions. Storybooks are a delight to a child’s imagination, but they can do more: they can help them prepare for the world around them and the things about this world that are hard to understand, like mental disability.
 
Reading together is one of the best ways to introduce children to complex subjects like disability. Sooner or later, they will encounter people from other walks of life, people who are “different,” and reading can prepare them to open their minds and step into others’ shoes. With these new stories, available on our website in multiple languages, Let’s Read hopes to bring awareness of mental disability out of the shadows and to nurture the virtue of empathy for others among young readers, creating an antidote to stigma and bullying, and fostering a spirit of inclusion for all.
 
These and other stories on similar themes are available in multiple languages at www.letsreadasia.org.
 
Aryasatyani Sintadewi is a Books for Asia officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

A Work in Progress: Nepal’s Bold Bet on Federalism

Opening panel of the International Conference on Federalism, Devolution of Power, and Inclusive Democracy in Nepal and Asia, Kathmandu, Nepal, November 2023. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Less than a decade ago, after a long civil war and years of postwar political gridlock, the diverse and multicultural nation of Nepal chose a new form of government. In a decisive break with the past, the Nepali people made a bet on federalism, with a new constitution in 2015 that handed significant powers to two newly created tiers of elected government: provincial and local.

Nepal’s bold undertaking has had its ups, and also its downs—you can’t just “add federalism and stir.” Last November, with support from the Australian government and The Asia Foundation, Kathmandu University School of Law held an international conference to take a closer look at the theory, the mechanics, and the discontents of federalism at home and around the world.

Joining us this week on InAsia to explore some of those questions is Professor Bipin Adhikari, founding dean of the law school and leader of the conference, and conference presenter John Warhurst, emeritus professor of political science at Australian National University.

The International Conference on Federalism, Devolution of Power, and Inclusive Democracy in Nepal and Asia was supported by the Subnational Governance Program (SNGP) implemented by The Asia Foundation under a strategic partnership with the Australian government.

An Accessibility Conundrum in the Philippines

There were laws requiring accessible infrastructure in Philippine public schools. The money was in place. Why was it not getting built? (Photo: Advocates of Inclusion)

The question had long confounded proponents of disability inclusion in the Philippines. Laws had been passed and budgets were in place, but public schools in the Philippines remained stubbornly inaccessible to people with disabilities. Everywhere, school buildings with wheelchair-blocking staircases, inaccessible restrooms, and no tactile cues for the blind continued to thwart the full access and participation of a substantial part of the population.

Every Filipino will use a public-school building at some time in their life. Aside from their obvious role in public education, public schools in the Philippines serve as polling places in elections, emergency evacuation centers, and venues for community events. These vital public spaces must be accessible to the entire public, regardless of age or disability.

This is the story of how advocates solved a long-standing policy puzzle by identifying a strategic reform to unlock the implementation of accessibility features in Philippine public schools.

An accessibility audit in San Jose Elementary School, Quezon City, the Philippines. (Photo: Advocates of Inclusion)

Getting the money

In 2020, The Asia Foundation’s Coalitions for Change program supported a local coalition, Advocates of Inclusion, to study and address the gaps in school accessibility policy. The investigation began with conversations with experts, advocates, and interest groups in the disability sector. Their concerns clearly converged on a principal problem: budgets for the construction and repair of accessible facilities.

Advocates of Inclusion worked for the insertion of new line item, “repair, rehabilitation, and construction of access facilities such as ramps, accessible toilets, pathways, and tactile paving,” in the Basic Education Facilities Fund of the Department of Education (DepEd). The coalition worked with allies in the Senate who successfully added the new provisions to DepEd’s 2021 budget. For the first time in decades, DepEd could now use its budget to build and repair access facilities in public school buildings.

This should have marked the triumphant conclusion to the story—DepEd now had the budget to address the accessibility needs of public schools—but simply providing the funds was not enough. Within DepEd there were implementation policies that needed to be updated before the new monies could be put to use.

Getting things built

Digging deeper into the department’s spending policies, the coalition turned its attention to the National School Building Inventory (NSBI), an annual assessment of the physical condition of the nation’s public-school buildings. NSBI data is an important factor in deciding how the national infrastructure budget for schools will be spent, but the coalition discovered that the NSBI did not collect data on school accessibility. The DepEd could not plan or build access facilities in the schools because it did not monitor them.

The coalition made a straightforward proposal: add accessibility to the list of school facilities monitored by DepEd. The goal was not to disrupt the NSBI survey, but simply to add a few columns to it—a simple solution to a complex problem. The inauguration of a new presidential administration after the 2022 elections was an opportunity for change. A new undersecretary, who was a champion of mobility and school accessibility, presented the coalition with a golden opportunity to work with DepEd to update the NSBI. In March 2023, the coalition’s efforts materialized with the department’s release of an updated NSBI tool that included the accessibility features that the coalition had advocated. With the revised NSBI tool in place, the annual inventory of school buildings will now include data on accessibility.

Discussing the National School Building Inventory proposal with the Department of Education. (Photo: Advocates of Inclusion)

Navigating the Philippines’ biggest bureaucracy was a challenge. Established procedures can make a government agency stubbornly resistant to change. But the coalition’s careful work to understand DepEd operations before suggesting tailored policy reforms made all the difference. The coalition’s success has shown that even the biggest bureaucracy can welcome change if it seamlessly integrates into existing systems and frameworks.

Sure enough, DepEd took ownership and institutionalized the reforms. In July 2023, the department released a policy that integrates accessibility into its multiyear guidelines for the use of the Basic Education Facilities Fund. This new policy weaves together the budget process and the NSBI with new implementation guidelines that highlight accessibility. The coalition hopes to see concrete results from these school accessibility reforms in 2024.

Thinking and working politically

It is fundamental to effective policy reform to first study the laws, policies, and interests that govern the existing state of play. With that understanding, advocates for reform of a government program or agency are better equipped to seek allies or reform champions within the bureaucracy, without whom their advocacy will often fall on deaf ears.

In the Philippines, where law and policy already mandated accessible public schools, persistent lack of progress in this arena prompted Advocates of Inclusion to make a careful study of the existing policy framework. In it they discovered a crucial gap, a lack of information, in the operationalization of these otherwise well-intended policies. With the advent of a new presidential administration, Advocates of Inclusion found allies in the bureaucracy to advance the carefully targeted policy reforms that they had crafted through study and analysis.

The value of these reforms will be measured by their fruits: more-inclusive schools that are accessible to every Filipino. Coalitions for Change and Advocates of Inclusion remain steadfast in their commitment to this goal.

A frame from Advocates of Inclusion’s campaign video. (Photo: Ninjadog Studios / Advocates of Inclusion)

Monique Angela Cadag is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Quantifying the Care Economy in Mongolia

Асрахуй (Latin asrahui) is the Mongolian word for care. (Image: The Asia Foundation)

Throughout Asia and the Pacific, and indeed in much of the world, caring for children, the sick, and the aged is consigned to mothers, wives, and daughters. This care work, an essential part of a functioning society, is typically unpaid, keeping women out of the paid workforce and depriving them of their share of inclusive development, and the economy of a substantial chunk of potential GDP.

In Mongolia, initiatives to address the social and economic inequities of caregiving have occasioned some confusion as the term asrahuin ediin zasag—the “care economy”— has made its way into public discourse. “Care” in the Mongolian language bears connotations of familial bonds or social norms rather than economic relationships. In answer to this initial perplexity, The Asia Foundation Mongolia has been working to familiarize the public with this important economic concept. Mongolia has in turn taken significant steps in the last year, with extensive research and data collection, to integrate the care economy into the nation’s development vision.

A critical part of these efforts has been the identification of key concepts and indicators. This includes both a language issue—the need for a common Mongolian vocabulary to support public discourse and policymaking—and the empirical question of how caregiving is rendered and remunerated. To help launch this conversation, the Foundation recently published a Mongolian translation of its 2022 white paper Toward a Resilient Care Ecosystem in Asia and the Pacific: Promising Practices, Lessons Learned, and Pathways for Action on Decent Care Work.

A dialogue between the National Statistics Office, Women for Change NGO, and The Asia Foundation, in Mongolia, October 2023.(Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Getting the data

Effective policymaking is based on solid evidence, and the government has taken steps to assess the conditions of care work and caregivers in Mongolia in collaboration with civil society organizations (CSOs) including the National Committee on Gender Equality, Women for Change NGO, and the Mongolian National Feminist Network (MONFEMNET).

Working with researchers, the government has launched a comprehensive study of the economic impact of care work in Mongolian households. A recent assessment by Professors B. Otgontugs, B. Myagmarsuren, and D. Khishigt of the National University of Mongolia (NUM) has found that paid and unpaid care work has an economic value equivalent to 26.3 percent of Mongolia’s GDP, including 10.8 percent from paid care and 15.5 percent from unpaid care. This puts care work on par with the vital mining industry in economic importance.

Another nationwide study by NUM, slated for presentation in early 2024, is assessing the intersectionality of unpaid care and climate change, and NUM’s recently launched Gender Studies Program, one of several research partnerships between the government, CSOs, and academia, will examine the gendered aspects of the care economy.

The National Statistics Office (NSO) is emerging as a key player in care-sector data. A recent meeting between the NSO, Women for Change NGO, and the Foundation noted the pressing need for comprehensive data and the limitations of current resources. The NSO acknowledged the care economy’s vital role in socioeconomic development and expressed full support for including care economy data in the next nationwide annual survey.

Meeting of the National Committee on Gender Equality, Women for Change NGO, and The Asia Foundation, in Mongolia, October 2023. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Making the gender connection

Limited access to affordable care services in Mongolia forces many women to provide unpaid care for their families, preventing them from joining the paid workforce. Last October, Women for Change NGO and The Asia Foundation convened a meeting with the National Committee on Gender Equality (NCGE) to discuss policy solutions. Ms. T. Enkhbayar, secretary of the NCGE, spoke of the need for better care infrastructure and more affordable and accessible care. The parties agreed to introduce the concept at the NCGE’s monthly meeting with high-level policymakers, and at a subsequent trilateral dialogue with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security and the Ministry of Economy and Development.

Awareness raising by Mongolian CSOs, particularly under the guidance of MONFEMNET, deserves particular note. Their energetic engagement can be traced back to a national forum in May 2023, where unpaid care work took center stage. The forum particularly galvanized CSOs led by marginalized women, who emerged as champions of this cause.

Members of the civil society coalition Feminist Movement Building for Women’s Economic Empowerment pledge their leadership and participation during the 14th “Through Women’s Eyes” national forum, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, June 2023. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Core areas of the care economy

Mongolia is encouraging government agencies, civil society, and the private sector to focus on key parts of the care economy. Researchers have pinpointed several priorities: (1) establishing a framework that embeds care issues in major policy documents, (2) forming a multi-stakeholder platform for discussion of policy, (3) instituting a national system for collecting care-related statistics, (4) increasing public investment and private-sector involvement in care services, (5) enhancing policy coordination and standards of care, and (6) addressing gender-based caregiving norms.

Acknowledging unpaid care work, addressing gender disparities, and identifying key areas for intervention mark the beginning of an important journey for Mongolia. The emergence of civil society organizations and government champions dedicated to advancing the care economy through research and data collection underscores the nation’s commitment to inclusive development.

Tsolmon Gantuya is deputy program manager for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Economic Empowerment program in Mongolia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.