While the arrest of Mongolia’s former president Nambaryn Enkhbayar on corruption charges has been dominating headlines, another quieter, but very significant event took place earlier this summer on June 28, when nine women won seats in the country’s parliamentary elections. This is triple the number of women elected just four years ago.
The newly elected women MPs representing four different political parties were sworn in on Friday, July 6. While women still constitute only 12 percent of the 76-member parliament, a strong sense of optimism emerged that the new MPs would help unify across parties and have a significant impact on decisions affecting all Mongolians, including critical issues for families such as maternal and child health, schools, hospitals, and daycare.
This rise in the number of women elected to parliament was due in part to a new election law passed this year that introduced proportional representation for 28 of the 76 seats. It also specified that a minimum of 20 percent of the candidates nominated and approved must be women. There is no quota for women parliamentarians – just the proportion of women as candidates on each party list, but this change was nonetheless positive for women.
Five female candidates were elected directly: D. Oyunkhorol (MPP), Ts. Oyungerel (DP), G. Uyanga (MPRP), S. Odontuya (DP), and L. Erdenechimeg (DP). Another four were elected based on proportional representation: R. Burmaa (DP), M. Batchimeg (DP), Z. Bayanselenge (MPRP), and S. Oyun (CWGP). This is certainly good news, but still leaves Mongolia well below the world average of 19.5 percent women parliamentarians.
Last month, I attended the International Women’s Leadership Forum in Ulaanbaatar, hosted by the Community of Democracies and organized by The Asia Foundation, which brought together over 100 participants (including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who addressed the Forum) to discuss ways to promote women’s entrepreneurship, access to natural resources, and leadership in the private and public sectors. I spoke with several of the new female parliamentarians who were attending, and they shared their enthusiasm for what this could bring for women’s participation in Mongolia, but also expressed concern about ongoing, stubborn challenges.
Hillary Clinton, remarking about the nine newly elected women in Mongolia's Parliament during her speech at the International Women’s Leadership Forum said, "these women are blazing a path for all Mongolians who have the drive and desire to serve, to follow."
Ms. Batchimeg, one of the new MPs from the majority Democratic Party told me that people are starting to see some of the negative side effects of being a resource rich country, such as the high-level of spawned corruption and growing wealth gap between the rich and poor. “There is a perception among the electorate that women are less corrupt than men – there is a strong mandate for women MPs to work to make government more transparent, provide equal opportunities for the people, more equitable growth, and clean politics,” she said. She hopes that even more women will run for parliament in the 2016 elections.
Ms. S. Oyun, who has been an MP for 14 years and was reelected in June, said “there is so much energy and potential for women of Mongolia in medium and low levels of public service and the private sector. Men dominate at the decision-making level, but if you look at education, women tend to be better educated; at the university level women are 60 percent of the graduates, so women shoulder as much work as men, but men still dominate in decision-making. Now we have to prove that an increase in the number of women will make some change and impact before the next elections.”
Ms. Oyungerel who was elected from the Democratic Party, said that this was the third time she ran for parliament. “The first time, I ran I got 12 percent of the vote. The second time, I got 42 percent of the vote. This time, I won.” Oyungerel, who was previously an advisor to the president, told me that the financial barriers to women being elected to parliament are enormous. She said that parties have internal “taxes” for people who want to run and it is very hard for women to raise the money required to be a candidate and this is a huge deterrent for women. When she became an MP she made a big promise to her constituency to address land issues. “The land law says every citizen has the right to free land, but they can’t meet the requirements of putting up a fence or building (to secure a title) and often the land office won’t accept their applications.”
The nine newly elected women MPs face significant challenges both in unifying across parties to achieve common goals, as well as in forming alliances with their male colleagues to pass legislation. The women I interviewed were optimistic on both fronts – enthusiastic about forming a women’s caucus and identifying men in the parliament with whom they can work.
While the newly elected women MPs are clearly savvy politicians, it will be important for them to have opportunities to network with their counterparts in other countries to learn how to utilize the lessons learned by other women MPs. The international community needs to ensure that peer-to-peer networking among the world’s female MPs includes these nine courageous women from Mongolia.
Carol Yost is director of the Women’s Empowerment Program at The Asia Foundation, where this piece first appeared. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.