While Mongolia has made considerable progress on key gender-related indicators under the Millennium Development Goals, significant gender disparities remain in labor markets and the business sector. Women are underrepresented in the country’s high-growth industries, in managerial positions, and have limited participation in formal entrepreneurial activities. From a cultural perspective, women are also still viewed as shouldering the “double burden” of earning an income and managing domestic responsibilities.
This summer, I am working with The Asia Foundation, an international development organization with programs in economic development, women’s empowerment, governance and law, environment, and regional cooperation in 18 countries across Asia. In Mongolia, the Foundation partners with local NGOs and government institutions to support women’s economic entrepreneurship at various levels, from supporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to promoting women’s participation in high-level positions in business. While working for the Foundation this summer, I have been involved in two key activities that address these issues.
Promoting Women in Business
On May 14, I participated in the “Promoting Women in Business” national forum organized by the National Committee on Gender Equality (NCGE) and The Asia Foundation, which convened over 60 women representatives from parliament, ministries, the business sector, and civil society to discuss opportunities to advance women’s economic empowerment and promote gender equality in the business sector.
To maximize the level of participation and information sharing, the one-day forum was divided into two distinct sessions. The morning session included presentations by young and established women entrepreneurs who shared their experiences on running businesses that included food services, construction, furniture production, and handicrafts. In particular, they discussed challenges in women’s financial access, issues with staffing recruitment and retention, and how to remain competitive in Mongolia’s dynamic market and business environment.
In the afternoon, participants were divided into three thematic working groups to discuss strategies and identify potential solutions to overcome some of the challenges women face in terms of the legal and regulatory framework, social and cultural norms, and access to finance.
(Left) Participants from government, the business sector, and civil society. (Right) Working groups discussed specific problems and potential solutions to address barriers Mongolian women face and present their findings to each other. (Photos by the author.)
The working groups engaged in candid discussions and provided specific and constructive feedback. Key recommendations included: the need to establish a dedicated business center for women entrepreneurs, for networking, information-sharing, and training purposes; supporting policy reforms to encourage a more business-friendly environment, including tax breaks and more inclusive bank loan criteria; supporting legislation that assists vulnerable populations like single mothers and women over 40 years old start and run their own businesses; promoting continued learning and business skills training for older women; establishing a revolving loan program with low interest rates and flexible repayment plans through an experienced NGO; and strengthening the relationship between government and NGOs in order to promote women’s entrepreneurship and gender equality in the business sector. The women also assigned a steering committee, made up of representatives from each working group, who will be tasked with managing next steps and facilitating continued collaboration among all participants.
Last June 12-13, NCGE organized a follow-up training held in Ulaanbaatar that focused on building the capacity of women business owners. Topics included navigating the legal business environment; employment and retention; tax and social security regulations for SMEs; ideas for gender-sensitive banking; time management and strategic business planning; effective advertising and marketing, including leveraging social media; and practical skills in technology and communications. A similar training is planned for September to cater to rural women outside of Ulaanbaatar.
Supporting Mongolian Women Farmers
Among lower-income Mongolian women, especially those in the peri-urban ger districts, small-scale farming is a common way to feed the family and earn a small side income. The Mongolian Women Farmers Association (MWFA) is a local NGO established in 1999 whose aim is to train low-income women and their families in organic, sustainable small-scale urban farming. MWFA has been an Asia Foundation partner since 2004, and with joint support from Give2Asia, has trained roughly five thousand women since its establishment, many of them single mothers, to grow and sell organic vegetables to provide for their families.
Last week, I visited MWFA’s main office and farm in Bayankhoshuu, one of Ulaanbaatar’s peri-urban ger districts, to speak with Mrs. Bayatshandaa, MWFA’s founder and director. An agronomist and farmer, Mrs. Bayatshandaa conducts most of the agricultural trainings herself, in addition to running the daily operations of MWFA, fundraising, and interacting with potential donors.
MWFA farmers grow several types of vegetables, including potatoes, cabbages, turnips, carrots, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, and spinach. Grown in small farms and greenhouses within their residential compounds, these vegetables are then sold to local markets in Ulaanbaatar.
Vegetable plots in MWFA’s farm in Bayankhoshuu (Photos by the author.)
While MWFA farmers are able to sell their produce in small neighborhood markets, their ability to compete with professional vegetable suppliers has been a key constraint to expanding their businesses and maximizing their incomes. Complementary trainings in basic bookkeeping, marketing, and small business management can help women farmers further develop their entrepreneurship skills. MWFA and the Foundation are currently exploring ways to provide such trainings to women farmers as well as enhance their access to local markets.
The Foundation’s partnerships with organizations like MWFA and the NCGE seek to support locally owned initiatives to improve women’s economic empowerment and identify innovative ways to promote women’s entrepreneurship. Women business leaders constitute an important resource themselves and therefore facilitate ways for new and established women entrepreneurs to learn from each other, provide mentorship, and establish a wider network of women entrepreneurs is crucial to promote more women in business in Mongolia.
 Mongolia met two crucial targets for maternal health and child mortality in 2008. (UNDP: Millennium Development Goals Implementation, Fourth National Report, 2011.)
 World Bank. Mongolia: Gender Disparities in Labor Markets and Policy Suggestions. 2013.
 “Ger district” refers to the sprawling residential area outside Ulaanbaatar, where more than half of the capital’s residents live without access to basic services like roads, electricity, water, and sewage.