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FEATURE STORY March 4, 2019

Thinking Equal in Mongolia: Zolzaya's Path to Gender Justice

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On International Women’s Day 2019, we are sharing stories of women doing inspiring work across East Asia and Pacific. Whether in the business world, advocacy, media or countless other sectors, their contributions highlight the transformative power of women in the region. Zolzaya Batkhuyag is a lawyer and co-founder of Women for Change, an NGO raising public awareness and community efforts for justice and women’s empowerment in Mongolia.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I graduated as a lawyer. I have been working for gender justice for over 10 years. In 2010, I co-founded Women for Change with three other young women lawyers, who have shared a passion for the promotion of gender equality, human rights and democracy – values which continue to underpin our work today. Today, the Women for Change has expanded with over 100 active members. 

What inspires you to get up in the morning? What drives you?

Every morning, after a cup of coffee, I start the day by checking my hectic schedule, which guides me to my vision. My daily motivation to accomplish my goals comes from the very people I meet, talk with and work with, the people surrounding me and the work I do every day. They energize me.

Besides my family and loved ones, the community that we are building is my inspiration, because I can see it grow and have an influence. I am feeling so grateful that through my work I meet with and learn from many authentic and inspirational women and men from different fields and backgrounds, who are passionate about social change. Specifically, civil society is one of the spaces where people come to voluntarily based on their values and beliefs, which makes us stronger together. There is power in communal action. So our community that grows, develops and stands together for change is my pride and inspiration.

What set you on this path?

After graduating from university, while I was working as a marketing officer for one of the biggest hotels in Ulaanbaatar, I witnessed the July 1st riot, which took place just next to my office in 2008. Initially, citizens gathered peacefully in the large Suhkbaataar Square in front of Parliament, to protest an election result that they believed to be unfair. A violent fight between police and demonstrators broke out. Many people, especially young people, consciously or unconsciously became part of the violent conflict. As a result, hundreds of young people were arrested and some of them went to prison. This case forced young lawyers to openly discuss the rights of citizens to public protest and to freely express political views in non-violent ways. With support of Ms. Undarya, Coordinator of MONFEMNET NGO, the group of young lawyers decided to start “Hands up for your rights” - a youth campaign for human rights. This was my turning point to start my journey of being an activist. During this campaign I found my colleagues who co-founded Women for Change NGO in 2010. 

If it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes a whole community of passionate, talented, like-minded people to combat gender discrimination and to ensure equal human rights for all. The Women for Change has found that kind of community in our incredible members. Our 104 members are a diverse group of women from across Mongolia. They include students, businesswomen, teachers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, social workers, mothers, heads of households and members from minority groups. We believe that “empowered women, empower women” and we see and witness it every day. 

What advice do you have for young women who want to take a similar path?

I just want to let them know that “You are the voice for change”, and we are stronger together. When we start meaningful discussions among us, we will learn that we are different and diverse but at the same time we experience plenty of common opportunities and challenges. Particularly, we can see that opportunities and advantages are more at the personal level, while challenges and obstacles are more in social, cultural, economic and political levels. That is why it is so hard to fight those challenges alone. That is the one crucial reason why we as women need to unite and raise our diverse voices for a better society for all of us. As Gloria Steinem said, "When unique voices are united in a common cause, they make history." 

Do you have a favorite quote or saying?

One of my favorite quotes is "Well-behaved women rarely make history." I agree with this statement, because patriarchal society rarely supports women to be independent and create their own destiny, so if we always obey all the rules society states, we, women, cannot really follow our own path or create our own story. So, it is OK to be a rebel when you think it is your right. For thousands of years society demanded women to follow the rules mostly created by men, now it is time for women to create the rules. Therefore, don’t be afraid to be ambitious, to be loud and to be yourself, just build and follow your dreams.  

What are the biggest issues in Mongolia right now and how can they be addressed?

Throughout my experience in civil society, I have been facing a number of challenges working on a grassroots and national level. Ultimately, my conclusion is that education is really the key for solving many problems in developing countries. It can bring genuine social change and reform for generations. However, the current education system still embodies some of the negative aspects of the former socialist ideology and lacks grounding in inclusiveness, human rights and gender sensitiveness. Educational reform is critical if we want to create a better future for the young. 

Where do you see Mongolia in 25 years?

Vision and belief are the core motivations of activists; otherwise what are we looking for?  Thus, I believe we have a bright future in our country, but I am not just sitting and expecting for miracles to happen. I have learned that dreaming is not enough, instead of just dreaming I want to build and be part of that bright future. And I believe that empowered communities are the main catalysts of the positive social change we are looking for. In other words, when there are educated and empowered citizens then a strong and just nation can be built. 

What change would you like to see that could bring greater equality in Mongolia?

As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I envision change, but it cannot be done overnight.  Instead, we need to equip ourselves now with broad knowledge and expertise. It is our aspiration to reform the education system of my country to become human rights-based, gender sensitive and inclusive. In other words, inclusive, equitable, qualitative and lifelong learning education is the key for achieving all Sustainable Development Goals. 

If you could use one word to describe women in East Asia Pacific what would it be?

Tenacious.

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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.



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