Keeping up with the communists

MONGOLIA. Life was easier for nomadic women before market forces. Amy Otchet on their struggle to learn. At daybreak, Ouymaa lights the dung stove before reaching for her binoculars to scour the steppe for the herd. It is summer, when the Gobi turns green, blooming with wild onion grass, camomile and edelweiss.

But there is little rest in sight for nomadic women like Ouymaa, who must tend to her herd of 100 sheep, goats, cows, camels and horses if her three sons, sister and mother are to survive winter's -30C winds.

In between bouts of milking and cooking she collects dung and water. Her priority is to fatten up the herd - a difficult task as the goats quickly uproot the grass. So, Ouymaa's household has to move two or three times a month in search of greener pastures, wrapping their few possessions in the blankets and mattresses which cover the earthen floor at night inside the ger, a white felt circular tent they call home.

"It was easier before," she says of her days as a dairy maid at the now closed co-operative which provided clean water, boarding schools, doctors and vets. Sixty years of central planning under communism meant a rural life with an extensive social service system offering a sense of security. Now that has gone and today, at the age of 30, Ouymaa is left to manage her newly-privatised herd alone. She lives without a husband, forgoing marriage because "most men think they're more powerful than women and drink too much".

To help Ouymaa and some 15,000 nomadic women like her, the Gobi Women's Project provides non-formal distance education and skills training with technical assistance and Pounds 1.1 million from UNESCO, the United Nations educational arm.

The aim is to provide women with skills neglected by socialism, but also to reinforce those gained under it, namely in education. Under the communists the literacy rate reached about 95 per cent in the Russian Cyrillic script (schools are now re-introducing the Mongolian script, Ourgen).

With almost no roads, telephones and a monthly mail service, the project relies on weekly radio programmes and booklets, covering everything from spinning yarn using animal hair to first aid and basic maths, with lessons reinforced every month by a corps of about 620 visiting teachers. Adya is a "designated volunteer" and travels 85 kilometres to visit her 30 students, thanks to the Russian jeep which she shares with eight colleagues.

For Adya, the most difficult subject to teach is also the most important: family planning. Communist visions of a mighty labour force boosted the population from 968,100 in 1960 to just over 2 million in 1990, with maternity benefits and free day-care encouraging rural women to have an average of five to six children. Ignorance of contraception was also a factor.

"If I had information like in this booklet (on contraception)," says Tserendulam, a mother of seven, "I never would have had so many children. "

The project's best-sellers are the craft books on traditional techniques such as tapestry-making. However, the women have added a twist to the project's aim. They want to use their new-found skills to save money, rather than make money and instead of becoming entrepreneurs they prefer to barter to sustain their subsistence.

"Instead of buying things in the store. I can make everything at home, " said Bolornaa, aged 22.

The men in the community are also noticing how their womenfolk are faring and feel the need to catch up. UNESCO now plans to expand the scheme, this time concentrating on the family.

One scheme will introduce "family-based" education for the nomadic peoples - school drop-outs have become a problem because many parents need the children to stay at home to help with work.

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