Naran envisions bright future as Mongolia comes out of dark times

Naran Munkhbat roamed the seedy bars and hotel lobbies of Hong Kong looking for her peo­ple.
It was 2008, and the universi­ty- educated women’s rights worker dressed like the young Mongolian women selling them­selves to businessmen and for­eign tourists.
“For two months, I was getting nowhere and started to get de­pressed," said Naran, 27, on Thursday.
Like the 60 per cent of her country’s population under 30 years old, Naran was born into uncertainty.
The communist government that had ruled her nomadic peo­ple for 70 years struggled through the 1980s and finally collapsed in 1990. Brutal winters and low livestock prices drove Mongolia’s nomadic herders into the Central Asian country’s two main cities. With little work and little opportunity in a country clawing its ways through the 1990s, thousands of girls fell prey to rose-coloured offers of jobs in neighbouring countries.
“And many of these underaged girls are forced into prostitution," said Naran.
Breakthrough came in the form of an elderly Mongolian woman living illegally in Hong Kong and cooking for some of the girls. Naran helped the lady cook and followed her to the hostels and homes.
“Many of them saw it as la­bour, work," said Naran, who brought the girls condoms and spent hours hearing their stories.
“Each story is different. And in a foreign country, with few to talk to, they abuse alcohol and smoke cigarettes to open up. I was emotional support."
Most of the women saw no opportunities waiting for them in Mongolia, but Naran was able to bring two home.
“One of the girls went to col­lege and took English. She was strong."
Her work with the non-profit Asia Foundation now centres upon making a place for women in the new Mongolia rising from the ashes of communism. While 30 per cent of Mongolians still drive cattle over rolling grass­lands, a mining boom is bringing stable, skilled jobs.
So instead of Hong Kong night­clubs, Naran now spends long evenings sorting through hun­dreds of scholarship applica­tions. During daytime inter­views, she hears the stories of the young women, 120 of whom her organization will offer scholar­ships to university science pro­grams.
Through the Asia Foundation, she also makes presentations to judges and prosecutors on the extent and effects of human trafficking. In the bustling streets of Mongolia’s growing cities, she campaigns for women candidates in the upcoming elections of the young democracy.
“Women had a strong place in traditional Mongolian society, but it was still a very patriarchal culture," said Naran.
“We’re trying to carve a bigger role for women in the new Mon­golia."
While many challenges re­main, she said the future is bright for her country. The World Bank is predicting continued significant growth in the econo­my over the coming years.
It’s a far cry from the breadlines Naran stood in with her grandmother and thousands of others during the early 1990s.
“It’s an exciting time to be a Mongolian, and I’m trying to play my small part to help my country."

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