Baby steppes: Mongolian women face ballot box battle

Ulan Bator: Mongolian pop singer and single mother Nara swapped her trademark miniskirt for a traditional "deel" to campaign in tented slums for a seat in parliament, but would-be female parliamentarians face an uphill challenge as the country goes to the polls Wednesday.
Women politicians have been making strides in Asia in recent years, and on some measures Mongolia fares well on gender equality, but weeks ago mostly male MPs voted to reduce a quota for female candidates.
Nara, 33, whose full name is Munkhturiin Narantuya and who has a two-year-old son, aspires to "change the system, involve myself to influence how the system should work", she told AFP as she walked past open drains in Mongolia's capital Ulan Bator.
Best known for her hit single "Discovering Myself", she has 175,000 Facebook fans and has used social media to highlight her experiences of domestic violence.
But she has faced an onslaught of gender-related insults during her campaign, with one video posted online pillorying her for working as a "hostess" at a bar in Japan.
"I am frustrated about why we can't improve our health care, why can only rich people can go abroad and be treated," she said. "My competitors try to slander me based on who I was and how I acted."
In some areas Mongolia is unusually progressive -- more than two-thirds of the country's higher degrees go to women, according to the ministry of human development and social welfare.
The education gap starts at a young age, with rural families sending school-aged girls to towns for schooling while boys are kept at home to help with herding livestock. 
But conservative attitudes endure and discrimination is still rife, with women's wages on average 19 percent lower than men's, according to a survey by Mongolia's National University.
- Share power -
Women have been swept to power in recent years across Asia, most recently in Taiwan where Tsai Ing-wen was elected president in January. Park Geun-Hye, daughter of a former dictator, has led South Korea since 2013 and Yingluck Shinawatra was prime minister of Thailand from 2011 to 2014.
In the last election, Mongolia had a quota requiring 30 percent of candidates to be female, which saw 11 women elected to the State Great Hural out of 76 seats. 
Female lawmakers have been credited with pushing forward legislation which improved women's lives, including increased punishments for domestic violence and more childcare centres, helping mothers enter the workforce.
"Problems that usually affect women such as kindergarten and other social issues cannot be solved without women," said Luvsangiin Erdenechimeg, head of the women's caucus in parliament.
"We solved a number of important legal issues that were never allowed in the previous parliaments where only men were members," she told AFP.
She is standing for a second term with the ruling Democratic party, but with the female candidate quota cut to 20 percent this year, she says that there is "no will" to bring women into political leadership.
The rule change "reveals that the majority (men) don't want to share power with women", Zolzaya Batkhuyag, director at advocacy group Women for Change, told AFP. 
Some women are campaigning on issues beyond gender, in a country whose rich resources have yet to fulfil its people's hopes for higher living standards.
Baatarjaviin Munkhsoyol, an independent female candidate pursuing a doctorate at university in Canada, is standing on a business-friendly, pro-investment platform.
"The situation could have been better this time if there were smarter policies," she said.
Ordinary Mongolian women point to their power in the home as a sign of their potential on the national stage.
"I think women can be involved in the political leadership," said Buyantogtokhiin Tserendulam, a 35-year-old voter. "In Mongolia it's common that women make decisions at the family level."


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