Catherine E. Carlson, Laura Cordisco Tsai, Toivgoo Aira, Marion Riedel, and Susan S. Witte

Introduction

Landlocked between Russia and China and comprised of over one-and-a-half million square kilometres, yet with a population of just under three million, Mongolia has the lowest population density of any country in the world (World Atlas 2012). In 1992, Mongolia ended 70 years of communist rule and adopted a democratic constitution. The economic transition from a centrally planned (Soviet-supported) economy to a free-market economy led to devastating con­sequences, including over 32 per cent of the population living below the poverty line (UNDP 2011: 16). Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, experienced severe increases in survival sex work among women, homelessness, migration of workers within and beyond the country, and a deteriorating health and social services delivery system (NAF 2001, 2003). Although these challenges remain, a booming mining industry and the influx of foreign investment currently makes the Mongolian economy one ofthe fastest growing in the world (World Bank 2012). Throughout these transitions, the country seeks to maintain its cultural and ethnic roots while adapting to major economic and political changes.

Both economic restructuring and the recent global financial crisis have disproportionately impacted women in Mongolia. The World Bank listed Mongolia as one of the world’s 33 countries where the economic crisis has had the most significant and disproportionate effect on women (World Bank 2009). Such challenges have exacerbated women’s pre-existing struggles in Mongolia’s transition from a communist society. For example, during the privatisation of property, the distribution of titles to male household members significantly disadvantaged women (Chan 2002; Robinson and Solongo 2000). Compared to men, women engage in more unpaid work (such as child care and housework) and have lower purchasing power (UNICEF 2009). These economic challenges occur while women struggle to make their voices heard in the political arena. Prior to the 2012 elections, women made up only 3.9 per cent of Parliament seats, one of the lowest rates for any country, and men also hold the majority of leadership positions in local government (UNDP 2011: 4).

By many measures, however, women enjoy notable opportunities in Mongolia. Women tend to be highly educated due to former Soviet-style education policies. Furthermore, unlike many other countries in the region and the world, formal laws exist regarding gender-based discrimination (Law of Mongolia on Promotion of Gender Equality 2011). In the post-communist era, a women’s movement saw the significant role of women in the development of civil society. After the most recent elections, as a result of newly established gender quota requirements, women now make up 12 per cent of elected representatives (Dierkes and Miliate 2012).

These indicators suggest the complexities of women’s place in Mongolian society, particularly in the context of current social, economic and political transitions. The traditional gender expectations for women, as discussed by Bille (this volume), emphasise their role in marriage, reproduction, and the immediate family. These expectations align with one of two perspectives in post-communist Mongolia, as outlined by Tumursukh (2001): ‘conservative nationalists’ and ‘civic nationalists’. The ‘conservative nationalist’ ideology indeed emphasises expectations of women as reproductive and family oriented. When women do not meet these expectations they may be considered ‘selfish’ or having failed to be the ideal, or ‘real’ woman (Bille this volume).

Tumursukh (2001) argues that the ‘conservative nationalist’ ideology further defines women’s sexuality by subscribing to the patriarchal tradition of children inheriting their father’s ethnic lineage. According to the law, a child with either a Mongolian mother or father will be given Mongolian nationality (Law of Mongolia on Citizenship 1995). However, the traditionally held belief by ‘conservative nationalists’ suggests that one’s father must be of Mongol blood to be considered ethnically Mongolian (Law of Mongolia on Citizenship 1995). Thus, Tumursukh (2001) argues that Mongolian women’s sexuality manifests national importance in preserving Mongolian ethnicity and culture. Such beliefs are often threatened, and thus intensified, by fears of invasion from China — particularly given the loss of Soviet protection — and globalisation resulting from the growing economy and foreign investment.

By contrast, ‘civic nationalists’ view Mongolian women as ‘highly educated, professional, and independent’ and take pride in the promotion of women in civil society and government since the communist-free market transition (Tumursukh 2001: 129). In particular, ‘civic nationalists’ view Mongolia as distinct from other Asian countries, which they consider ‘backwards’ in regards to gender equality and women’s rights. In reality, these two perspectives, like all con­structions of gender, are in constant flux, contradiction and negotiation. Thus, Mongolians may simultaneously subscribe to aspects of both the ‘conservative nationalists’ and the ‘civic nationalists’ ideology. For example, since Mongolians cannot regulate women’s sexuality in accordance with conservatism through formal, political mechanisms without contradicting their self-image as progressive and upholding human rights, control of women’s sexuality occurs through informal mechanisms of social norms, the media and the family (Tumursukh 2001).

The ‘conservative nationalist’ and ‘civic nationalist’ viewpoints have been influenced by centuries of Mongol history. Civic nationalists’ pride in women’s independence includes the role of women in Mongolia’s early nomadic history. Women in nomadic tribes often assumed responsibility for both the domestic sphere and maintaining the livestock economy (while men hunted or engaged in warfare). Although these responsibilities placed intense hardship on most women, some were able to rise to elite power from the economic opportunities. Conservative nationalists’ concern over the dilution of Mongol blood is influenced not only by current low population density but by a history of rule by the Qing dynasty and the Soviet Union. After the rise and fall of Genghis Khan’s vast Mongol Empire, a large portion of Mongols came under the rule of the Manchu Qing dynasty. By the mid-seventeenth century, Tibetan Buddhism had also become highly influential among Mongols. One third of men were Buddhist monks, resulting in an increase in female-headed households and informal sexual relationships between women, promiscuous monks, and Chinese merchants. As a result, women experienced increased economic power and sexual freedom, while often having children with no clearly identifiable patriarchal lineage. In 1911, Mongolia gained its independence from the Qing dynasty, only to fall under the rule of the Soviet Union in 1924. Soviet education and labour policies enhanced women’s opportunities outside the home. Yet, pro-natalist policies inhibited women’s reproductive rights and women were also encouraged to end relationships with foreigners from capitalist countries (Tumursukh 2001).

In this chapter we consider the lives of a subgroup of Mongolian women, those who exchange sex for money, alcohol or other goods, as they negotiate these dynamic and complex gender, economic and political realities. Since 2007, our joint US and Mongolian social inter­vention research team has tested HIV prevention programs among women engaged in sex work in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and this chapter will draw heavily upon these studies. Our team is comprised of Mongolian and US social work and public health researchers affiliated with Wellspring NGO in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and Columbia University in New York City. None of our researchers have the ‘lived experiences’ of women who exchange sex in Mongolia. Thus, we approach all of our work, including the writing of this chapter, remaining conscious of and sensitive to our outsider status and its unique limitations and benefits (Merriam et al. 2001). Our work has focused on heterosexual female sex workers since little is known about trans/homosexual sex workers. Thus the information presented in this chapter will focus on women who exchange sex with male clients. Furthermore, the majority of women in our studies engage in street-based sex work.

This chapter will discuss our findings on the multitude of risks experienced by women who exchange sex for money or goods, and the kinds of resilience and interventions which we have found successful at helping women mitigate risks. We will argue that gender contradictions are manifest in the day-to-day lives of women as they negotiate poverty, disease transmission, alcohol use and violence, all compounded by stigma rooted in ‘conservative nationalists’ views of gender. While managing these considerable challenges, women demonstrate enormous resilience, indeed portraying many of the characteristics praised by ‘civic nationalists’ such as independence and family responsibility. We conclude by presenting a discussion of our current microfinance intervention with women in Ulaanbaatar, posing questions on the future of these women’s lives in Mongolia in transition and making recommendations for future research.