Mongolia may have democracy, but its women struggle to be heard in a male-dominated political world, local women told U.S. first lady Laura Bush on Monday as they appealed for support for their work against poverty, domestic violence and other social ills.
Although Mongolian women, like Americans, make up the majority of college students, 65 percent, in politics they are a tiny minority. Women constitute only 5 of 76 members of the parliament, one of 18 Cabinet ministers and only 1 of 31 governors.
"Most of the hard work is done by women, but most of the decision-making is done by men," S. Oyun, chairwoman of the Civil Will Party and a member of the parliament, or Great Hural, said in a brief discussion with the first lady in an ornate room in Ulan Bator's massive Government House.
The visit Monday by U.S. President George W. Bush to Mongolia, the first ever by a serving U.S. president, offered the Mongolians an opportunity to showcase their fledgling democracy, founded in 1990 when the communists ceded power in a peaceful revolution.
But the women who met with the first lady were frank about the problems the country faces in providing for its 2.5 million people, more than a third of whom live in poverty.
Although the country's economy shows signs of recovering from the blow dealt by the withdrawal of Soviet aid, its health system is in shambles, infant mortality is on the rise and many in the capital live in sprawling slums lacking basic public services such as running water and sewage lines.
"My biggest concerns are poverty, gender equality, and women and children in poor families. The degree of poverty for Mongolian women is much higher than for men," said D. Altai, a member of the Mongolian Socialist Democratic Women's Association.
"I think the challenges are the same as what are faced by women everywhere, including the United States," Bush said.
"We have the very same problem with single-headed households, those headed by single women have lower incomes," the first lady said. "They are not earning as much and they have difficulties working because of family concerns."
She urged the women politicians to do what they can to mentor younger women and children.
"We can serve as examples for our daughters," Bush said. "No matter what we say, what we do will be the most powerful for them."
Civic groups are lobbying for a law that would mandate that a certain number of parliamentary seats go to women, R. Burmaa, founder of the non-governmental group Women for Social Progress, told Bush, reports the AP. I.L.