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At a glance: Mongolia

Helping families and communities help themselves in western Mongolia

© UNICEF Video
Nurzada lives with three generations of her family on a parcel of land in mountainous western Mongolia.

By Steve Nettleton

ULGII, Mongolia, 18 October 2007 – Milk bucket in hand, Nurzada opens the door of her home to face a howling wind. She and three generations of her family live on land nestled against the rugged mountains of western Mongolia.

They are ethnically Kazakh, as are the vast majority of those who live in Mongolia’s westernmost province of Bayan Ulgii, a mountainous wedge between Russia, China and Kazakhstan.

For the most part, Nurzada’s family must rely on its 500 cattle to survive. As long as water continues to flow and the animals have enough grass to eat, they can support themselves. But they remain at the mercy of an unpredictable climate, where a dry spell could mean disaster.

“We must conserve as much hay and fodder as we can so we can to get through the winter,” said Nurzada’s husband, Ukesh. “But some years when there is a drought we have to buy hay from the market. Another problem is that our children cannot find jobs in the provincial capital, so they must stay here and work as herders.”

© UNICEF Video
Nurzada’s family relies almost solely on its cattle for survival. More than a third of Mongolia’s population lives below the poverty level.

Family Empowerment Strategy

The disparity between urban and rural areas in Mongolia has widened dramatically as the country has moved from a socialist system to a market economy. More than a third of the population still lives below the poverty line. In many rural areas, access to education and safe water and sanitation is limited.

The cost of providing social services to a population dispersed over a vast territory is extremely high. Nurzada’s family lives just a few kilometres from the district centre, but even this short distance places some social services, like preschool for younger children, out of reach.

However, signs of change are appearing in small gatherings across the country.

At the home of Nyamaa, a herder near the town of Zavkhan, in western Uvs Province, neighbours have come to discuss how they can change their future. A social worker explains that they can improve their living conditions and boost the health of their children, simply by working together.

The meeting is part of a UNICEF-supported initiative, the Family Empowerment Strategy, which brings parents and community leaders together to identify what their communities need and what they should do to get it.

Basic social services

The strategy aims to create new demand for basic social services and help local and national governments raise the quality of the services. In the short term, it expects to benefit nearly 100,000 people in disadvantaged rural areas and those living on the outskirts of urban centres.

“Families realize they are not just passive recipients,” said the social worker in Nyamaa’s home. “They participate in the provision of these services and they can demand these services. And this is a helping in bringing families together to solve problems in a joint manner.”

It is a role that Nyamaa and his neighbours are already playing. “If we put into practice all that we’ve learned, then our children will grow up healthy and educated,” said Nyamaa. “And we tell our children that when they get older they should pass this same knowledge on to their children.”




UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on the UNICEF initiative to help communities provide basic social services in Mongolia.
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