Case Study 1

The Gobi Women's Project, Mongolia

The 1990s have brought sudden and dramatic changes to Mongolia. The shift from a centralised state-run economy to a market one has required new ways of learning and living for the majority of the population, especially the nomadic peoples of the deserts. These groups, particularly the women, have to cope with heavy family chores, harsh climatic conditions, animal husbandry and the task of regularly moving tents and pastures. Under a joint UNESCO/DANIDA (Danish International Development Fund) sponsored programme, 15,000 nomadic women, aged 15 to 45, are currently receiving training through radio to better their conditions. The introduction of radio instruction has had considerable impact on community, family and commercial life.

The nomadic peoples of Mongolia live in "gers" or tent-like structures built of felt. Their encampments consist of 1-4 families. Vast distances, up to 20 miles, separate one settlement from another. The average family size is 4 to 5 people. Conditions, particularly in the Southern Gobi Desert, are harsh, with extremes of climate ranging from +40 degrees celsius in the summer to -40 degrees celcius in winter.Until recently, herders' children went to boarding schools in the nearest settlement and received a state education. For this reason, many nomads have up to eight years formal education even if present economic difficulties are undermining this achievement as many of the country's structures fall apart. Boarding schools have been effective in providing solid literacy and numeracy but had the disadvantage, however, of separating families and imparting a curriculum that was often far removed from the realities of nomadic life. Literacy rates in Mongolia are, today, relatively high, 81 per cent overall and 75 per cent for women. The women's share of the labour force stands at 49 per cent. Women in Mongolia have traditionally enjoyed equal status to men, participating in activities at all levels of economic and social life. They are a particularly sustaining force in the country and, in many ways, epitomise the national spirit of Mongolia which is deeply rooted in nomadic culture and the desire for survival.

For the nomadic peoples, the collapse of the Soviet system and the change from the state management of herds as collectives to private ownership was a major transformation. It brought with it new hardships as well as opportunities with the decrease in free services provided by the state leading to all forms of private initiative and self-reliance. Households rapidly became responsible for producing their own goods, obtaining services and marketing their products. At the same time as this loss of public services, outside information also became rarer. Newspapers and other reading materials were hit by paper shortages. Transport slowed down, isolating people further, and the State boarding schools closed.

With this context of uncertainty, the whole education and learning environment of the country could only but change. The government, well-aware of these transformations, realised that learning in the country had to be redesigned and redirected especially for the populations most at risk of marginalisation, notably the nomadic women. Learning environments conducive to bettering life conditions and community action had to be formed. A needs assessment survey carried out by the government revealed that learning differently and in a new way had become a matter of survival. The removal of barriers to educational opportunity was the first task facing any new project that also had to encourage women to become more self-reliant and active agents in their own learning and that of their families. Along with UNESCO, the state set about planning a project for the nomadic peoples. Several distinct challenges faced project planners as they dealt with the potential implementation of a programme:

Learning outside the formal education was deemed an appropriate solution and particularly distance education. Print and radio were identified as suitable media as their combination allowed for the overcoming of distance that was so crucial in Mongolia. A system of visiting teachers would then allow for face-to-face contact to complement the material. The target was to provide nomadic women with the tools to survive the many and rapid changes affecting their lives through new access to learning opportunities and relevant learning. A project, entitled The Gobi Women's Project, was accordingly implemented in 1991.

Radio instruction aimed to empower the women by providing learning opportunities, but the appeal of income generation was needed to serve as an entry point. For many women, finding and developing the tools to direct their existence meant being able to produce and sell. The learning then had a strong earning aspect with subjects of direct relevance to those who were struggling to make ends meet. Key areas for content were identified: livestock rearing techniques; family care (family planning, health, nutrition and hygiene); income generation using locally available raw materials and basic business skills, for a new market economy. Literacy subjects were then grafted on to these (the maintenance and upgrading of literacy skills). Income-generation served as motivation to the literacy and numeracy content of the broadcasts.

Centrally planned learning materials are supplemented by locally produced print materials and radio programmes. Initially five booklets and 17 radio programmes were produced by the National Coordination Committee. A further 23 printed booklets were produced in Ulaanbaatar on health, income generation and literacy support. They included topics such as family planning, making camel saddles and Mongol deels (clothes), producing milk and meat products, making fuel from animal dung, leather processing, felt-making, vegetable-growing, civics and small business development. The literacy support booklets tackle subjects as varied as Mongolian fairy tales, mathematics and the environment. The booklets were distributed by jeeps and took 1 to 7 weeks to reach the learners. Printed materials were produced at local level too. "Aimag" or provincial centres created newsletters, information sheets and prepared teachers' booklets and demonstration materials. These supplemented centrally produced booklets, developing materials in response to local needs and circumstances. The radio programmes use a variety of formats. Two programmes are broadcast from Ulaanbaatar but the rest come from local stations where they rely on strong local content and topicality. Radio programmes are broadcast at times convenient to the women, mostly at evening time, They generally relate to the booklet content and used a variety of formats. A few are broadcast from Ulaanbaatar such as "Sunrise" and "Shortcut" which cover topics of general interest, whilst others are more specific and directly related to the needs of the Gobi women.

The role of visiting teachers is to reduce nomadic women's isolation and support their learning process. Each teacher is responsible for 15 learners and is expected to visit them once or twice a month. Given the distance between nomadic families and the lack of learning opportunities provided by the State, women are encouraged to involve their family in the learning activities and present them to the teachers. Most of the teachers are volunteers, people who have completed secondary schooling, even university and are well-versed in a subject. Some of the teachers were in fact veterinary surgeons, doctors and teachers during the Soviet era and are willing to put their knowledge to good use. Teachers help with any problems that might arise from the booklets or radio programmes or in carrying out practical work. They go through each learner's journal where they complete their lessons and bring supplementary materials, occasionally bringing together groups of women in the "sum" or district centres. The teachers are also a vital link with the whole system, providing feedback to "sum" and "aimag" co-ordinating committees and listening to any need that might come from the learners themselves.

Small information centres also serve as meeting points. These are set up in sum and aimag central points. They are rooms in a local government office or school and contain a set of project booklets and other learning materials, information leaflets, posters and a radio. Radios can be repaired here and technological issues discussed. The room also houses occasional exhibitions of women's work and is used for group meetings. Women can also come to these places of their own accord and use the information available for self-study. Group meetings are held to mark the beginning of courses. These three-day meetings are spent on a so-called crash course where women meet their visiting teachers and have teaching and demonstration sessions. This kind of contact provides much social support and is an opportunity for direct teaching, skill development and exchange of experience and news.

Consultative committees at national, provincial (aimag) and local (sum) levels were set up. A plan for material generation was established and print and radio production groups developed. Collaborative arrangements were made with the state-owned Mongol Radio in Ulaanbaatar, where the Gobi Women's Project Radio was set up. In addition, three local aimag radio stations were re-equipped and training provided for producers and technicians (these three radio stations reached all six aimags). 10 teacher trainers from each pilot sum were trained and they, in turn, trained 10 "visiting teachers". Locally produced radios (250) and batteries (25,000) were distributed since 20 per cent of the target group were without working radios or batteries.

The women of the Gobi desert are not weak women who require some outside assistance to become empowered. Surviving is their way of life. Radio has had the ability to bring various forces into play, the most important of which is the interaction of people and flows of information. This interaction lies at the heart of the project's success. After the initial lessons, the women, on their own initiative, wrote to the central radio, asking for details on prices of wool, practical issues concerning animals and health. The women themselves then asked for their husbands and children to be brought into the project, so they could share and listen to the radio programmes. Thanks to the women, whole families ended up benefiting from the project. It is the women who passed on their knowledge to their children, who informed their husbands of their new capabilities and saw the enormous potential that could be drawn from using local capacity. Most significantly, the levels of local activity increased. Small information centres were set up in many sums. Increased communication and collaboration began to develop between neighbouring settlements, sums and provinces. The women organised local markets with exhibitions of handicrafts and sales of products. Concepts such as learners' needs, feedback, discussion and teamwork were more easily grasped on a local level. When the central authorities saw how active local groups were in organising their own learning, and how satisfied and productive they became, they gave the project their full encouragement. Women sent letters to their local radio stations and even to central government asking for new materials, subjects and presenting ideas. It is on the basis of these letters that the Head of State asked UNESCO for the extension of the project to other areas. Radio allowed for this communication, creating networks between the women themselves, but also between the nomads and Government.

The Gobi Women's Project has acted as a catalyst in the formation of local groups and networks of specialists and resource persons (veterinary surgeons, doctors, teachers, local officials) who visited learners at home or organised group meetings. It has also opened up new areas of learning directly related to the needs of the women breaking with the past formal education system which was more scholarly in approach and less based on local culture. The mobilisation of nomadic women and their new-found skills also depended on using the national education crisis as a positive chance for developing new ways of thinking rather than carrying on blindly with a formal system that couldn't adapt. The Gobi Women's Project has proved effective in using radio to create change, bettering existing opportunities and even providing thousands of women with the tools to tackle their environment. Nomadic women, in this process, have become active learners and agents of change in the desert.

Some figures :
Population of Mongolia : 2.3 million
Rural population : 47 %
Expenditure on education as percentage of GNP : 2.7%
DANIDA funds for project : USD $ 1.4 million
Number of women reached : 15,000 for initial phase.
Source: In the Green Desert, No12, Innovations Series, ED/EFA UNESCO

Contact information:
Ms Undrakh
Director, Non-formal distance education project
Ministry of Science, Technology, Education and Culture
Government Building III
Baga Loiruu - 44
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Tel: 976 1 322 480
Fax:976 1 323 158


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