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Medals for Mothers

July 13, 2022
topics: Women's rights
by: Stella Tsang
located in: Mongolia
tags: gender equality, Mongolia, women's rights

Darkhan Ber, a controversial Mongolian practice awarding mothers of multiple sons, is facing heavy criticism from women's rights advocates.

Picturesque scenes of nomads wandering vast grasslands is perhaps what Mongolia is most commonly known for. But the country had in fact transformed from a nomadic society to a socialist economy and became the world’s second communist country during the 1920s. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Mongolia turned into today’s market economy. 

One feature that lasted over time, however, is the country's emphasis on fertility. Among all birth customs that remain, “Darkhan Ber” (meaning ‘the high-ranking bride’) and its celebrations, which honour Mongolian mothers with three boys, have triggered a growing debate on whether the practice violates women’s rights.

According to the world bank, Mongolia's total fertility rates rose to over seven children per woman from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. The following period, however, was characterised by a steep decline in fertility, and that rate fell to 2.1 children per woman in 2001. After a slow rise since the mid-2000s, the latest figure shows in 2020 there were 2.8 children born per woman in Mongolia.

It has been reported that critics found that Darkhan Ber, which is promoted by certain local governments and organisations, discriminates against women not only based on the gender of their children but also on their inability or unwillingness to give birth. On top of that, it might be in violation of the country’s constitution and Law on Ensuring Gender Equality. 

The above argument is supported by Mongolia’s National Human Rights Commission, a government agency that declared the practice a human rights violation. It was also reported that the National Committee on Gender Equality had sent a recommendation to Mongolia’s Cabinet Secretariat and requested that government officials stop participating in these ceremonies, but there has been no confirmation thus far on whether or not local governments followed through.  

How did the custom come about?

During its nomadic period, Mongolia's patriarchal norms did not only associate women's fertility with their family status, but also valued boys over girls.

“There was a saying in Mongolia - the highest wealth is knowledge, the middle wealth is children and only low-status wealth is money and property,” Tuya Shagdar, a PhD Candidate in social anthropology from Mongolia told FairPlanet. 

Strong pronatalist policies were seen as necessary when the Mongolian People’s Republic was founded in 1921, and generous incentives were given to women who were willing to reach their maximum fecundity to provide more labourers that will ultimately help transform Mongolia into a modern industrial and agrarian country.

Shagdar also pointed out that at the time traditions were adapted to align with social change. 

“For state socialism, women's issues were an important task. They tried to lay women’s fear of reproduction to rest and encouraged them to participate in the productive economy. Anything related to pre-revolutionary tradition was abolished completely during state socialism.” 

 The researcher contends that the practice shows more of a trait from the state socialism era than the previous nomadic period not only in terms of its celebrations, which have transcended the bestowal of familial respect and now present the mothers with physical badges and certificates in ceremonies, but also in terms of women's status in society.

“What’s happening right now is not tradition per se, it’s actually like a reconstruction of a tradition. State socialism sort of created these forms of distinction based on awarding medals,” said Shagdar. She added that now the practice has some capitalist characteristics as well, as celebrations’ organisers are not only limited to the authorities but private companies, with the latter offering services similar to baby shower events.

Darkhan Ber in its current incarnation

But to Dr Baasanjav Terbish from the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge, Darkhan Ber is more like a custom popped out of the woodwork, and said he found evidence to suggest that Darkhan Ber was scarce throughout Mongolian history and is mostly based on myth and folklore rather than historical documents. 

“As far as I know, there were no ceremonies to honour Darkhan Ber in the past,'' Dr Terbish told FairPlanet in a written response. “The award itself was first introduced by a group of entrepreneurs from the Sant Uul Media Group in 2013, but was soon picked up by various municipalities and state and private organisations.”

Like Shagdar, he agreed that Darkhan Ber is a continuation of the socialist heritage of awarding prolific mothers, and added that it is also a manifestation of a hyper-patriarchal fantasy that gripped the country since the fall of state socialism.

He said that by taking part in the celebrations, local governments aim to support both pro-birth policies and Mongolian culture. “[But] What is Mongolian culture? It is a culture which is strongly patriarchal. So whatever cultural aspects people want to revive, they will end up consolidating patriarchal values and ideology.”

Commenting on the manner in which the issue is discussed, Shagdar argued, “I wouldn't say [Darkhan Ber] is a tradition, because if you keep saying tradition then what emerges in most of the western publications: ‘it's the west that is modern and non-traditional, and then the non-west that is traditional and unable to shut off their backwardness.’ It's not like that.”

“It's common sense to have a child in Mongolia, whereas in the west it's common sense to think about planning a child ahead,” she said, adding that “there is also a state involved in this, without building better kindergartens and social safety net work, they're trying to put all that burden on women's shoulders.”

Authorities struggle to boost population

Besides local governments’ involvement in the Darkhan Ber ceremonies, the central government has also taken part in other pro-natalist merits, including the Order of Glorious Mother, a relic from socialist times in which awardees are honoured with First or Second Class merits according to how many children they had. 

This year, nearly a thousand awards were conferred to First Class mothers (who had six or more children) and over 10,000 merits awarded to Second Class mothers (who had four or five children) by the President of Mongolia. Awardees were presented with a badge, a monetary prize and even early retirement. 

It is not hard to understand the authorities' eagerness to boost the population, as their ambitious economic plans require labourers. Being one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries, Mongolia covers a territory of more than 156 million hectares - about one-sixth the size of neighbouring China - with a population of only around 3 million people over the past decade, in contrast to over a billion in China.

While some critics argue that the government has chosen an easy fix to its population problems (introducing badges instead of focusing on better maternity benefits), it is nonetheless in a bind considering the nation’s economic woes and rampant poverty.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Mongolia was hard hit as it lost Soviet support and had to turn to international banks. Today, it is still a borrowing country, with an external debt of 33.9 billion USD as of March 2022. And as suggested by the International Monetary Fund, fiscal prudence is necessary with Mongolia’s major debt repayments due in 2023.

IMF further mentioned that “Regrettably, allowing the full use of the expanded child money support will increase demand (and inflationary) pressures unless these monies are saved by recipients for precautionary purposes.” This refers to the country’s flagship Child Money Programme in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a fivefold increase in recent years by giving 100,000 MNT to every child per month.

“[The authorities] always have to work against international donors that are monitoring closely to make sure that, first of all, the debts to the international investors are paid off, and then you can start building kindergartens,” said Shagdar, adding that the authorities are trying to negotiate their responsibility for the public and had built several hospitals for maternity in recent years.

Gender equality cannot be achieved without men

As the debate around Darkhan Ber continues, Shagdar suggests that men must also be engaged in promoting gender equality, rather than placing the onus on women alone.  

“There's a saying currently in Mongolia, 'we have to choose between [working or] leaving our children at home and not taking care of them properly, but on the other hand, we have to starve because we can't really provide without working,’ ” said Shagdar. 

“The thing you have to also take into account is that this kind of saying only emphasises women, and doesn’t mention men at all.” 

Image by UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Article written by:
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Stella Tsang
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Mongolia
One cultural feature that lasted over time in Mongolia is the country's emphasis on fertility.
© GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images
“As far as I know, there were no ceremonies to honour Darkhan Ber in the past."
© Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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