Out in the Cold: The Street Children of Mongolia
By Kristine Weber
Fourteen-year-old Uer wanted to show me the crayon picture she had drawn. It was divided in two parts. On one side was a popular soap opera star, Sterlita, sleeping in a bright bedroom with pink curtains and fluffy pillows. The other frame showed Uer (pronounced "Er") and her friends, in a stairwell. Her friends were propped up against one another, sleeping. Uer sat on the stairs staring out of the drawing, head in hands.
"That’s you?" I asked, pointing to the obvious figure.
"Yeah," she smiled back the beginnings of a blush. "I like Sterlita."
Then she snatched the picture back to fill in some details.
Uer has a thick black braid wrapped around her right shoulder, smoky almond eyes and clear skin. Bright, but with a weary sadness about her, she’s one of a rapidly growing number of street children struggling to survive in Ulaan Baataar, the capital of Mongolia.
To Americans, Europeans or Africans, Mongolia seems about as close as a colony on Mars and indeed it is a remote country. From Beijing, Ulaan Baataar is a two-day train ride, mostly through the barren Gobi desert. Its small population (about 2.2 million) and relatively undeveloped economy have gained it little attention from Western media. And its location, sandwiched between Russia and China, has given Mongolia little opportunity for self-definition this century.
But five years ago, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia broke free from 70 years of Russian domination. The communist structure was thrown out and free market reforms were introduced. To a few shrewder Mongolian businesspeople, the explosion of capitalism has brought prosperity. But the boom has also left fallout - the country’s youth. Along with the decline of the communist economic structure went most of the country’s social welfare money and programs for young people.
I met Uer at the apartment of Gabrielle Dowling, an Australian volunteer with AMURTEL, an international relief organization. Dowling and her group of Mongolian volunteers have worked with street children in Ulaan Baatar for about three years. They feed and wash the children and administer superficial medical treatment. Dowling’s group also set up a small house with baking and sewing facilities where street girls live with volunteers, learning skills which may help them stay off the street.
"The circumstances in Mongolia are very, very difficult right now," said Dowling. "Prices are going up and families can’t manage, which means a lot of kids go to the streets."
Officially, there are 4,100 street children in the country, that’s up from 400 before the collapse of communism in 1990. This increase speaks of the economic problems which have besieged Mongolia in the past five years.
"The cost of necessities is very high," said Badamhand, a child-welfare advocate (Mongolians often use only one name). "Bus tickets went from three tugrik (about one cent) two years ago to thirty (about twelve cents) now. A teacher’s salary is only 10,000 tugrik a month and no one can afford to live on that. "
Dowling agreed. "I’ve seen the prices go way up since I’ve been here. Everyone is involved in the black market. You can’t survive without doing some kind of business," she said. Economic hardship is certainly one factor that has helped push children out into the street. Another is the increased incidence of divorce and single-parent families.
A UNICEF report on the social conditions in Mongolia published last April links a depressed economy with increased alcohol abuse and increased violence against women and children. According to the report, most of the street children are from single-parent families. Several of the children I met had siblings with different fathers.
One 11-year-old boy wants to go back to his mother, who is now living with her fourth husband. He has two sisters and all three of them have different fathers. But, he said, there is no way he can return. His reasons are very similar to those of many of the children I spoke with - his stepfather abused him regularly.
Another boy, 12-year-old Naranbat, talked about his situation. "My stepfather always hit my mother and my brother and me," he said. "So we ran away. My brother and I went to live with our aunt in Ulaan Baatar and my mother went back to my stepfather. But my aunt’s son always hit us so we left and went to live on the street. It’s rough but it’s better than being beaten. "All of the children’s stories were similar - a stepfather, father, sibling or grandparent’s violence forced the child out of the
house. Hesitant to invoke Mongolian warrior stereotypes for an explanation, I asked Badamhand about this abuse and its place in the culture.
"For a long time our society was based on communist methods," she said. "Mongolia was a very strong Buddhist country before that. We had 700 monasteries. They controlled education, healthcare and culture. But I think it’s possible to say our culture was ruined. The Russians have, traditionally, used very cruel methods to control adults and children. Their methods were forced on us."
According to Badamhand, the escalation of alcohol abuse in Mongolia has catalysed this violence. She also attributed the drinking problem to Russia’s influence.
"Mongolia was one of the only countries that, for many hundreds of years, had strong restrictions on drinking. But after 1945 we gained the right to drink. Vodka was brought in from Russia. Around 1960 many young people were going to Russia to study and at that time I began to see drunks on the street. Russia cultivated this habit here.
"During communism’s reign in Mongolia, the Soviet Union dominated politics, education, culture and economics. Under pressure from Stalin, the Mongolian script was ousted and replaced with Russian. More than 700 Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 monks were killed. Schoolchildren were taught that Russia was their "big brother." Today, vestiges of Soviet society, from Ulaan Baataar’s drab cinderblock housing to the gauzy oversized bows in little girls’ hair, remain a formidable influence.
Mongolia’s recent cultural revival has turned sentiment against Russia and the Russian people. Many of Mongolia’s social ills are seen as a result of the oppressive Soviet policies under which the country was forced to live for so many years.
In spite of the government’s reformation and the creation of a new constitution, the communist bureaucracy in post-Soviet Mongolia remains intact and communist politicians have retained power. Although there are six political parties, presently 92 percent of the parliament is communist. The second election is scheduled for this year.
Many Mongolians believe this new government has done little to improve the lives of the people. In fact, according to some, government services have seriously degenerated over the last five years.
"During communism everybody had to work together for each other, for the children," said Dr. Jargalsaihan, the Director of Pediatric Hospital in Ulaan Baataar.
"Now people seem to care only for their own families. When we left communism some good ideas were lost."
Jargalsaihan is distressed by the lack of services available for the street children.
"The children don’t have any documents so when they get sick, it’s very difficult to get health care," he said. "Some hospitals will help, but most want to see insurance papers. It can be very difficult for these children to get proper treatment."
There is one government-run home and school for homeless children in Ulaan Baataar - The Trust Center. But both services and staff are questionable according to some activists and government social workers. Many of the children I spoke with lived at Trust at one time or another but decided the streets were better. The reasons most commonly cited -beatings and sexual abuse by both teachers and other students.
"We’re tough," said 12-year-old Batbayar with a mannish grin. "We sleep in the stairwells even in the winter. It’s better than the hole. The kids in the hole get sick, but not us. We’re tough."
The "holes" that many Mongolian street children call home during the long winters are maintenance chambers in the steamy bowels of Ulaan Baataar’s sewer system.
The children spend their winters nestled up to hot water pipes. Their forays above ground to steal money or food, or for the girls to sell their bodies, provide the perfect opportunity for infection. So some children, like Batbayar, prefer to tough it out above ground during the long, very cold winter.
My translator, Erdenebatar, and I went to visit the "hole." Although it was summer, and most children were no longer sleeping underground, I thought maybe we could still get an idea of how they lived in the winter. Also I knew many of the street children hung out at a bus stop near the "hole. "
When we got to the bus stop I took some pictures of the street scene: men selling newspapers and pornography, children shining shoes, venders selling a mismatched array of foreign junk food and local cakes. I noticed Erdenebatar was not around and I stopped to look through the crowd for him. Soon I spotted him, surrounded by a group of shouting, aggressive men. Some were pushing at him and he was trying to calm them down. I ran up to find out what was going on, while it dawned on me that they might be angry about my picture taking.
Later he told me they said he wasn’t a true Mongolian, he was selling the country’s misery to foreigners. Didn’t he have any pride? How could he sell out for dollars? He was hardly shaken: "They were drunk," he said. "They have foolish pride for their country."
In the minds of the Mongolian people, the communist police state lurks behind the backdrop of democracy. Not too long ago foreigners were not even allowed into the country, let alone to take pictures of poverty. The people do not fully trust their new government, nor are they certain about its stability. They are also concerned about their image in the eyes of the rest of the world.
"The government and the media are still controlled by the communists," said Baasankhuu, a children’s advocate and legal adviser at the Trust Center. "Mongolia is very small and there is lots of nepotism in the government. A lot of aid is coming in from foreign countries but the bureaucrats use it for themselves not for the people it’s supposed to be helping."
"The government seems to have so many programs set up for children," he continued, "they get high-level contacts from abroad and then financial assistance. That money is supposed to support poor children but they use it for holding meetings and seminars or they put it right in their pockets. "
"There are no laws regarding the rights of neglected children right now." He smiled sarcastically, "The parliament is supposed to be discussing it," he said.
In mid-July the city is crackling with anticipation for the biggest annual festival in Mongolia - Nadam, a time for horse-racing, archery, wrestling and partying. The street children at Dowling’s house are also excited. Four of them come to show her the new clothes they’ve stolen from a department store to wear for Nadam.
"What can I say?" asks Dowling, exasperated. "Should I tell them stealing is bad and kick them out? They want to look good for Nadam like everyone else."
The city of Ulaan Baatar is also cleaning up for Nadam. Officials from the National Children’s Foundation have teamed up with foreign missionary groups to run a two-week summer camp for the street children. The two-week stint just happens to coincide with Nadam.
"I can’t say they did it on purpose," says Dowling. "But that’s what it looks like, doesn’t it? They don’t want the foreign tourists to see the children and get a bad impression of the city. "
Naranbaatar, 14, his 12-year-old brother Sukhbaatar and some of their friends have bucked the system. They went to the camp until the night before the opening ceremonies.
Then they hitched back to the city for the festival.
"The food was terrible," said Narabaatar pulling a face. "We never intended to stay for the whole two weeks. We planned to come back before Nadam started. "
* * * *
Thirteen-year-old Sarantunga boasts she has 35 boyfriends.
"All of the streetboys love her," says her friend Battsetseg. "She’s very popular."
Sarantunga has been on the streets for about three years and she knows the ropes of survival. There are fewer street girls than boys in Ulaan Baatar, but their lives are layered with an extra difficulty -prostitution.
"I usually approach men near the cinema," says Sarantunga. "I get five or six thousand tugrik ($12 or $14) from them and then on the way to where they want to have sex, I run away."
I asked if they ever catch her.
"Sometimes they do and then they beat me. Once I got two black eyes and a bloody nose. I’m afraid sometimes."
Sarantunga had a vague understanding of pregnancy and no clear idea of sexually transmitted diseases.
"I don’t understand how a baby could get inside of me because babies are so big and I’m so small," she said looking puzzled. "Last month I got my period for the first time and I didn’t know what it was and I got really scared and started crying. Now I know I can get pregnant but I still don’t see how it’s possible."
Sarantunga also talked of her fear of being a girl of the streets. "We have to sleep outside and the men bother us. They want sex. It’s very difficult."
Dowling said that the girls are often raped and they have little protection. "Even the police officers, who are supposed to be protecting them, rape them," said Dowling.
I asked Batbalsan, the Lt. Colonel in charge of Children’s Services for the Ulaan Baatar Police Department. "There’s no official record regarding this," he said. "If this was a real fact, the girls would have to come tell me about it, then I could do something about it."
"Also, this not only happens with the police," he continued. "In some schools it happens. Perhaps the teachers or police officers are young and they fall in love with the young girls. There are lots of love stories. Perhaps at first it’s rape, but then they fall in love."
"The girls’ situation here is not really looked at by society," said Dowling. "So many girls are abused by so many people - the police, teachers and men in the street. There should be separate government facilities for the girls. You can’t just lump all the children together. "Due to the added pressure of life on the streets as a female, many of the street girls have serious emotional problems. In Dowling’s apartment, Uer’s 13-year-old friend, Uyanga, also wanted to show me her drawing. But it wasn’t on paper. It was carved on the soft underskin of her left forearm.
"The boys seem to be doing okay," said Dowling. "They kind of keep a humorous attitude about their situation. But the girls have a tougher time. They’re much more emotionally effected."
Dowling’s housing and education project currently can accommodate only seven girls. She hopes to expand the facility, but worries about having any impact whatsoever on girls like Sarantunga, who have been on the street for a long time. Although Dowling encourages Sarantunga to visit her apartment whenever she needs help, she won’t let her live in the house.
"Sarantunga has been on the street for a long time and she’s used to that life. When I’ve let her stay here before she’s stolen things and come and gone as she pleased," said Dowling. "She’s not used to parental authority, she’s used to the freedom of the streets and it’s very difficult for me to help her, except in superficial ways, because I can’t change her mentality.
"I’m trying to take girls who are just new to the street into the house and help them before the street culture takes over their minds. It’s really frustrating but it’s all I can do right now." Sarantunga wants to be a pianist when she grows up. But most likely she will end up in prison. Most of the street children are very adept at shoplifting and many have been caught and punished. When they turn 16 they become adults, according to the law, and then the punishment becomes a prison sentence.
"Many of the children spend their time stealing because they want nice clothes and sweets. They’re children," said Badamhand. "So most of them will end up in jail. They have no future and it’s very sad.
"This society needs to change," she continued with a long sigh. "We need to get back to our roots, our culture and the values we had. It will take a long time. First, we need to pay attention to the children."
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