Australia Awardee Helps Mongolian “Princesses”
When Undrakh was in the third year of her Social Work undergraduate degree in Mongolia, she decided that she wanted to put into practice all that she and her colleagues had been learning over the past three years.
“Along with three of my fellow students, we started the Princess Center for the Protection of Girls and Young Women’s Rights in 2003 – when we were all final year undergraduate students at the National University of Mongolia”, Undrakh said.
From that early concept 13 years ago, an initiative four young women students majoring in social work, psychology and law, the organisation which is completely reliant upon donor funding, continues to grow stronger.
“We’ve been ‘sustainable’ for 13 years now – even tough we’re still based on projects supported by donor organizations”, Undrakh laughed.
The Princess Center (named by its creators because “every girl needs to be treated like the daughter of a king”) empowers girls dealing with social problems such as early pregnancy and sexual abuse.
It also works to protect girls’ rights by providing comprehensive social services, raising awareness and doing policy advocacy.
The Center is highly respected for its extensive practical experience in working with teenage mothers, survivors of sexual violence and their families.
Although initially planning to name their newly established NGO a “Crisis Centre”, Undrakh and her colleagues felt that name was too negative, so instead came up with a name that is positive and that means the same to many people, irrespective of their background.
Undrakh identifies three main factors that were the driving force behind establishing the Center.
“First of all, it was my mother’s influence – as a passionate activist for women’s rights”, she explained.
“Second was that all of us had previously done voluntary work with a local NGOs, so we knew the challenges to be faced. “And thirdly, what really made it clear to me was that a close friend became pregnant at just 15 years, so I could see at first hand just what she had to face.”
While Undrakh led the Princess Center between its inception and mid-2016 as its Executive Director, she now works at the organisation’s policy level as an advisor, responsible for developing long-term policy and strategic plans, providing technical support to staff, and bringing innovative approaches to its programs and fundraising policies.
Born in Ulaanbaatar, Undrakh’s own mother raised her daughter by herself, while still pursuing her career as a Human Rights lawyer and activist.
At school, Undrakh didn’t do very well in mathematics but found she had a talent for the social sciences, and soon found she could excel in them – particularly history.
“I had always wanted to be a lawyer, like my mother, but I wasn’t able to get into the Law Faculty at the National University of Mongolia (NUM), so I enrolled in a Social Work degree instead”, she said.
“The Social Work degree was very new to Mongolia. “I was the first student enrolled in the course at NUM, in 2000, and graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in 2004.”
Undrakh’s Undergraduate Majors were in Child Protection and Women’s Rights, and although she has achieved much already using her Social Work studies and experience, she’d still like to study law and work as a lawyer in Mongolia.
After eight years at the Princess Center, Undrakh felt that the organisation she started needed greater expertise in Human Rights’ issues so she applied for her Australia Award, was successful and studied at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 2012.
At the end of 2012, Undrakh completed her Master of Human Rights Law and Policy successfully and returned to Mongolia and to her important work at the Princess Center.
Undrakh admitted that her Australian Masters course was “a bit tough”.
“Without an Undergraduate Law degree, I found the legal issues covered in my Masters course were challenging – particularly as Australian and Mongolian systems are quite different”, she said.
“I would have liked also to have had the opportunity to undertake a Fellowship program, or perhaps an internship while I was in Australia; this would have helped to make sure that my theoretical knowledge was supported by practical experience.”
“We often learn more by doing rather than reading”, Undrakh added.
“Right after my return to Mongolia, we initiated a nation-wide campaign to address sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies; I was able to use all of my Australia Award skills in directing that campaign.”
As you‘d expect, Undrakh has at her fingertips all the recent statistics about teenage pregnancies.
“In 2016, approximately 4000 teenage girls aged between 15-19 years old gave birth in Mongolia. “Overall, around 8,000 young 15-19 year old women get pregnant in Mongolia each year; and around one half of these seek an abortion, although the other half decide to raise their child – many alone.”
Undrakh believes that a combination of nomadic lifestyle and limited education opportunities have resulted in the high proportion of teenage pregnancies, although most of the Center’s work involves girls from urban Ulaanbaatar, some of whom are thrown out of the family home or beaten by their parents.
“The extent to which the young girl is ostracised depends a lot on the parents’ level of education and their own living conditions and environment”, Undrakh explained.
“There has to be a way to help girls who have to face the challenges of being pregnant at such a young age, as the Government does not offer any support services.”
When a pregnant girl or young mother approaches the Princess Center, the team there first undertakes a needs assessment of the girl.
Following this assessment, they provide socio-psychological counselling and comprehensive social work service, provide the new mothers with a kit of baby/mother items, and discuss with them their future life and career options.
The Center also runs a “Young Mothers Club”, which meets regularly and offers single mothers support and opportunities to l
isten to inspiring women speakers; it also has an extensive workshop program offering up to 29 different topics.
Working closely with doctors, health clinics and hospitals, the Center finds that its services are well known throughout Ulaanbaatar. Word-of-mouth recommendations ensure that most young women who need their help know about “Princess”, and their Hotline provides another entry point to learn about the support the Center can offer.
Her NGO was also selected from four Asian countries of Asia to be awarded the “With and For Girls” Award, that was given by the collective of “Eight International Foundations”.
A recent innovation – a “Strong Boys Club”, is helping to ensure that young Mongolian men are aware of their responsibilities – both as partners and as parents.
With four paid staff, its own venue and an army of volunteers from the NUM’s Sociology and Social Work Faculty, the Princess Center continues to grow.
As a successful Australia Award alumna herself, Undrakh encourages other Mongolians to apply for an Australia Award scholarship – but emphasises that they should not see a scholarship as simply a way of studying abroad.
“You have to go with a vision and stay true to that vision throughout your course”, she said.
Undrakh Ch received a Mozzies Grant in 2015 to work with 16 teenage mothers in a rural environment; she also took part in Professional Fellows Program funded by the US Department of State and Global Change Leaders’ Program on women’s leadership funded by the Coady International Institute of the Saint Xavier University in Canada.