As I write this I’m staying in one of the cities for in-country orientation, but by the time it posts I will have settled in with my PST host family. We don’t know for sure what the internet situation will be like. I’m taking advantage of jetlag to sketch out a post before my cohort wakes up and clogs the hotel internet connection.
Usually, Staging is a four-hour prefix to the long flight overseas — brief overview sessions on safety and security, Peace Corps goals and expectations, and cultural sensitivity (?) before we’re all packed like sardines to find out who objects to having their shoulder slept on and whether our overexcited sociability will aggravate the flight attendants to drastic action.
Our staging event was two days long. Peace Corps Mongolia is a pilot country for the Let Girls Learn initiative, which provides training and resources to Peace Corps volunteers (and USAID employees) so that they can actively work toward the empowerment of girls and young women through access to education. This year, eleven Peace Corps programs will host an extended staging event and extra PST sessions as made possible by the initiative.
So our staging event had a series of sessions on gender: an intro to the program and to the benefits of women’s education, followed by presentations and discussion on the definition of gender, gender identity, and how the concept/presentation of gender changes between cultures. Most of it was very familiar to me (hooray feminist theory and gender studies!), but I was glad for the extra two nights’ sleep — and there was one session in particular that I found fascinating for methodology reasons. But I can’t describe it here, as that would spoil the fun for future trainees 😉
Mongolia is…an extremely weird country to pilot the Let Girls Learn program, at least at first glance. Women’s education is the norm here rather than the exception.
It was explained to me like this: Men in Mongolia are expected to be the leaders, the decision-makers, the heads of their families and the breadwinners, whereas women are expected to work hard to further themselves, their homes, and their families in absence of the burden of leadership. As a result of this, a very high value is placed on girls’ education, whereas boys are torn between education and early employment.
This is affected in turn by Mongolia’s economic landscape. Some of the most lucrative jobs are in herding and mining — hard labor work usually performed by younger men. Boys disengage in class or leave school early because higher education is not required for these jobs, but later in life they have few options if they choose (or must for health or economic reasons) to change professions. Women fill the majority of education-prerequisite positions and are often the primary breadwinner in the house, while men with less education struggle to find employment. However, those men who do pursue their education are almost always placed in the highest available role, because, again, men are expected to be decision-makers — so while employment and education are not a problem for women, their leadership opportunities are limited.
(All of this was told to me in the States by Americans, but it seems to hold true in-country: almost all of the PST staff are women, with the exception of a handful of people and all of our truck/bus drivers. I can’t speak to the men-in-leadership point, though, because (a) there aren’t enough leadership positions OR men for a decent sample size, and (b) this is a U.S. government program and the hiring was approved if not performed by the Peace Corps, so it’s skewed toward U.S. norms, and many leadership positions are filled by Americans or other highly qualified international citizens.)
So I suppose it’s “Let Boys Learn, Let Women Lead” for our initiative — or so our presenter indicated at Staging. But, well, that’s a much messier slogan than Let Girls Learn, and I guess the White House likes its titles clear and concise.
 Note that it’s a Peace Corps policy not to share my exact location publicly, because I’m highly visible as the only/one of few Americans in a relatively small community. I mean, in the current case it’s more like a huge group of loud and boisterous Americans flooded a relatively large city, but it’s still best practice not to share.
 If you are familiar with Mongolian gender roles and can correct or add nuance to my understanding of them, please do comment! I am yet a novice and an outsider.