Using nonformal education techniques to give an at-risk population the skills needed to thrive in a changing economy

The Mongolian government used nonformal education tools such as the radio, printed materials and visiting teachers to reach out to marginalized and vulnerable Gobi women and teach them the new skills they needed to survive in a market economy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mongolia’s centralized, state-run economy also came to an end. People who had lived their whole lives on collective farms became responsible for obtaining their own herds and producing and marketing their own goods and services. Many did not have the skills or resources to do this. Nomadic women in the Gobi Desert, an area with an extremely harsh climate and poor communication and trans­portation systems, were particularly vulnerable. Without trade and commercial skills the women and their chil­dren were at risk of poverty, malnutrition and, potentially, violence and abuse.

The government formed the Gobi Women’s Project and invited all women in the Gobi Desert to a community planning forum to look for ways to address the problem. The group decided that single mothers with at least three children were the highest priority group, and that radio programs, combined with other nonformal educa­tion techniques, were the best way to reach them. (Nonformal education refers to learning programs that are not obligatory and take place outside of a school.)

The radio programs provided information on trade skills (such as producing wool, refining camel fleece and mak­ing felt, saddles and traditional clothes), commercial skills (such as negotiating prices and planning) and health issues (such as family planning, hygiene, nutrition and first aid). The programs were broadcast twice a week at times when most women would be likely to listen, usually in the evening. Cassettes were available in local learn­ing centers for anyone who was not able to hear the program. Companion materials were produced for use with the radio programs, and visiting teachers checked the women’s progress and offered supplementary materials.

The nonformal education approach succeeded in mobilizing the women to take control of their economic future. They organized local markets, initiated collaborative projects across communities, and encouraged broadening the project to include their husbands and children.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

In Mongolia in the 1990s, as in many other societies in transition, the shift from a state-run to a market economy threatened to leave women (and therefore children) behind, in danger of poverty, hunger and abuse. The Gobi Women’s Project sought to bring the women of Mongolia’s isolated rural areas the information they needed to succeed in the emerging economic system.

In this case, this skills-building tactic was used to ensure economic rights, but similar nonformal education programs are used to reach distant populations on other issues as well. It is vital to note that the staff of the Gobi Women’s Project took into account the lifestyle and the culture of the women they were trying to reach when designing their programs and choosing their media.