By J. AZJARGAL Officer, National Authority for Children
“Mongols are born in the saddle” is a common saying in the country where it is impossible to imagine a Mongolian without a horse. This is very true these days especially in the rural areas as urbanization grows and migration to cities and towns increased. Rural children learn to ride at the age of four or five.
Horses, for the Mongolians since ancient times, have been part of the traditional nomadic way of life and no celebration was and even today, is complete without a horse race. Horse racing is one of the so-called Three Manly Games of Naadam festival, organized every July to celebrate the People’s Revolution anniversary. People flock to a place called Khui Doloo Khudag, some 20 kilometers west of Ulaanbaatar, to witness the horse races, which are dominated by young children. Horses race from 12 to 28 kilometers across the steppe, the distance depending on the horse’s age. In preparing for Naadam, children take part in repeated practice races and help the trainers take care of the race horses.
In the last few years a new trend has emerged, an increasing number of races in the period after the Mongolian Lunar New Year in January or February. Sub-zero temperatures at this time bring much higher risks of injuries and other health problems. These races are commercial, organized by horse training associations or wealthy individual horse owners.
The changing nature of such racing, from traditional entertainment into business promotion for the wealthy, has gradually drawn public criticism. Injuries and fatalities among child jockeys have also drawn increasing attention.
It is estimated that 150,000-180,000 horses compete in 500 races each year in which more than 30,000 child jockeys are engaged.
National Authority for Children, the central children’s government body, has introduced a system of registering child jockeys thus creating a national centralized pool of information related to horse races and child jockeys. As of 2015 the information of 10,699 child jockeys were registered, which reveals that 10,253 of these children are boys, 446 are girl child jockeys and 18 are children over the age of 18.
A study conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Mongolia (NHRCM) has revealed a substantial number of cases of child jockeys receiving serious, sometimes fatal injuries from falls. In the 2013 Naadam, for example, two child jockeys died during the horse race, which caused public outcry on ensuring the safety of child jockeys and even UNICEF issued a statement in this connection.
The country has a Law on National Naadam, according to which children must be seven years or older to participate in horse races. In 2005, the Deputy Prime Minister, who heads the National Naadam Commission, issued a decree requiring child jockeys to wear protective helmets, knee and elbow pads. There too have been national debates on a reward system for child jockeys as only the owners and trainers of the race horses are given much too hefty awards.
In the early period since the passing of this decision, there was a lack of both enforcement and approved standards, which meant not all children wore the gear or used clothing that met protection needs. However, effort was not slackened given the above situation and enforcement is gradually becoming the norm of the day.
The National Standardization Council in 2011 adopted a National Standard on Protective Gears for Child Jockeys taking part in all horse races, and accordingly a Government resolution and decisions of the rural authorities were passed for the implementation of this Standard. And the Chairperson of the National Authority for Children in February 2015 adopted regulations on ensuring safety of child jockeys during horse races, which are being enforced throughout the country.
Child jockeys racing in the horse race during the Naadam are first inspected for their compliance with the above decision, and those without the helmets, knee and elbow pads, and without insurance are disqualified from participating in the race, there were 40 such children in the 2015 Naadam.
A study by the National Authority for Children reveals that compliance of the Standard has been improving over the years.
“Horse racing is increasingly becoming an issue of violating children’s rights”, according to the National Human Rights Commission and so Mongolia, as a country that has joined the Convention of the Rights of the Child, conventions 182 and 138 on Child Labor of the International Labor Organihistory & culture organization, and other international agreements, needs to follow international agreements rules and procedures and implement children’s full right through eliminating harmful child labor and taking under consideration the minimum working age.
A select social indicator survey conducted in 2014 by the National Statistics Office focusing on child jockeys showed that at the national level in a one year period from November 2012 some 5% of all children aged between 4 and 15 had taken part in horse races, and 10% of boys aged 4-15 and 1% of girls in this age category had participated in horse races. And the majority of child jockeys belong to families with living standard below the subsistence minimum. Another interesting revelation of the study was that as the education level and the living standards of the parents of child jockeys improve the number of children taking part in horse races decline accordingly.
With due respect to cultural tradition, actions are being taken at various levels to mitigate the hazardous situation of children in horse racing, improve laws on organizing horse races, ensure legal protection of child jockeys, collect and analyze information on injuries, and monitor the implementation of relevant laws. This has set a starting point for finding solutions to a daunting task of preserving heritage while protecting the rights of child jockeys.