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For more than two hours, we have been driving through the vast and expansive steppe of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. The driver of our old Russian van was singing cheerful traditional songs and trying to entertain us. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we came across a group of about 200-300 people. We needed some exercise anyway, so we stopped. Several off-road vehicles were parked in a row with a few Mongolian yurts (ger) and stalls with food. Friendly locals were offering kumis (fermented mare's milk) and grilled meat. This was a local celebration of Naadam, the most famous Mongolian festival.
In that hot July 2015, I led a small group in central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. I planned to arrive in Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia, on the first official festival day of National Naadam. The idea was to attend National Naadam and enjoy it for a few hours at National Stadium. I had not planned to attend a local edition of Naadam, as our time in Mongolia was limited. However, luck seems to have been with us.
We approached a group of 15-20 kids on horses wearing helmets and bibs - the jockeys. The festival scene looked like a children's party. Some of the participants seemed too young and looked tiny and fragile on the big saddles. Our guide told us that these children's horse races are traditional but somewhat controversial these days because of the age of the children. I later read that child jockeys can be as young as five, especially in rural areas.
Most children's horse races are held during National Naadam Festival (July). More than 10,000 children participate in 395 horse races across the country at this time.
We had arrived just in time to see the competitors approaching the starting line. The jockeys bent over and took the reins close to the saddle. With a few sharp kicks, the horses shot ahead and quickly disappeared into the distance. The scene was emotional, and the crowd began to shout loudly to cheer on the racers.
I became curious to learn more about these competitions. Thousands of young jockeys participate in horse races in Mongolia every year. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UNICEF and child rights activists say that child jockeys suffer painful injuries and even die in some of the most demanding horse races in the world (the distances are about 24 or more km). Statistics show that 600 children were thrown from their horses in just one year, 169 wounded, and 2 killed.
Apart from horse racing at the Naadam festival, child jockeys are used for entertainment at private parties, illegal races or participation in winter competitions. This clearly borders on exploitation. Since poor families often push their very young children into sports for money, it could also be classified as child labour. A few years ago, human rights organizations and individuals began to draw attention to the problem. More than 1,500 child jockeys have been injured in recent years, and 10 have died in horse racing (the numbers may not be accurate, as new cases are added every year).
When the race was over, the crowd gathered at the finish line, eager to see and congratulate the winner. People tried to touch the sweat of the racehorses, believing it would bring good luck. I looked at the rosy-cheeked jockeys and tried to read from their facial expressions how they were feeling. I couldn't see any unusual emotion, although some of them looked tired and bored.
Child jockeys are often injured and disabled in falls. Still, horse racing is a big deal in Mongolia and a tradition that goes back thousands of years, so banning the practices or even trying to influence them would be challenging. Western media emphasizes the sad part of the races and the disregard for children's rights, which is understandable. However, the reality is a little different. Mongolian nomads still have their traditional lifestyle, including children riding horses, and I don't think it will disappear anytime soon.
Although some individuals and organizations call for a total ban on minors participating in all types of horse racing, most human rights activists understand the actual situation well. Their efforts are practical and aim to reduce the most harmful practices such as illegal and winter racing. They also try to prevent young children from attending private parties where wealthy Mongolians hire child jockeys for entertainment purposes. That's right, I think! The effort to ban underage winter racing is necessary because children tend to suffer frostbite while riding in the cold. There is less visibility in the winter, so the risk for kids to get lost or fall off their horses is much higher. Also admirable are the efforts to enforce the law requiring jockeys to be at least seven years old and wear safety equipment. However, all this is difficult to control in rural areas.
The cash prizes at horse races can reach thousands of dollars. However, the jockeys only get a small portion of the money as big money goes to the "patrons" or owners of the horses. The main concern is that horse racing is becoming more of a business and less of a sporting or cultural event. In my opinion, that is actually the most important thing - the commercialization of the beautiful tradition.
Mongolia is in a deep economic crisis. During our trip, the people we met looked exhausted and overworked (35 per cent poverty rate in the countryside). "Tsanlig Battuya, the spokesman for the group The National Network Against The Worst Forms of Child Labor, believes child jockeys are often exploited, with children from poor families sometimes pushed into the sport." (Quote from an Aljazeera article). Children helping their parents through hard work is not a new or unique practice for Mongolia. I have looked into the issue in countries like India and Bangladesh, where the situation is even more complicated. The question here is whether the old horse tradition and culture can survive and be preserved despite greed and poverty?!
"No child is obliged to put food on the table," says Baasanjargal Khurelbaatar, a lawyer from Ulaanbaatar who has been working on the issue. The work of NGOs, UNESCO and all human rights lawyers and advocates to protect child jockeys is invaluable. Regardless of all efforts, the situation with child jockeys remains complicated.
UNICEF's story on child jockeys in Mongolia has received international and domestic media attention. Read the story - http://bit.ly/1tBiuXe.
Aljazeera tweets and other materials from this news agency.
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