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Mongolian child jockeys – balancing cultural heritage with safety

Horse races with child jockeys are part of Mongolia's cultural heritage, but the growing number of races and serious, sometimes fatal accidents have drawn increasing public attention. The issue was discussed for the first time at a recent national forum which was supported by the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). N. Mongolmaa, IPEC's National Project Manager, and B. Bayasgalan, ILO Programme Officer, report from Mongolia.

Article | 22 September 2006

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia (ILO Online) – There is a popular saying: "Mongols are born in the saddle". It is impossible to imagine Mongols without a horse. Children learn to ride at the age of four or five. Since ancient times horses have been part of the traditional nomadic way of life and no celebration is complete without a horse race.

Horse racing is one of the three games of Naadam festival, organized every July to celebrate the People's Revolution. Young children are the masters of the Mongolian horse race. Horses race from 12 to 28 kilometres 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 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.

In May 2006, for the first time, the issue of child jockeys was discussed at the National Forum of Child Jockeys organized jointly by the National Department for Children, National Human Rights Commission and National Sports Committee of Mongolia with financial and technical support of ILO's International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour (IPEC).

The Forum brought together more than 100 child jockeys from all 21 aimags (provinces) in Mongolia, as well as horse trainers and representatives of sports organizations to discuss ways to ensure the safety and protection of child jockeys.

According to the Law on National Grand Naadam, children must be seven years or older to participate in horse races. The 2005 decree of the Deputy Prime Minister requires them to wear protective helmets, knee and elbow pads. However, lack of both enforcement and approved standards means not all children wear the gear or use clothing which meets protection needs.

"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", says Mr. Jadamba Dashdorj, Commissioner, Human Rights Commission of Mongolia (NHRCM).

In preparation for the National Forum, the NHRCM collected information, with IPEC support, on injuries and fatalities in the last three years. The findings were alarming. The study revealed a substantial number of cases of child jockeys receiving serious, sometimes fatal injuries from falls. "Horse racing is increasingly becoming an issue of violating children's rights", said Dashdorj.

At the National Forum the young jockeys were able to talk about their pride in being jockeys, as well as the many challenges they face, such as poor conditions, attitude of police, race organizers, poor medical services and difficulties in keeping up with their education.

"Child jockeys learn essential life skills, good discipline, endurance and great tolerance of hardship. But horse racing is a very risky job. I always feel relieved when both horse and the child return safely to the finish line", says Ms. Purevkhuu, a horse trainer from Huvsgul aimag.

With due respect to cultural tradition, the hazardous situation of children in horse racing was debated extensively during discussions. Topics addressed included the need to improve legal protection of child jockeys, imposing and enforcing safety standards, insurance schemes, pre-race medical examinations and a reward system for child jockeys. Agreement was also reached to suggest to the authorities that races in sub-zero degree temperatures be prohibited and the age of child jockeys in commercial racing be raised.

The Forum agreed to a Memorandum of Cooperation for three years between the National Sports Committee, National Department for Children, Human Rights Commission and three major horse trainers' associations. The parties agreed to improve laws on organizing horse races, ensure legal protection of child jockeys, collect and analyse 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.

The Forum's recommendations were presented to the National Council for Children, headed by the Prime Minister of Mongolia on 30 May 2006. Amendments to the Regulation for Horse Races of National Grand Naadam are underway.