03 April 2017

Mongolian girl goes back to school after a decade

Uyangaa chats happily with her classmates, using sign language. © UNICEFMongolia/2017/ Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
“My name is U-Y-A-N-G-A-A with a long A-A at the end” says Uyangaa, using sign language that she has just learned at school. It’s difficult to believe that, until recently, this joyful 16-year-old had been isolated and lonely, excluded from school for the last ten years.

Uyangaa has hearing and speech difficulties. She also suffers from hemiplegia, and as a result has been unable to move parts of her body for the past few years. “She tried going to public schools before, but the officials and teachers refused to accept her because they didn’t have either the capacity or the expertise”, explains her mother. Urtnasan, 35, devotes all of her time and resources to caring for her daughter. Along with her mother, stepfather and two younger brothers, Uyangaa lives in Bayanzurkh soum, Khuvsgul province, one of the coldest and most far-flung areas of Mongolia.

“Because she was isolated, Uyangaa became very lonely and, eventually, angry with us”, explains Urtnasan. For a child like Uyangaa, living in a small, remote town meant having no access to any meaningful education. “We had almost given up on our child’s education and her future”, says Urtnasan.

Uyangaa and her mother, Urtnasan, inside a classroom at a local school in Bayanzurkh.
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/ Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
All of  that changed in September 2016, when a local school opened its door to disadvantaged children and those with disabilities, providing non-formal school sessions and a learning and recreational centre, a scheme initiated by UNICEF Mongolia and its partners. “At first, Uyangaa was very shy and wouldn’t even look at her teachers. After months of regular sessions and learning sign language, our Uyangaa is now one of the most outgoing students in the entire campus”, Ms. Oyungerel, her teacher, says proudly. ”Uyangaa says hello to everyone whenever she’s around and it’s a welcome change in our community. Uyangaa attends a sign language class at the learning and recreational centre, where several 7th grade students also  come to learn sign language.”

Advocates for inclusive education

“You don’t have to know anything about sign language to be amazed by the sheer force of personality coming through in Uyangaa’s performance”, says Ms. Oyungerel while Uyangaa and her classmates recite a poem using sign language. “Without UNICEF and other donors, hundreds of children like Uyangaa would be out of school. We’re trying different methods of teaching for Uyangaa, including classroom sessions along with children of her age, even though she has to spend a lot of time and effort catching up with them.”

Uyangaa and her friends citing a poem using sign language.
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/ Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
Building an equal, child-friendly society

There are only six specialized schools in the entire country that cater to the needs of children with disabilities, all of which are in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Since most primary schools have neither a disability-friendly environment nor disability-friendly practices, less than half of children aged 6–10 are enrolled in primary education.

UNICEF Mongolia set out to tackle this problem, consulting with several government agencies as well as non-governmental organizations. Along with its partners, UNICEF Mongolia launched non-formal school sessions and set up learning and recreational centres in four schools in Khuvsgul province. In addition, UNICEF Mongolia supported training on working with children with disabilities, not only for teachers and local officials but also for parents and other members of the community. Campaigns to increase awareness of these issues ran at the same time and had a positive impact in the local area.

Uyangaa and her friends citing a poem using sign language.
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/ Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
This innovative pilot proved to be a success. “Educating all children, including children with disabilities, is a fundamental way of eradicating poverty, boosting prosperity and improving inter-generational equity. That’s why UNICEF Mongolia supported the pilot interventions in two target areas, including Khuvsgul province, which are now being replicated in another three provinces. These initiatives for children with disabilities have contributed up to a 10 per cent increase in the primary education enrolment rate in the last 5 years in the target area”, says UNICEF Mongolia’s education specialist, Bolorchimeg Bor.

Like all children, those with disabilities have many talents and abilities, but they are often discriminated against, excluded from society, and not given the support they need. As result they are among the most invisible and vulnerable children in Mongolia. But with long-term cooperation and commitment from local organizations and international donors, disadvantaged children, including those with disabilities, can be given the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential, just like Uyangaa, who is now one step closer to realizing her dream to become a teacher.

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