Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – The mere thought of stepping outside during a Mongolian winter is enough to chill one’s bones. For years, Mongolian children have braved the frigid winter for a taste of glory, risking life and limbs to win prize money for their families. Thanks to the efforts of human rights advocates, they will no longer.
In late January, the Mongolian government banned horse races during the winter which, in Mongolia, lasts from October to May.
Horse racing has caused injuries to many Mongolian children – even leading to deaths in some cases – who are preferred to adult jockeys because of their smaller size.
Government figures show that in 2017, 10,435 children participated in horse races, out of which 169 were injured and two died.
In winter, risks are heightened as children suffer frostbite while riding in cold and windy conditions. Moreover, the visibility is lower so the fear of getting lost or thrown from a horse is high.
Despite years of protest by child welfare groups, change has been slow. Horse racing is a lucrative business in Mongolia, as members of parliament and other elite members of the society own many of the racehorses and hire child jockeys from poor families as their riders.
In a country with a rural poverty rate of 35 percent, parents often depend on their children’s earnings for their family’s survival.
Horse racing and herding are integral to Mongolian culture. Chinggis Khan’s horseback warriors are the stuff of Mongol legends and still today, a nomad’s wealth is in great part measured by how many horses he keeps.
But those opposed to winter horse racing argue that it is rooted in elite greed, rather than in tradition. Child welfare advocate Bolorsaikhan Badamsambuu explained that winter horse racing has only emerged over the last two decades as a tool for elite income generation and networking.
UNESCO has recognised Nadaam, a July holiday celebrating horse racing, archery, and wrestling, as part of Mongolia’s intangible cultural heritage.
However, as Badamsambuu argues, children racing in winter is not part of this tradition. “The current Mongolian horse-racing obsession is promoting all-seasons horse racing and is destroying the lives of children.”
The legal battle to outlaw winter and children’s horse racing has been led by Baasanjargal Khurelbaatar, an Ulaanbaatar-based lawyer who took on the case pro bono.
She worked with 27 civil society organisations to present the case in the country’s Supreme Court. While her group has been successful in changing legislation, enforcement may be difficult.
“The lawyers did what we were supposed to do. Now government organisations must work even harder to protect children,” Khurelbaatar told Al Jazeera.