Unursaikhan, 26 years-old and engaged, is a woman following a successful career as a journalist. She says that when she leans in to kiss her 80 year-old grandmother during the khadag greeting ceremony specific to the Tsagaan Sar festival, she feels respect and pride for her and how she raised her mother and seven other children. She worries about her being lonely though. Since Unursaikhan’s grandfather died ten years ago, her grandmother has not talked too much. It is an uncommon family picture in Mongolia to see senior couples and more common to see single grandmothers. Last February, the National Statistical Office released data about Mongolian seniors who are more than 100 years old. According to officials 128 seniors were living securely, half of them lived in Ulaanbaatar, and as for gender, 20 percent were men and 84 percent were women.
Mongolians say in a tongue in cheek way, that after dinner is ready a wife gives her husband the most oily and fatty part of the food, which is called the “top of the food”. It is a kind of expression of respect. The wife has dinner last and eats the most oil-free part of the food and lives longer than her husband.
Life expectancy rises in Mongolia
In 2011 the life expectancy in Mongolia increased to 67.1 years. That year, the life expectancy for women was 71.2 years and for men, 63.2 years. The data showed that wives were living more than eight years longer than their husbands. If we look at the change in life expectancy in Mongolia over the past several years, we find that it was higher than in 2010, when it was 66.9 years, compared to 2001, when it was 63.4 years. Mongolia’s position is 124th out of 180 countries with respect to published rankings of life expectancy.
What happened to life expectancy during the socialist years?
When we look back at history, the slowest time of growth for life expectancy was from 1972 to 1980. During those years, life expectancy only increased from 56.3 years to 56.9 years. Compared to data for 1960 and 1961, it increased by 0.9 years.
Seventy year-old Serchmaa told us about her life during the socialist years. Her name is of Tibetan origin. At that time most parents chose Tibetan names for their children. During the socialist era she was 40 years old and mother to five children. She says that everyone was singing Russian songs and participating in marches dedicated to their Marshall. There was no bread on the shelves of shops and everyone wore the same clothes and shoes. There was a shortage of everything.
The 17th Congress of the Mongolian Revolutionary Party put forward “A new theoretical concept to live in a socialist way” in all the fields of social life, not only in the economy, during the socialist integration in 1976. In the 1980s the growth of production slowed down. The average annual growth of the national income between 1960 and 1980 was 6.3 percent. This index became 3.8 percent and decreased after 1980. Socialism developed equality, culture and health care, but did not meet the material demands of society. During the period of socialism private property, labor and profit making for private purposes were restricted. But the Soviet type of socialism eventually came to stagnancy.
Mongolians accepted what the Soviets said as veracity without verification. We cannot forget the value of Soviet assistance, but we supplied the Soviets with the materials of animal husbandry and mining which the Soviets needed too. Our foreign trade with the Soviets was always deficient and our debt to the Soviets accrued. Eighty-four percent of Mongolia’s foreign trade turn-over was with the Soviet Union. The industries built by the Soviets were too big for Mongolia and their equipment was old; in the modern sense they were not lucrative. Under such circumstances Mongolians were compelled to turn a careful eye to the situation, in which Mongolia was trusty and obedient and restricted in foreign relations. In 1986 democracy in the Soviet Union started from the top. This created new circumstances for Mongolia. It meant that Mongolia was able to get in contact with other countries without consultation with the Soviet Union. The socialist wealth common collapsed, and the Mongolian link to it slackened. The aid from socialist countries stopped.
The average life expectancy of people is clearly affected by economic and social forces. Stress-free living, economic security and healthy living habits are most important. We all know that some of the major causes of death in Mongolia are stroke, liver cancer, heart disease, hypertension, auto accidents, stomach cancer, influenza and pneumonia, liver disease, lung cancer, and esophageal cancer. During the socialist area, human health was the property of the government and there were no fees or charges for therapy and medical services. But, those years were also the lowest for average life expectancy. Maybe hard economic times and the socialist mindset were a contributing factor in the quality and length of Mongolian lives.
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