Woman recognised for human rights efforts

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Gore woman Margaret Currie has been further recognised for her work in Mongolia to improve the lot of prisoners in the nation’s jails.

In 2014 the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia presented Mrs Currie with a human rights honour badge and recently she was awarded two more medals by the organisation.

From about 1994 until she left in 2017, Mrs Currie visited Mongolian prisons with a team she formed.

Mrs Currie said she went to Mongolia to teach English but one day a student asked her to go with her mother to a prison to visit her son.

The woman did not know how to get to the prison and neither did Mrs Currie, but she asked people where it was.

“They said it’s [on] the main road to China but there wasn’t a main road to China.

“It took us four hours to find the prison .. it was on the edge of the Gobi [desert],” Mrs Currie said.

While visiting the prison she felt compelled to keep going back.

“I really felt I could help these people.”

Every time she visited the prison she needed to ask the permission of the general who was in charge of the prison system.

When she decided it might be a good idea to teach English to the prisoners, the general agreed.

After many meetings with her the general told her, “I think God sent you to be the mother of all the Mongolian prisoners – that’s about 8000 prisoners.”

Life in the prison was tough but in time Mrs Currie advocated for better conditions including warm water to wash in, individual beds instead of bunks and fresh drinking water.

“They were drinking dirty water, unboiled.”

Sometimes their hands would be frozen to the crowbar they were using.

Mrs Currie approached different foreign embassies for funds to pay for the drilling of the wells to supply the water.

“It costs a lot of money to drill a well.”

Although she was not allowed to give the prisoners money, she found guards who would buy food on behalf of the prisoners.

“They were starving and didn’t have enough food.”

Mrs Currie organised people to knit socks for the prisoners who had boots but only strips of cloth to put around their feet.

“The big problem in Mongolia, especially if you are working outside, is you get frostbite on your feet and your hands and your ear lobes.”

Many of the prisons were in labour camps.

“Sometimes their hands would be frozen to the crowbar they were using.”

She encouraged the prisoners to make origami models of traditional Mongolian houses called ger, and these were sold to give the prisoners an income.

“They made hundreds of them.

“Backpackers liked them because they didn’t weigh much and they didn’t cost much.”

Life in the prisons had improved because of the visits by the prison fellowship team, Mrs Currie said.

“The prisoners themselves say so.

“They said [the team] brought hope and light to the prison.”

Retired Honorary Consul of Mongolia in New Zealand Peter Allport spent 10 years in the role from 2007.

Mr Allport said he became aware of the work Mrs Currie was doing in his many visits to the nation.

Whenever he was visiting he would meet Mrs Currie, if time allowed.

“I became completely awestruck by what she had achieved for many, many very desperate people and their families who were in very dark places . in a society where many of those in positions of authority have scant regard or sympathy for their plight.

“She changed people’s lives in a very dramatic way,” Mr Allport said.

Much of what Mrs Currie had accomplished was not well-known.

“She made a huge contribution to Mongolia, generally unknown and unrecognised.

“She’s marvellous.”