The men left behind

Without a pickup truck, the huge distances in the Mongolian steppe could not be handled.
Political article
It is a truism: without open-minded men there can be no progress in the gender debate. But what if, as in Mongolia, men are left behind in matters of education?

Galaa[1] and his wife Odnoo are shepherds in the Tsenkher soum[2] (450 km from the capital city Ulaanbaatar). They have two children - their 30-year-old son Tumur and 20-year-old daughter Tuya. Tumur is also a shepherd and still not married. In the countryside it would be usual to make a covenant for life at the latest by the age of 25. "I looked around in all the neighbouring valleys for a potential woman and there was none," he says. Tuya is studying in the capital for a bachelor's degree. "I will never return after graduating, but will settle in the city," she says confidently. When asked about the reason for her decision, she replies: "Nomadic life is so hard.”

This is a common picture of life as we encounter it in rural Mongolia during our research with the WOLTS[3] project. Many young men we have met confirmed that one of the biggest problems in their lives was finding a wife. In one of our group discussions with single men, they said that if a country girl or boy goes to a urban area like Ulaanbaatar and stays there for few years, it is most likely that they will not come back to settle in the countryside. He or she would realize how comfortable life could be in the city. The men continued by saying that “that is why some of the parents purposefully don't let at least one of their children go to the urban area at all”. Usually this child is male, as men are more urgently needed to assist with the many outdoor tasks of livestock herding.

About 20% of Mongolian households are herders, living a pastoral semi-nomadic lifestyle that relies exclusively on animal husbandry. Mongolians are proud of their national identity as Nomadic Mongols. This has been the main way of life over the centuries for us adapting to the fragile ecosystem, which means you have to move around if you want to have pasture for your livestock. In this household-based lifestyle, men and women have distinct duties - men usually do outdoor activities (chores) such as herding, seasonal movements, preparing fire wood and maintaining shelters, while women are in charge of indoor chores such as milking, processing dairy products, child care, cleaning and cooking etc. This means it still takes two to tango in rural Mongolia.

Since the 1990s, when Mongolia transitioned rapidly from socialism to a market economy, many urban-based young men were pressured to become bread-winners for their families, by becoming traders or leaving the country to work as labourers in countries like South Korea, USA and the UK. Mostly women would study at universities. I remember we had only four men among 50 students in our class when I was studying for my bachelor’s degree. Out in the countryside, rural parents started to adapt to the new way of life by making their sons (or at least one of the boys) stay at home to herd their livestock and sending their daughters to school and higher education. This is still very much the case, and we have started to see some of the social implications (or consequences) of this. During our WOLTS fieldwork, we found that women were generally more highly educated than men in the households we surveyed. This picture is confirmed by national statistics – the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report highlights that 86.1% of women in Mongolia enroll in secondary education, compared to 77.7% of men. This inverse gender gap increases for tertiary education (76.4% women and 53.5% men), and these differences are also reflected in the proportions of women and men that can be found in technical and professional jobs (64.6% for women as compared to 35.4% for men).

Aside from single herder men struggling to find wives, married herder couples often do not have a happy ending either. According to the Mongolian Law on Primary and Secondary Education (2002), all children have to have 12 years of education. This law, while well-intended in attempting to match the country’s education system to international standards, puts additional pressure on the traditional herding lifestyle, which requires frequent seasonal movements. Rural Mongolians often live very far from each other and schools are only available in the soum centres and thus very hard to reach for many people. Therefore, many married herder couples feel pressured to live apart for most of the year, so that women can accompany their children to school in the soum centre. Schooling now starts at the age of 6 and mothers often stay in town with their children until they reach the age of 17.

We met with Mr. Bold, who stays home alone herding for at least 10 months every year while his partner stays in the soum centre looking after their children throughout the academic year. Herding is already hard work, and now he has to do both inside and outside work alone. He struggles to keep livestock herding alive as it is is the family’s sole income source. When we visited him, he looked like he had lost hope - his home was messy and cold and there was no sign of a fire having been made to cook food on or heat his yurt (Ger). He said, “home is not so much of a home when my partner is not around…I am just a cash maker”. We often see men in cold homes, barely cooking for themselves and looking dull, with a ‘just hanging in there’ look on their faces. Many also turn to drinking alcohol, contributing to Mongolia’s worryingly high rates of alcoholism.

So on one side, we find rural herder men, either living at home alone when their wives stay in the soum centre with their children, or struggling even to find wives. But what about the other side – the women who end up in the urban areas?

In one interview our team carried out, a male herder said that girls who went to universities in the capital city mostly ended up as waitresses or shopkeepers after their graduation. One would imagine that not every girl who goes to the city for a better life can be successful, as life in the city can be brutal and not as good as she would have hoped for.  

Our capital city –Ulaanbaatar - suffers from many of its own problems, such as being overcrowded and forced to accommodate two-thirds of the population of Mongolia in an area that occupies only 0.3 % of the whole land of the country.

The issues I describe here may be contributing to the root causes of bigger social problems in the capital. Girls can become vulnerable to prostitution and human trafficking in Ulaanbaatar, if they can’t find a safe way to stay. Some succeed in their education and careers, yet find it hard to get a husband as educated women far outnumber men in the capital, as the UK’s Guardian newspaper has described.

During our in-depth fieldwork with WOLTS in three different regions of Mongolia, we have come across these issues of split families and left-behind herder men again and again. This is why we want to raise our voices about this. Attention needs urgently to be paid by all Mongolians and all friends of Mongolia, before our Nomadic Mongol identity and traditional pastoral way of life are destroyed.

The author Lkhamaa Dulam is co-founder and President of the Mongolian NGO People Centered Conservation (PCC) and a senior team member of the global Women’s Land Tenure Security (WOLTS) project.


[1] The names in the article are not the people’s real names.

[2] A soum is an administrative unit that can be roughly translated as a district.

[3] This article is based on the author’s experiences during fieldwork with the long-term action-oriented global Women’s Land Tenure Security (WOLTS) project, which is a collaboration between Mokoro Ltd (UK), PCC (Mongolia) and HakiMadini (Tanzania). See