In a changing Mongolia, higher stakes for out-of-school herding boys

In many countries, girls have fewer educational opportunities. For years, that was reversed in Mongolia, with boys pulled out of classes to help their families herd. They've made strong gains – but as the climate and economy shift, education becomes even more important. 

Katya Cengel
Otgonmuren, a 15-year-old with a strong singing voice, will be a herder, like his father. It’s what he’s done since dropping out of school eight years ago: looking after the herd of 300 sheep, goats, horses, and cows. His sisters will go to school.

In a few days Otgonmuren’s family will pack up their ger, their round felt tent home. It is late August, time for herders to relocate for the winter.

Some of them will relocate, that is. His sisters will stay in town to attend boarding school. Mungunshur, 16, plans to be a doctor. Munkhzul, 8, also plans on college, though she’s not yet sure what she’ll be.

Everyone knows what Otgonmuren will be. The slim 15-year-old with a strong singing voice will be a herder, like his father. It’s what he’s done since dropping out of school eight years ago: looking after the herd of 300 sheep, goats, horses, and cows.

“My daughters can go to another place, maybe even another country, but my son has to stay here so he can herd,” says his mother, Purevchuluun, who like many Mongolians uses one name. 

Otgonmuren’s situation isn’t that unusual in Mongolia, a landlocked nation of 3 million where one third of the populace practices herding. Last year around 100 students dropped out of school in the northern province of Khovsgol where Otgonmuren lives, according to Otgon-Erdene, a local government education specialist. Most were boys – a reversal of most countries.

Mongolia’s boys have largely caught up, after the country’s reverse gender gap soared in the early ‘90s. But they still make up only 38 percent of higher-education graduates, according to the National Statistics Office. As the country urbanizes, Khovsgol social worker Bayarsaihaa is among those who worry that herding boys could be further left behind if the lifestyle they’ve trained for begins to vanish – erased not just by modernization, but a warmer, drier, and more dangerous environment.

“If they don’t graduate and they don’t become herders, they don’t have a job,” says Bayarsaihaa.

‘Non-formal' students

Otgonmuren attends a week of instruction in the fall, and a week in the spring, like three dozen other “non-formal education” students here in Tosontsengel, a foothills town of 4,000. Across the country, about 10,000 students age 10 and older participate in such programs, according to the Ministry of Education – 68 percent of them boys.

In between those weeks, they forget most of what they learned, says Sarahntuya, Otgonmuren’s teacher.

She moves around her simple wood house as she talks, feeding her youngest son, 5, and a toddler granddaughter. There is a well in the yard and a forlorn-looking dog tied up by the outhouse. Like many residents, Sarahntuya lives in a log cabin hidden behind tall walls – a family compound, or hasha. Despite this uninviting appearance, people are friendly. It’s not unusual to drop in unannounced, even on a teacher.

But few “non-formal” students show up in the spring to test for the next grade and eventually graduate, she says. Many of them can’t read. Some don’t even know the names of colors.

“They’re like five-year-olds, they’re like my son,” says Sarahntuya.

Boys from herding families fared better before the country’s abrupt democratization and privatization in the 1990s. Under socialism, herding was a collective activity; fewer families needed boys to quit school and help, says Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba, country director of the Mongolia Wildlife Conservation Society. In the first few years, dropout rates for boys and girls combined reached almost 20 percent. By the late 1990s, only 50 percent of boys were enrolled in secondary school, versus 71 percent of girls.

Today, that’s improved significantly. Here in Khovsgol Province, a recently completed five-year UNICEF program provided financial and technical funds to operate mobile schools in gers. UNICEF also helped fund inclusive education for children with disabilities, and to improve communication between schools to track the highly mobile population. In 2016, there were only 612 dropouts in the entire country, according to Ministry of Education data, and the reverse gender gap has almost disappeared for grades K-12. But that leaves out “non-formal” students, like Otgonmuren.

In addition to math, Mongolian, and other academic subjects, Sarahntuya tries to teach them more practical skills, from opening a bank account to talking on the phone and sending text messages. At the school, where Lenin’s portrait is still displayed prominently in the entrance, Bayarsaihaa, the social worker, worries about the children’s social development. They are shy about approaching former classmates, she says, even when back in town.

“Students study each other,” she says. “Children who drop out don’t get that.”

Outside pressures

Children may not like school, Bayarsaihaa says, but it is the parents who decide to take them out. She tries to convince parents of the advantages of an education, but doesn’t always succeed. Once children drop out, they’re difficult to find. Herders usually move their gers several times a year – and not always to the same locations.

Many teachers are married to men who dropped out, too, and Sarahntuya herself is married to a herder. But her husband is also the principal. The couple plans to pass the herd on to their sons, but to pay someone else to watch the herd, while their children pursue careers that utilize their college degrees.

Otgonmuren’s family, whose only income comes from herding, does not have that option. Fewer herding families do, as environmental changes make it an even more difficult lifestyle, says Tungalag Ulambayar, adviser to the Minister of Environment and Tourism. Mongolia has experienced an average temperature increase three times the global average in recent years, and a general “drying up,” says Ms. Ulambayar.

“Mongolians usually say dzud, that kind of major disaster, happens every decade,” she says, referring to summer droughts followed by severe winters. In 2010, a single dzud killed 8 million animals. “Now it’s increasing, it’s like [every] five or six years.”

Under socialism, the government owned the livestock, so herders did not feel losses – or successes – as deeply. With freedom came the opportunity to own as many animals as you can afford, and the livestock population grew from 30 million to 70 million, according to Enkhtuvshin of Wildlife Conservation Society.

“Rangeland specialists are quite concerned that we’re getting to a really degraded situation from which it’s difficult to recover,” says Enkhtuvshin. Today, the Wildlife Conservation Society is teaching herders more sustainable practices.

Changing years and seasons

Back in Tosontsengel, Otgonmuren’s mom has noticed the changes. Over milk tea and freshly picked berries, Purevchuluun remembers rainy summers with plenty of grass, and fatter animals that could better handle the winters.

But other changes have been positive, she says. Although the family’s summer location has no running water, they do have a solar panel and a television. Inside the ger, the family makes efficient use of the small space, sticking toothbrushes, sunglasses, and papers in the wood beams supporting the ceiling, and arranging furniture against the felt walls.

Purevchuluun, with permanently rosy cheeks, sits near the stove in the center, with pots dangling from the wood ceiling frame above her. Family members regularly duck in and out of the ger’s low doorway. Her daughters busy themselves heating milk tea, while Otgonmuren races off on a motorbike to buy bread. After many hours spent with the animals, he is learning to read their needs, his parents say. One of the only lessons that remains is experiencing a dzud.

Otgonmuren likes everything about herding, he says once he’s returned, but is particularly fond of galloping his horse. At school, he used to like math and Mongolian, and still studies both during his two weeks of classes each year. Last spring he attended the end of school party with his class, though he no longer studies with them. The children were nice, but he knows other students who have dropped out who have not been treated kindly.

He has taught himself how to repair motorcycles and cars, and his mother says they may send him to a mechanics course in Ulaanbaatar – although it isn’t clear when, or who would help while he’s away.

But the summer is almost over. This time of year is always hard.

“In the summertime we are all together,” Otgonmuren says. 

Katya Cengel reported from Mongolia on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP). You can find her on twitter @kcengel

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