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Families in Mongolia

Among pastoralists, Mongolian culture inheritance rules followed customary practices. Pastoral Mongols distinguish between personal and private property.
Mongolians photographed during the horse festival in winter

Kinship in Mongolia

The kinship system in Mongolia manifested in the rules of marriage and descent have traditionally been heavily patriarchal. Traditional clan and lineage systems, however, were undermined to a large degree under Chinese and Manchu rule. Traditionally, every Mongolian family kept a family book that recorded births, deaths, and important events. The Soviets discouraged keeping such books and many were destroyed or lost.

Traditional Mongols traced descent matrilineally, from fathers to sons, and recognized progressively larger and more inclusive sets of patrilineal lineages and clans, thought of as all the male descendants of a common grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on. By the nineteenth century, such descent groups had no political role, were not coresident, held no common estate, and hence were of little significance in the lives of ordinary Mongolians.

The hereditary aristocrats based their status on membership in aristocratic lineages (which claimed descent from Chinggis Khan), but the political office was more important for elite status than lineage membership alone. Lineages and clans have not played a major role in modern Mongolian society, and it is doubtful that many contemporary people even know their lineage affiliation. Contemporary Mongols use a single given name with a patronymic, so names provide few clues to common descent or kinship. There is no information on the extent to which Mongolians observe traditional exogamic restrictions on marriage with various categories of patrilateral and matrilateral kin.

Families in Mongolia

A typical Mongolian family consists of the parents and their children. When the son gets married, he usually lives in a separate home close to his parents. Both nuclear and extended families are common. Extended families are usually comprised of groupings of related men and their wives and children. Traditionally, the oldest son inherited his part of the family wealth when he got married and the youngest inherited what was left when both his parents died, In the farming and semi-farming areas, there are families formed of several married brothers and sisters-in-law.

Mongolians, unlike the settled agriculturalists to the south, have never valued complex extended families, and in the 1980s most lived in nuclear families composed of a married couple, their children, and perhaps a widowed parent. The high birth rate, however, meant that large families were common; the 1979 census showed 16 percent of families with 7 to 8 members and 11.8 percent with 9 or more. Urban families were larger than rural families, perhaps because rural people tended to marry and set up new households at younger ages. The average size of rural families also may have reflected the high rates of migration to the cities.

Among traditional herders, each married couple occupied its own Ger, and sons usually received their share of the family herd at the time of their marriage. The usual pattern was for one son, often, but not necessarily, the youngest, to inherit the headship of the parental herd and tent, while other sons formed new families with equivalent shares of the family herd; daughters married out to other families. Adult sons and brothers often continued their close association as members of the same herding camp, but they could leave to join other herding camps whenever they wished.

The Mongol family has traditionally been dominated by the man, but herders usually consult their wives about major decisions. Furniture, clothes, and ornaments brought to the family by the wife during a wedding remain her own property. After marrying, sons move out of their parent’s home. Among herding families, they often lived nearby and traditionally traveled with their parents in search of new pastures. In seminomadic districts, families often include parents, sons, and daughters-in-law.

Mongol Family Structure, Socialization, and Inheritance

According to the Human Relations Area Files: The primary domestic units are the nuclear and stem families. The reform era has not changed the way the Mongolian domestic unit is organized, its division of labor, and the symbolic ordering of domestic space. Mongolians continue to pool and share resources. Urban Mongols also live in nuclear and stem families.

Historically, cultural transmission occurred informally between parent and child. Children are taught gender-appropriate tasks and by thirteen years can perform all the required tasks. The common means of discipline are verbal reprimand and corporal punishment. Older adults, if present, direct the work of younger children. Mongolian pastoralists and village children grow up in close association with other adults. They seldom form separate “child-only" spaces. To achieve greater compliance with societal standards, the state created an extensive education system of boarding schools for pastoral children.

Among pastoralists, Mongolian culture inheritance rules followed customary practices. Pastoral Mongols distinguish between personal and private property. When a person is dying, valuable possessions (e.g., rings, watches, necklaces) are removed. The person is asked who should receive them. According to Buddhist beliefs giving up personal valuables is deemed a pious action. Not doing so, would result in the person remaining emotionally attached to this life.

Newly married couples receive animals from the herds of their families of origin, customarily through pre-inheritance and dowry. In old age, Mongolians passed their property onto their children. Mongolians deemed it improper to make a will. They preferred that their possessions be disposed of after or just before their death. Except meritorious donations made to the monastery, inheritance followed customary proportions given to members of the immediate family, and, especially, to the youngest son who remains in his parent’s household. Under communism, these customs were guaranteed by law. The eldest son inherited part of the family wealth at the time of his marriage, and the youngest son inherited the remaining family property after both parents had died.

Soviet Era Family Structure in Mongolia

In the 1980s, herders were likely to continue to work closely with patrilineal kins, and many of the basic level suuri, a subdivision of the negdel herding camps, consisted of fathers and sons or groups of adult brothers and their families. Herders no longer inherited livestock from their parents, but they did inherit membership in the herding cooperative. If cooperative officials granted custody of collectively owned animals and permission to hold privately owned stock on a family basis, which was how private plots were allotted in Soviet collective farms in the 1980s, then it would be to the advantage of newly married sons to declare themselves new families.

Family background continued to be an important component of social status in Mongolia, and social stratification had a certain implicit hereditary element. The shortage of skilled labor and the great expansion of white-collar occupations in the 1970s and the 1980s meant that families belonging to the administrative and professional elite were able to pass their status on to their many children, who acquired educational qualifications and professional jobs. At the other end, of the social scale, no one but the children of herders became herders. Some herders' children, perhaps as many as half, moved into skilled trades or administrative positions, while the rest remained with the flocks. *

Modern family life differed from that before the 1950s because the children of most herders were away from their families for most of the year. Between the ages of seven and fifteen, they stayed in boarding schools at the soum center. Most Mongolian women were in the paid workforce, and many infants and young children were looked after on a daily or weekly basis in daycare centers or in all-day or boarding kindergartens. The efforts to bring women into the formal workforce and to educate the dispersed herders resulted in the separation of parents and children on a large scale. There was some historical precedent for this in the practice of sending young boys to monasteries as apprentice lamas, which had previously been the only way to obtain a formal education for them.

Gender Roles in Mongolia

Nomadic men have traditionally tended cattle, horses, and camels collected hay, and hunted wild game. Among settled people, the men construct dwellings, and plant, irrigate, and harvest the crops. Important skills include wood chopping, shearing sheep, shepherding, and horseback riding.

At a ger camp, men are usually in charge of the horses, and boys and young men are in charge of the herds of sheep and goats. How the animals are managed often is determined by which way the wind is blowing. Herding is done with horses and motorcycles and on foot. Much of the time of males is spent looking for stray animals which are secured with a lasso pole called an uurga. Men and women often share cooking responsibilities.

Nomadic women and older children have traditionally collected water, cooked, milked the animals, churned butter, made dairy products, collected dung and firewood, brushed cashmere, raised the younger children, woven cloth, sewn and made cheese and koumiss. Women also often spin wool, make felt, and are in charge of erecting and dismantling the gers and leading the migrations in the spring and autumn. Among settled people, the women and children perform the same duties mentioned above plus they help with the planting and harvesting. Wives have the right to inherit property.

Status of Women in Mongolia

Leading Western scholars agree that Mongolian women traditionally have had relatively higher social positions and greater autonomy than women in the Islamic societies of Inner Asia or in China and Korea. Women herded and milked sheep, and they routinely managed the household if widowed or if their husbands were absent to perform military service, corvée labor, or caravan work. Mongols valued fertility over virginity and did not share the obsessive concern with female purity found in much of Southwest, South, and East Asia.

Women, however, although not shy, remained subordinate to men and were restricted to the domestic sphere. It is chracteristic of Mongolian attitudes toward male and female contributions that the care of sheep — which provided Mongolians with their basic, daily sustenance — was the responsibility of women, while the care of horses — which contributed much less to subsistence but more to prestige, war, and sport — was the prerogative of men. Traditional Mongols combined firm notions of female subordination with a flexible attitude toward female participation in male-associated tasks, and women ordinarily filled in for men when no males were available for such activities as milking horses or even riding them in races. Archery contests, one of the "three manly sports" (the others are racing and wrestling), always included a female round.

The 1921 revolution began efforts to bring women into public life and the extra-domestic labor force. The state's constant efforts to promote population growth also have led to a strong emphasis on women's reproductive capacities; bearing large numbers of children has been considered a civic duty. Possible contradictions between women's productive role in the economy and their reproductive role in the population have been glossed over in public rhetoric. The tension had existed, however, and frequent childbearing, state-mandated maternity leaves, as well as caring for young children probably have affected the sorts of jobs women hold and their commitment to their occupational roles.

Women in the Soviet Era

Women in Soviet-era Mongolia accounted for 60 percent of its university students, 70 percent of its lawyers, and 60 percent of the jobs in health care, education, and finance. They also worked as airline pilots and truck drivers. Explaining how they managed two shifts at textile factories, where women made up 80 percent of the workers, one manager told National Geographic, "There are two shifts, each of eight hours, but mothers of small children cannot work the night shift. Worker's children get free dare care and boarding care." Mother with children in boarding care dropped them off on Monday morning and picked them up on Saturday afternoon.

Mongolian women had legal equality, but once in the labor force, they suffered the familiar double burden of housework and child care on top of a day's work for wages. This problem was recognized, and a series of studies begun by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in 1978 found that the greatest source of strain on urban women was excessive hours spent in transit to and from work and shopping. There were too few buses or routes; retail and service outlets were not only scarce but they were located too far from many residential areas and kept inconvenient hours. The proposed solutions, all indirect, included state provision of more buses; the opening of more service outlets, including food shops, restaurants, and carry-outs; public laundries and dressmakers; and the expansion of nurseries, kindergartens, and extended-day elementary schools. The issues of female overrepresentation in the lower paying occupations and of the representation of women in the higher professional and administrative ranks in more than token numbers were not addressed. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989.

The Mongolian Women's Committee was established in 1924. This body operated through women's councils established in industrial centers, businesses, and schools in cities, towns, and aimags. Lubsanchultemiyn Pagmadulam chaired the group in 1989. The federation had approximately 5,000 women's councils that sponsored rallies, educational activities, and work-related training, and it monitored national health care and maternal issues for those sixteen years and older. It supported raising the level of culture among youth and enhancing the quality of their upbringing by instilling moral values. In 1946 the organization was affiliated with the International Democratic Federation of Women.

Education and Employment of Women in Soviet-Era Mongolia

The major change in the position of Mongolian women in the Soviet Union era was their nearly universal participation in all levels of the educational system and the paid workforce. In 1985 women made up 63 percent of the students in higher educational establishments and 58 percent of the students in specialized secondary schools. In the same year, they constituted 51 percent of all workers, up from nearly 46 percent in the 1979 census. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989.

By 1979 medicine and teaching were predominately female fields; women were 65 percent of all doctors and 63 percent of those working in education, art, and culture. Women made up 67 percent of the teachers in general schools and 33 percent of the teachers in higher educational establishments. They constituted nearly 47 percent of agricultural workers and 46 percent of those in industry. Women's high level of enrollment in higher education reflected the female predominance in medicine, nursing, teaching, and professional child care. This echoed the pattern in the Soviet Union, where most physicians were women and where the social and economic status of physicians was lower than it was in the United States or Western Europe.

The most highly skilled Mongolian scientists, engineers, military officers, and administrators had been trained in the Soviet Union. In 1989 no figures were available on the percentage of women among these elite professionals. Mongolian accounts of working women indicated that some women worked in such jobs as airline pilots, judges, and sculptors and that women predominated in the less highly paid food processing, textile, and catering trades.

Sexual Harassment and Job Discrimination of Women in Mongolia

According to the U.S. Department of State: There are no criminal provisions specifically covering sexual harassment, though serious violations may be covered under existing laws such as thoughbattery. The Law on Gender Equality in Mongolia includes a definition of sexual harassment and charges employers with taking steps to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, but the law includes no penalties for sexual harassment. [Source: “Mongolia 2015 Crime and Safety Report,” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State]

The law charges employers with taking steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, including by establishing internal rules about sexual harassment and the redress of complaints, but provides no penalties. Although the law provides that victims of sexual harassment may file complaints with the NHRC, such complaints are rare. NGOs stated that there was a lack of awareness and consensus within the society of what constituted inappropriate behavior, making it difficult to gauge the extent of the problem. The NHRC reported poor knowledge of the law’s sexual harassment provisions among both employers and employees.

A poll conducted by the NHRC found that internal regulations of nearly 70 percent of employers surveyed had no prohibition of sexual harassment and those that did have no procedures for handling a sexual harassment complaint. NGOs stated there was a lack of awareness and consensus within the society of what constituted inappropriate behavior, making it difficult to gauge the actual extent of the problem.

The law provides men and women with equal rights in all areas, including equal pay for equal work and equal access to education. These rights were observed with some exceptions. The Law on Gender Equality sets mandatory quotas for the inclusion of women within the government and political parties. It also outlaws discrimination based on sex, appearance, or age. In January 2013 the governaboutment adopted a midterm strategy and Action Plan for the Implementation of the Law on Gender Equality. During the year the government budgeted 52 million tugrugs ($27,730) for the implementation of the law and the midterm strategy.

Women made up approximately half of the workforce, and a significant number were the primary wage earners for their families. The law prohibits women from working in occupations that require heavy labor or exposure to chemicals that could affect infant and maternal health, and the government effectively enforced these provisions. Many women occupied mid-level positions in government and business or were involved in the creation and management of trading and manufacturing businesses. The mandatory retirement age is 60 for both men and women.

Despite the law women faced discrimination in employment. The NHRC found that men were more likely than women to be promoted or to be given professional development opportunities. Women also faced discriminatory policies with regard to family planning. In a 2013 NHRC survey, one in 10 women received verbal warnings from their employer not to marry within the first one to two years of employment, and 6.8 percent of survey respondents claimed employers warned them not to have children or adopt a newborn for two years. Surveys by various organizations and NGOs reflected that men and women were not paid equally for equal work performed. According to the NHRC, one obstacle to equal pay for equal work was that employers lacked clear methods for assessing what work is of equal value.

There was no separate government agency to oversee women’s rights; however, the National Committee on Gender Equality under the Prime Minister’s Office coordinates policy and women’s interests among ministries and NGOs, and gender sub-councils at the provincial and local level. There was also a division for women, children, and family concerns within the Ministry of Population Development and Social Protection. In parliament, a Standing Committee on Social Policy, Education, and Science focused on gender matters.

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