BAYANDALAI, UMNUGOVI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — As her son and other small boys play with wooden toys in their dormitory in the country’s southern Umnugovi province, Munkhzul Purev tries to help the girls comb their tangled hair.
“Six-year-old children are too young to be sent away to study,” Munkhzul says. “It would be better if they were at least 7 or 8. Some of them can’t even lift their bags.” She pays 36 kilograms (79 pounds) of sheep and goat meat for the privilege of being one of seven mothers living in the Bayandalai soum dormitory during the school year, as part of a pilot project to support young students.
Mongolia lowered its school starting age from 8 to 6 in 2008, after reviewing international educational standards. The country’s herders, whose nomadic homes may be more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the nearest school and whose children made up 80% of the 32,500 children in dormitories during the 2021-22 school year, say this change created emotional and financial hardships for their families. Some rent second homes during the academic year or send their youngsters to stay with relatives; others rely on older siblings to care for their younger ones in the dormitory, or simply hope for the best.
As the first wave of these children complete their basic education, their parents, educators and policymakers are considering whether the next generation would fare better with amended regulations, increased budgets for professional caregivers, and renovated dormitories that could accommodate guardians.
The Bayandalai soum school’s “My Cozy Dormitory” program, under the national Primary Education Quality Reform Initiatives supported by the World Bank, is a pilot project that other rural schools are watching closely. The education ministry is also drafting a manual with step-by-step measures to improve the learning, development, participation and rights of children in dormitories, says Ganbaatar Jadamba, acting head of the General Education Policy Management and Coordination Department.
These efforts stem from years of advocacy and research, including a 2017 study by the Norwegian Lutheran Mission and the education ministry, which reported that one-quarter of Mongolia’s 6- to 8-year-olds in dormitories lived in poor conditions, on their own and with their socio-psychological needs unmet. In 2014, the National Council of Young Herders lobbied to establish professional caregiving in dormitories; four years later, 63 caregivers were hired across Mongolia with local funds. During the 2021-22 school year, the education ministry hired 82 caregivers, stipulating one for every 30 children under the age of 10 in a dormitory. But some rural schools, including at Bayandalai soum, don’t have enough children to meet the eligibility criteria.
A proposed amendment to Mongolia’s education law — one of 252 draft laws and resolutions planned for discussion this fall — would require dormitories to provide more caregivers. The proposal comes from the National Coalition for Civil Society for Education for All, a group founded in 2010 to monitor education funding and quality and to help shape policy in partnership with the Subcommittee of Child’s Rights of the Bar Association.
“The 6-year-old children of herders have been the victims of political policies in the name of meeting international standards,” says Tungalag Dondogdulam, general coordinator of the coalition. Policymakers could also consider whether the television and online learning programs developed during the COVID-19 shutdowns could enable young children to remain at home while still keeping up with their peers in the dormitories, she adds.
URANCHIMEG TSOGKHUU, GPJ MONGOLIA
Bayandalai soum dormitory caregiver Aldarmaa Tsend-Ayush agrees that children under age 8 need special care, and many are not prepared to live apart from their families. “Children who grew up in the countryside, first of all, do not have the ABC knowledge of using the bathroom, cannot make their bed, do not know how to fold their clothes properly,” she says. “There are even cases when the children not yet weaned come here.”
Officials from other rural schools in Mongolia have visited Bayandalai soum to study the “My Cozy Dormitory” experience. Sainzaya Dugerchuluun, a specialist in dormitory teacher development at the General Authority for Education, says the program is admirable, but not feasible for schools with larger populations and aging buildings offering limited space.
At the Galt soum school in Mongolia’s northernmost Khuvsgul province, one-fifth of the 1,050 children enrolled during the 2021-22 school year were under age 8. Eight lived in the dormitory with older siblings; the rest stayed off-campus with relatives or in cheap rentals with their mothers, who left their husbands at home with the herds.
“Since they are only 6 years old, they miss their home,” says director Tserenkhuu Altangerel, of the herders’ children. “Parents are told to take their children home every weekend so that they don’t become discouraged and unmotivated because of the school, which is such a tough place.”
Tserenkhuu says a new housing complex will replace the dilapidated 40-year-old dormitory in 2024 and could accommodate more caregivers — but the school would need funding to hire them.
Ariunaa Ganbat, 18, a recent graduate of the Galt soum school, says she is relieved that as she leaves for her first year of university, her 15-year-old sister will remain to care for their 7-year-old brother. But this “tough” arrangement places a high burden on older siblings who should be focusing on their own homework, health and hygiene needs, she says.
“It would be better to have a professional guardian,” she says. “We need someone who can, at the very least, help them do the homework and wash their clothes.”
URANCHIMEG TSOGKHUU, GPJ MONGOLIA
Bayandalai soum’s “My Cozy Dormitory” program has made a few adjustments during its first year. After one child’s father was caught drinking alcohol, participation was limited to mothers and grandmothers. The seven women have also learned to coordinate their efforts, such as by taking turns going home to help their husbands with the herds.
“When the livestock starts to give birth, I leave my son to do the spring work and go home to the countryside,” Munkhzul says.
Munkhzul’s 7-year-old son Zolzaya Chinzorig says he has gotten used to sharing his mother with the dormitory. “The children whose moms are far off ask my mom to sew their torn clothes,” he says, proudly.