TUMURBULAG, KHUVSGUL PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — A young man with a face tanned by the wind and sun walks alongside his horse, leading his sheep to graze freely in the valley between faraway mountains.
After graduating from high school, Dandaabayar Byamba-Ochir left his dormitory and rejoined his family as a herder last year. His parents and five younger siblings needed the help, and the work happens to suit the 17-year-old.
“I love horses,” he says.
He would also love to start a family of his own in a few years, but that presents a greater hurdle than growing his family’s collection of 900 sheep, goats, cows and horses. Mongolia’s herders stay in different places throughout the year, searching for the best conditions for their animals, which means his home is often a six-hour horseback ride across mountainous dirt paths to the nearest large town, Murun, where he can find unmarried women his age.
Over the past generation, Mongolia’s growing university system has provided pathways to careers offering more stability, higher earning potential, and less physically taxing labor than the country’s traditional herding lifestyle. These options are particularly appealing for girls from herder families, says Enkhbayar Choijilsuren, deputy governor of Tumurbulag soum in Khuvsgul province.
“Mongolians usually demand their male offspring to help them with herding, while they send their daughters to school,” he says.
The resulting gender imbalance is clear: In 2021, 1.6 times more women than men were enrolled in Mongolia’s universities. After becoming highly educated and accustomed to city life, many are reluctant to return to the isolation, hard work and unpredictable income of a nomadic, rural life. Consequently, it has become harder for herder men to find wives, and researchers have begun raising concerns about the long-term impact of this bride shortage on Mongolia’s traditional values and agricultural sector.
Of the country’s estimated 305,000 herders today, more than two-thirds are 35 years old or older; of those under age 25, only one-third are women. According to a study published in 2021 by the Asian Development Bank and the National Committee on Gender Equality, this growing gender gap requires “measures aimed at training, empowering, and increasing the number of young female herders in line with their educational needs,” such as supporting women’s enrollment at the Mongolian University of Life Science, in Ulaanbaatar, which prepares students for careers in agriculture and animal husbandry.
Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia
Mongols have had a tradition of pastoralism and a nomadic lifestyle for thousands of years. Herding remains a crucial sector of Mongolia’s economy today: From 2013 to 2021, the number of livestock grew from 45 million to 69 million; during the same period, the human population only grew from 2.9 million to 3.4 million.
At the same time, economic trends have shifted. In a survey of 850 herders aged 15 to 34 from six provinces, 64% of households earned below 207,000 Mongolian togrogs ($60) per month, which is the minimum standard of living set by the National Statistics Office.
Fewer women and smaller families to help carry the workload appear to compound the problem. Milk production from sheep and goats has decreased, and fewer parts of the country’s herd animals — bones, skin, wool, hair and milk — are being used to their fullest potential, which also results in a loss of supplemental income opportunities for herder families.
Buzmaa Luvsandorj, a herder from Bayanzurkh soum in Khuvsgul province, says her 25-year-old son helps supplement the family’s income by picking and selling nuts. She wants to get him married soon, partly to have another set of hands to help them care for their animals, but he tells her that girls are too rare in their area.
“As the mother of a son, I am constantly looking around for potential brides; I keep thinking about each and every family in our community,” she says. “The clock is ticking even faster now that my son has turned 25.”
Across the country, however, Mongolians are settling down at later ages. Men now get married at an average age of 28.6 and women at 26.7 — three years older than in 2000, according to National Statistics Office data.
For previous generations, young men and women used to meet naturally, in the field.
Graphics By Matt Haney, GPJ
Purev Oidov, 53, a herder with two sons — one married, one still in high school — from Tosontsengel soum in Khuvsgul province, says, “In our time, we used to go to herds, visit each other, have a cup of tea, and then settle down. There was no such thing as ‘let’s talk on the phone.’”
Today, however, there are few unmarried women in the countryside with whom to share even a phone call, much less a beverage.
Demchigsuren Bilegdemberel, 39, an unmarried herder who lives with his parents in the Erdenebulgan soum of Khuvsgul province, says the girl he had once hoped to marry went to study abroad and never came home. Once a year, he takes a break from his family’s hundreds of cattle, sheep, goats and horses to visit other soums to look for a wife — without success, so far.
“Girls disappear as soon as they go to school,” he says. “The ones that exist are already with men. That’s how it is.”
Yanjmaa Baasanjav, 22, was born and raised in a herder family of Tsagaan-Uul soum in Khuvsgul province. She graduated from the Mongolian State University of Education as a teacher of Mongolian language, script and literature. She started working for Delgermurun complex school in Murun a year ago because she could not find a job in her own soum, then married a fellow teacher.
She says she and her parents agreed that it was better for her to avoid returning to their herder lifestyle of irregular salaries, heavy workloads, unpredictable schedules and tough natural challenges, such as storms and floods.
“This might be the reason why herders tend to prioritize educating their daughters, so that they can earn money by their wisdom and knowledge without suffering so much,” she says.
Graphics By Matt Haney, GPJ
Mongolia’s government has taken steps to improve the situation, including implementing policies that aim to help the struggling herding industry and training the next generation of herders, in hopes of attracting more people to live in the countryside.
And while not directly addressing the bride shortage, it does have other indirect solutions in the works, such as a public recognition program for herder women and milkmaids.
“Paying special attention to the issues of rural girls and women, especially herder women,” is key to any improvement in the area, writes Otgonbolor Lavag, senior specialist of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry’s Public Administration and Management Department.
The issue was discussed more directly during the Youth of Altai conference held in August 2022 in Govi-Altai province. The gathering drew about 700 herders from 18 soums and two villages, partly with the intention of facilitating introductions, says Khulan Purevdorj, head of the province’s Public Administration and Management Department. “The goals of the forum were to support youth personal development, to instill life skills, and to provide knowledge and behavior on family planning, public health and reproductive health.”
In Tumurbulag soum, Dandaabayar’s father, Byamba-Ochir Gunaajav, has warmly welcomed him back to the fold. His son’s help with the herds will allow the family to send their daughters away to the university, he says; one of them even wants to become a doctor.
As for his son, he says, “I am sure he will find his soulmate. As the saying goes: ‘A life partner awaits on one’s path to cross.’” He adds: “If it doesn’t work, I think I will send him to the city center.”
Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia