DALANZADGAD, UMNUGOVI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Until last year, Tumendelger Lkhagva worked as a chef at her local power plant, cooking for hundreds of workers each day. But when the pandemic shut down schools, the mother of four was forced to quit.
“It was impossible to maintain a job,” says the 35-year-old, who lives in Umnugovi, the largest and southernmost Mongolian province, which borders China.
She tried at first. Every day, her alarm rang at 6 a.m. so she could dress and feed her two sons and two daughters before her nine-hour shift at work. She left them to study online, under the watch of her aging in-laws. On returning home, she would cook dinner, clean and help the children with homework. She went to bed at 10 p.m. But Tumendelger worried they needed more supervision, and in December she finally resigned.
The chef’s situation was compounded by her husband’s job. As a miner, he spent weeks stationed at remote camps. “When my husband goes to work, I’m like a single woman,” she says.
But even when husbands are home, Mongolian women bear the brunt of housework. A 2019 survey by the National Statistics Office found women spent nearly five hours a day on unpaid work like household chores, while men spent less than two hours.
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed women further into the home. In February, the statistics office reported that women were leaving their jobs for informal work or unpaid labor, such as child care, due to lockdowns and remote schooling.
The result has been a growth in the labor gender gap, the difference between the number of men and women who are employed. According to the statistics office, the gap stood at 15% in the second quarter of 2021, with men comprising 60% of the labor force compared to 45% for women — a nearly 3% increase since the second quarter of 2019.
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
Mongolia is part of a global trend. The pandemic has strained working mothers worldwide. The World Economic Forum’s latest gender gap report found that women have faced higher unemployment rates than men due to the coronavirus, and the overlap of work and housework duties has “intensified” for those with children. Last November, data from U.N. Women, a United Nations entity that promotes gender justice, suggested that the pandemic could wipe out 25 years of progress toward gender equality.
In Mongolia, researchers fear that prevailing social norms will make it even harder for the country to reverse the negative consequences of the coronavirus.
“During this pandemic, women have carried an extra burden on their backs. They have no other choice,” says Gantuya Ariunsan, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of the Humanities in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar.
She points to “gender stereotypes, the pay gap, child care provision and women spending more time on unpaid household chores,” which make women more vulnerable to the pandemic than men. Mongolia needs “a better understanding of gender rights and targeted policy support,” Gantuya says.
The absence of adequate child care is a glaring gap. In 2015, the country adopted its first law on child care services to meet the needs of working parents, introducing officially registered child care centers for the first time. More than 550 centers opened nationwide, says Enkhzul Milkhaa, a board member at the Association of Child Care Providers, a nongovernmental organization. It was a good start, as there were few child care centers available before the legislation, though the numbers fell short of national demand. Six years later, however, almost 60% have closed due to the coronavirus, Enkhzul says.
A parallel shortage of preschools increases the need for child care. A 2017 government report found that only 68% of children aged 3 to 5 could access preschool services.
A labor law adopted in July failed to allocate additional resources to either preschools or child care centers. But last April, the pandemic spurred the government to increase near-universal child benefits from 20,000 Mongolian togrogs ($7) to 100,000 togrogs ($35) per child every month.
“The Mongolian government has made policies and decisions to support women’s employment,” says Minjin Tserenbaltav, head of the information and research department at the National Committee on Gender Equality, pointing to the recent child allowance boost and efforts to increase preschools. But she admits that “this is still not enough.” One solution Minjin puts forward is remote working, referring to a new “e-nation” campaign that “will allow mothers to work online while looking after their children at home.”
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The problem is starker still in remote regions, where most of Mongolia’s nearly 3.3 million people live. Of the 228 child care centers currently in operation, less than half are spread across rural areas.
For herders like Ochmandakh Sumiya, preschool education was a challenge even before the pandemic, and child care centers were nonexistent. Her husband is also a miner, and during the summer, when she needs to travel to graze her cattle, she has no choice but to take her three children along.
“I would love to send my youngest son to preschool if there were more accessible nomadic ones in the countryside,” says the 34-year-old, referring to mobile services that cater to herding families in other Mongolian regions. But none are available in the remote plains of Umnugovi.
To ensure her children get an education, Ochmandakh spends most of the year in an urban camp in Bayandalai district, where all three attended school before the coronavirus outbreak.
By September, several schools and child care centers had reopened in parts of Mongolia. But in Umnugovi, they remain closed.
Tumendelger dreams of returning to work when her children can go back to school. “I want to work and be part of a team,” she says. “To have my own income and also support my husband.”
Nansalmaa Oyunchimeg, GPJ, contributed reporting for this article.