Left behind - The Mongolian herders living at home with Mum

Narangerel Yansanjav is a senior researcher and board member of the Mongolian NGO, People Centered Conservation (PCC), and a senior team member of the global WOLTS project.

“I am one of the woman-headed households in this soum. I have been a herder for many years. For me life is still good, because I have a grown-up son who can help me. He became a herder when he was just 8 years old.”

These were the words of an elderly widowed herder, Suren, whom I met in Tsenkher soum on a research trip for the Women’s Land Tenure Security (WOLTS) project last year. She was explaining that women herders who have adult sons are better able to continue being herders than those with no children or only daughters. The Mongolian herding lifestyle is under enormous pressure and families are finding surprising ways to cope. In Tsenkher those pressures include a growing population, land degradation from mining, and land-use conflicts over access to pasture.

While the woman was talking, I suddenly remembered something that happened during a participatory community meeting with herders several years ago, in another part of the country. As the facilitator, I had asked the participants to write their names on a piece of paper. As they wrote their names and passed the list around, I noticed a young man at the back of the room looking very uncomfortable, his face reddening when it was his turn to write his name. After the meeting, I realised he had simply made a mark on the paper and later I found out that he was 30 years old and illiterate. This was quite shocking to me, because the literacy rate has always been very high in Mongolia since the socialist regime started in 1921.