Source: International Telecommunications Union (

Position of Women

U.S. Dept. of the Army Country Studies Handbook, Library of Congress, [October 2001]

Traditional Subordination

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, corvĂ©e 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 characteristic 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 into 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.

Education and Employment

The major change in the position of Mongolian women is their nearly universal participation in all levels of the educational system and in the paid work force. 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. 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 the 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 pilot, judge, and sculptor, and that women predominated in the less highly paid food processing, textile, and catering trades.

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 carryouts; 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.