Modern women in the land of Genghis Khan

A giant statue of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire, towers high above the steppe. Ties with the nomadic past remain strong here. Associations with conquest and male power are very much alive - so what is it like to be young and female in modern-day Mongolia?
Population: 3 million
Area: 1.56 million sq km

Michidma Gombosuren
13 years old
Khentii province

I really like riding horses, especially fast ones. I can ride horses as fast as any boy.
When I'm riding I feel like I'm riding in the Naadam Festival.

Michidma lives with her family in Khentii province, the birthplace of Genghis Khan, a day's drive east of the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. Her dream is to race in the Naadam Festival, a competition showcasing nomadic skills and traditions, above all horsemanship.

Sometimes girls are scared of riding fast horses, they don't hold on well and fall off. That is why they are not always chosen to race in the Naadam Festival.

Michidma has just failed to qualify for the competition, losing out to a boy. But it hasn't stopped her dreaming.

When I grow up I want to have a baby girl and teach her how to ride horses really fast. I want to train her so she will win the Naadam race. That is my dream.

Mongolia's famous Naadam Festival is held annually, marking the anniversary of independence from China in 1921.

Traditionally only men were allowed to take part, but these days girls and women compete in horse racing and archery.

A six-year-old girl rider at the Naadam Festival

A six-year-old girl rider at the Naadam Festival

Because they are light, girls and boys as young as five are picked as jockeys, riding in races up to 30 kilometres (19 miles) long.
For many families it is a matter of pride, despite some children riding without saddles, safety equipment or insurance.

Nominjin Amarkhu
27 years old
Ulan Bator

I'm very lucky, I have a very strong support system around me. Ever since I was a little girl I had parents who were very supportive of my dreams.

Nominjin is a singer and social entrepreneur and lives in Ulan Bator. She gained fame as a teen pop star and now performs in Mongolia and abroad. She also runs a website teaching English and owns a vegan restaurant in the capital.
She comes from a relatively privileged background. Her mother is an academic and for many years raised her on her own before marrying Nominjin's American stepfather.

I was raised by extremely strong women, my late grandmother and mother. The values they instilled in me are to always know my self-worth, to treat people with respect and to command respect.

Nominjin leads quite a nomadic life and has spent time in a number of different countries, including India and Russia. Exposure to different cultures has shaped many of her beliefs. Living in India as a teenager, she became interested in spiritual practices and vegetarianism. When she was just 18 she opened a vegan restaurant in Ulan Bator, a rarity in a country where meat is a staple of the national diet.

When I was 13 I took a vow of non-violence which meant not consuming any animal products.

Being multilingual, Nominjin believes learning a new language can open doors and create opportunities; that's why she runs an online English language learning programme.

I believe everyone should have access to a healthy lifestyle and affordable education.

After the collapse of communism in Mongolia in the early 1990s the education sector was hit hard. Without Soviet support the newly established Mongolian government struggled to keep free education running. Fewer children went to school and more dropped out altogether.

But since the early 2000s, the government has built more rural classrooms and libraries and created a modern curriculum, encouraging more children to stay in school longer.

The government hopes that better access to education will help bring down the high number of teenage pregnancies.

About a third of the population lives in rural, often remote areas, making access to reproductive healthcare a challenge.

UN figures suggest there's a lack of access to contraceptives, a situation which actually worsened between 2003 and 2013.

One factor may be the prevailing tradition and culture which cherishes female fertility. Another may be a government drive to encourage people to have more children in what is the world's most sparsely populated country.

Khaliunaa Evra
15 years old
Khentii province

I like living in the countryside. The air is clean and life is healthier here. Every morning I milk the cows at 5 am. I also help my mother prepare food and play with my brothers.

Khaliunaa lives in Bahnor, a settlement in Khentii, one of 21 provinces in Mongolia. Her parents are livestock herders. There is no hot water, gas or electricity and life can be harsh in winter. Some families use solar panels and generators to produce power for a few hours a day.

But even in these remote areas people increasingly have access to the internet, with satellite dishes giving the traditional yurts a contemporary look.

I use the internet to find information but I also like to check out my friends' photos and share mine with them.

I love singing, but I dream of becoming a flight attendant so I can travel around the world, see developed countries and find out why they call Mongolia poor!

Mongolia has 20 times more livestock than people.

Almost a third of Mongolia's labour force are livestock herders like Khaliunaa's family. Meat is one of country's key exports alongside raw materials like wool and leather.

Until recently someone like Khaliunaa would have followed in her parents' footsteps. But access to education and the internet is changing the outlook of young women and opening up new possibilities.

Bouya Mandarkh
31 years old
Ulan Bator

I don't believe that being a woman has made doing business difficult for me. I think in Mongolia women work harder than men and contribute more to the household economy.

Bouya Mandarkh runs a joint business with her husband, importing lorry parts from China. She studied in China and her knowledge of the language has proved invaluable. She is part of a growing number of businesswomen in Mongolia.

A 2014 World Bank report suggests that women now own, or part-own almost 40% of Mongolian firms, but gender pay inequality is still a big problem. Bouya once ran an election campaign for her mother who stood for parliament, and that opened her eyes to the struggles of working class women.

There is a huge economic gap in Mongolia. We see young girls from the countryside come to Ulan Bator and work in low wage jobs.

If I had political power my priority would be to help single mothers and their children. These mothers need help to feed their kids and give them an education.

There may be more and more women like Bouya in Mongolia, but as in most parts of the world, women are paid less than men for doing the same job. They also tend to take on a bigger share of household chores.

National Statistics Office of Mongolia

National Statistics Office of Mongolia

In politics women also still lag behind. Mongolia ranks 114th out of 193 countries for female representation in parliament. At the end of the Soviet era women held almost a quarter of seats but the numbers plummeted after the collapse of communism. Things have since improved, with women winning 13 seats out of 76 at the last election.

Inter-parliamentary Union

Inter-parliamentary Union

Only one in five Mongolians are online but the numbers have doubled in the past seven years. Access to information and technology has given women new choices and with that greater change will come in Mongolia.