Interview With Bolor Ganbold, Mongolia’s First Female General www.thediplomat.com
In March, Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa commissioned Mongolia’s first female Brigadier General, Bolor Ganbold, who currently heads the Military Training and Education Department of the General Staff of the Mongolian Armed Forces. General Bolor was the first female cadet in the history of Mongolia; she has been deployed to multiple international peacekeeping missions and has become a voice for female peacekeepers worldwide.
In an interview with Mongolia’s first female general, The Diplomat’s Bolor Lkhaajav touched on her military career, Mongolia’s military, and how the Mongolian army handles emerging issues such as gender. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How long have you been in the military, and what inspired you to choose the military as your career?
I have been serving in the Mongolian military for 29 years. When I was graduating high school, during that time, in the ‘90s, it was common for the parents to guide – actually choose – children’s schooling, majors, and future professions. My mom’s side had military siblings. With that mindset, my mother advised me to join the military. So, I started my military career early on, at the age of 17.
The Military University of Mongolia, after much debate, began recruiting female cadets in 1994. I was the first female cadet to be recruited. When I first joined, I felt pressured into military life. In retrospect, my military service to my country has been one of the most remarkable contributions one can give.
I also realized that there is a gender aspect to my military service. As the [first] female cadet, I later learned, I was becoming a role model whether I wanted it or not. These realizations came to me after many years of service. As more female cadets joined the military, the Mongolian armed forces diversified and strengthened.
After signing up to join the United Nations peacekeeping operations, I understood that military service could be global. I was part of Mongolia’s contribution to global peace and security.
How have women’s roles in the Mongolian military changed since you joined? Do you see more women in the ranks now? Is the path becoming more accessible for women to join the army and advance through the ranks?
Historically speaking, women occupied an essential role in the Mongolian military. During wars and civil unrest, women have participated in conflict zones without wearing a fancy title. In Mongolian history, Mandukhai Tsetsen Khatan had a significant influence on military strategies against the Ming dynasty. Although men outnumbered women in military affairs in general, they had a role.
Since World War I, the roles have shifted. Men continued to join the armed forces and outnumbered female soldiers worldwide. If there were female soldiers or military personnel, they were often confined to supportive roles rather than combat roles, which has an immense influence on one’s military career.
When I first joined the military there was no professional military female personnel. Most women who had rank were doctors, lawyers, nurses, language instructors, singers, and musicians. In many ways, Mongolia was changing, and the political outlook became more open for a female to join the military. Today, 28 years later, there are women in every sector of the Mongolian armed forces. Now 14 percent of the Mongolian armed forces are female.
Moreover, in my view, leadership is critical when it comes to having women in the military. As leadership changes, the enrollment of women in the armed forces has changed. In my experience, while some leaders – in both government and the military – support the enrollment of females into the military, others have limited the number of women. As such, that year’s registration of women would be less.
Mongolia’s female military personnel are at 14 percent, more or less concurrent with the global rate. During the recent U.N. General Assembly, the Mongolian president, Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, pledged to increase the number of female peacekeepers by 15 percent. This pledge opens the door for many women who have previously considered joining the armed forces and defense university. Moreover, active-duty female officers will have opportunities to enroll in foreign language programs as well as well continued education to excel both personally and professionally.
Outside the military, what are public perceptions like? Is Mongolian society open to female soldiers? How do you see yourself becoming the first of everything to inspire the younger generations?
Traditionally, Mongolia has been a patriarchal society. During warfare, the people expected men to join the military and participate in combat. This was true in 1911, 1921, and 1939. However, perceptions have changed in modern Mongolia. The public is more informed, and their perceptions of female soldiers have become more welcoming. The public is learning to appreciate and understand the need for female soldiers in the armed forces.
When I first joined the Military University of Mongolia, there were four female cadets. I think that one of the main aspects of female soldiers joining the armed forces has to do with how Mongolian men viewed women. There was a sense and understanding that they could do more – not necessarily on equal terms – however, there was room for women to be involved and participate.
Women’s roles in the military have continued to transform given changing the security environments of Mongolia and also the world. With this transformation, women have proved capable of performing both traditional and nontraditional roles in a diverse military environment. They have confirmed that they are capable of doing military duties equally with men. Compared to the mid-1990s, the Mongolian public’s perception of women in the military has improved on a positive and supportive stream.
In March, when I became Mongolia’s first female general, there were mixed feelings. I was proud of myself, but I was also anxious that this was a huge step in the Mongolian military and the country. It was an aspiration and inspiration for thousands of uniformed female personnel in Mongolia and beyond. It is something to be highly valued. Moreover, young women can be inspired by this accomplishment and believe that they can, too, achieve these honors.
At the same time, being the country’s first in military rank, promotion, and deployment, the public and the armed forces demand specific responsibilities and commitment. As someone who has previously served in the U.N. peacekeeping missions, my role as the first female general of Mongolia extends to all women in the military.
You were personally involved in multiple U.N. peacekeeping missions. What is the main importance of a woman’s role in these missions, given the security issues you have to face?
In 2010, I was deployed as the first Mongolian female staff officer to the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad. In my early deployments, I gained tremendous experience and knowledge of international coalition operations. But I also observed that female peacekeepers – in this case, Mongolians – faced various barriers preventing them from fully developing their potential as peacekeepers.
For example, one of the significant problems experienced by female peacekeepers, especially in the military contingents, was that they were seldom allowed by their contingent leadership to leave the base to interact with the locals. Having access to the host communities is particularly important in principle and in practice. However, when we did not leave the base, it limited our access to assist, engage, and help the community. This restriction, although understandably related to security issues, can be solved. At the same time, this ultimately had something to do with gender issues.
When female peacekeepers cannot leave the compound to perform certain tasks, they lose out on experience and exposure, therefore, negatively affecting them when it comes to promotion and ranks. I wrote about this before in “Mongolia’s Female Peacekeepers: A Case Study for Gender Parity.”
Now that you are a brigadier general, in your personal opinion, in which areas can the Mongolian military enhance its human capital by including more women?
One of the significant areas that need to be developed for the Mongolian military to enhance capability and human resources for female servicemembers is a consistent policy and strategy. And this policy and strategy must support the military education and career development of female servicemembers and military personnel. This includes all levels of the military, including female peacekeepers.
In the Mongolian military today, the employment of women at higher leadership and decision-making levels is insufficient. Most women hold executive and administrative posts and offices. However, times are changing, and women’s role is becoming increasingly visible not just in Mongolia but worldwide. I certainly believe that and would like to say to my fellow female members, “The greater the effort, the sweeter the reward.” If women have a goal and ambition to be and bring more contribution to the military, there is always a way to achieve it. Our government and its policies must support these endeavors.
Bolor Lkhaajav is a researcher specializing in Mongolia, China, Russia, Japan, East Asia, and the Americas. She holds an M.A. in Asia-Pacific Studies from the University of San Francisco.