In Mongolia, where one in three families suffer abuse at home but find huge obstacles to seeking help, domestic violence was made a criminal offence this year. Journalist Grace Brown met with one woman in the capital Ulan Bator who described her traumatic journey from abuse to safety.
“He was perfect,” said 36-year-old Tserenhand as she recalled how she met her husband for the first time in 2004 as first-year students at the Law Enforcement University of Ulan Bator.
“A handsome, popular guy from a wealthy family. It was love at first sight for me.”
She laughed nervously as her hands began shaking. Early in their marriage, she said, he became violent.
“When I was three months pregnant with my eldest child… I saw a monastery. I told him we should go inside and pray. He said no. I went inside alone, prayed and came out. The moment I got out, he punched me in the eyes.”
Over the next 13 years, Tserenhand, who only wishes to be identified by her first name, says she was raped and beaten by her husband, including in front of their three children.
“In 2009, he stepped on my eyes until one of the eye sockets fractured. I lost 90 percent of my sight in one eye.”
A criminal offence
One in three families in Mongolia are affected by domestic violence, according to the National Center Against Violence (NCAV), with women such as Tserenhand and their children making up 90% of victims.
As a country of just three million people, across an area the size of Western Europe, Mongolia is among the most sparsely populated nations on earth. For nomads with no neighbours for miles across the vast, open steppe, families traditionally managed their own hardships.
For Tserenhand – who grew up in the countryside, but moved to Ulan Bator’s sprawling district of gers (yurts) lacking sanitation and central heating – asking for help was not easy. Despite calling the police five times during beatings, she dropped her charges each time.
Under Mongolian law however, domestic abuse is no longer seen as a family affair to be resolved in the home. The newly-amended Law to Combat Domestic Violence (LCDV) – which entered into force on 1 February, 2017 – for the first time classifies domestic violence a criminal offence.
Under the new law, domestic violence in the first instance still only leads to fines and warnings but the second instance will be treated under the criminal code.
This compels police to investigate reported cases of domestic violence – including physical, sexual, economic abuse, as well as stalking.
“The involvement of police and their actions during a domestic violence case are specified now,” said Arvintaria Nordogjav, lawyer and co-ordinator for the legal reform programme.
“After a domestic violence call, police must enter the grounds where the violence is allegedly taking place, assess the safety of family members, assess the situation, assess the level of danger towards the victim” and “provide safety to all victims”.
Police need more training to ensure they respond appropriately, Ms Nordogjav added.
For months on the run
After being beaten on the eve of 25 December 2016, Tserenhand called a taxi and asked the driver to help her while her husband was asleep.
In temperatures colder than Antarctica, she escaped with their youngest daughter on the steep, icy roads of the ger district, before taking the other two children from school the next day.
For several months, they stayed at a church shelter, until he found them.
“In February, he came to look for me at my kids school. I was walking over when suddenly he grabbed me, threw me on the ground started kicking me. Then he dragged me inside the car. I screamed for help, but nobody came.”
After convincing him to take her to hospital, she slipped out through the back door and found her way to NCAV, a non-governmental organization providing food, accommodation, basic necessities and legal advice to domestic violence victims.
“Since finding out about NCAV and getting the necessary legal help, I told my husband… I want to divorce him… I think he got scared, as he is nowhere to be found now,” Tserenhand said.
However, she is not pursuing criminal charges, fearing retaliation from his family.
The safety of survivors is also at risk due to a shortage of shelters. While the NCAV has helped more than 20,000 domestic violence victims over the last two decades, five of its nine shelters were shut down in 2017 due to a lack of local government funding.
The closures follow one of Mongolia’s worst economic crises in recent years, with total debt reaching $23bn (£17,3bn) and growth plummeting from 17.5% in 2011 to 1% in 2016, after the country’s mining boom ended.
“Forty percent of our financing used to come from the government,” Ms Nordogjav said, adding that international NGOs also assist.
“Unfortunately, this is now on hold for an uncertain period of time.”
Two shelters remain in Ulan Bator, including one run by police and one by the NCAV, supporting four adults and nine children. Another exists in the north-western province of Zavkhan, and in a provincial capital, Bayankhongor.
So it is now even harder for rural women to escape violence, particularly in the freezing winter, when temperatures plunge below -40C (-40F).
“We had a report that a woman from Omnogovi province who escaped from her husband was hiding in the mountains. This was in late autumn, when the first snow started to fall… Nobody knows if she is alive or not,” Ms Nordogjav said.
Adding to the strain on survivors who run, no financial compensation is available should they leave home, with most property in the husband’s name only.
“Most of them end up homeless, jobless and without child support,” said Ms Nordogjav.
“They end up living in poverty.”
Additional reporting by Saruul Enkhbold.
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by domestic abuse or violence in Mongolia, you can contact NCAV via email or call their counselling hotline at +976 96490505.
If you are in the UK, these organisations may be able to help.