by Michelle Tolson
One night while relaxing at home after a long day of horseback riding, I heard a loud banging on a door downstairs. It was a man adamant to be let in. He was probably drunk. This type of thing had happened before. I thought nothing of it, but then I heard a woman scream. I also heard the man yell and throw things. I wanted to help, but I was too frightened. I did not know what to do.
I wanted to call the police, but I did not know the number. Besides, I was new to the country and did not speak the language. Would they even understand me? What was my address anyway? There were other people in the building who were quiet during the episode. Why did they not do anything? I heard the man leave and the woman crying below.
This experience sparked my own investigation on what to do and how to help were I ever to be in the situation again. I met with Munkhsaruul Mijiddorj, Program Manager at the National Center Against Violence (NCAV) in Ulaanbaatar. She shared with me the complexities of the situation surrounding domestic violence in Mongolia.
Attitudes toward domestic violence have changed over time. Previously thought of as a private matter among family members, domestic violence was not recognized as a societal problem until 2004. It was not considered a matter for the state to intervene in, either with police action or within the court system. And on a societal level, there was apprehension from neighbors to intervene because this was seen as interfering in another family’s matters.
However, due to lobbying on the behalf of domestic violence organizations like the NCAV, Parliament created the Anti-Domestic Violence Law in 2004 stipulating that people have a legal responsibility to report domestic violence. Enforced in 2005, Mongolia’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law changed the perception of domestic violence to a human rights violation that requires intervention legally, psychologically, and socially.
Coinciding with the creation of legislation, NCAV began to work with the police department in Ulaanbaatar. They gave workshops and created brochures to help raise awareness of domestic violence issues. Yet, there is still much to do. For example, there is no formal database within the police department to classify domestic violence cases, which makes monitoring the situation rather difficult.
Another problem is that callers reporting domestic violence cannot do so anonymously under the current law. They must give their name and location – information which many fear could be leaked to the person being arrested. According to the NCAV, the 2005 law needs to be amended to address this concern.
Despite the law, domestic violence is not always categorized as such when reported. For instance, if a man is arrested, he might be held under Administrative Law instead of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law and fined only 15,000MNT (USD 11.56) and detained for 72 hours.
In 2005, a program called “Man to Man” was created by therapists and social workers at a detention center that housed men arrested for violence. The program utilized anger management techniques to help men process their emotions with life-skills training. NCAV strongly feels that programs such as these are crucial to transforming problems with violence into solutions.
Another program that addresses domestic violence is the Man and Healthy Family Center, a facility that offers programs and temporary shelter to men recovering from alcohol abuse. The service is available for men who actively are seeking to become sober. Many of the employees, in fact, formerly abused alcohol and are now sober.
In 2008, the NCAV launched a media event called “Man Can Stop Violence” to coincide with the international White Ribbon Campaign. The campaign was specifically created to get support from men. The police also became involved, eagerly sporting white ribbons to show their support. This illustrates that men’s involvement can be enthusiastic, if given the chance.
Last spring, the NCAV launched another media campaign against corporeal punishment in a daily newspaper to coincide with an amendment to the Parliament’s Family Law. It had a three-part series: 1) An overview of the case situation; 2) an interweaving of related specialists working together, such as doctors, lawyers, and therapists; and 3) recommended changes, which involved community groups such as the Association of School Teachers and students.
Though there are links between alcohol use and violence, Munkhsaruul Mijiddorj at the NCAV makes it clear that alcohol is not the cause of violence. The problem, she believes, stems from the way men are raised to deal with their emotions. Women are encouraged by society to share their emotional stresses with their friends, while men are expected to be stoic. Life skills to handle stress have not been taught, so emotions get bottled up and alcohol is used as a way to escape from the stress. When a man drinks in a society that makes it acceptable to use alcohol as a way of processing stress, it also makes it easy for him to blame the violence on alcohol. The real problem lies within the man who is not taking responsibility for his actions by actively resolving his stress.
The NCAV has worked hard to dispel the myth that domestic violence is caused by alcohol. Violence is committed by choice. Sometimes these choices are made due to a lack of problem-solving skills and life-skills, which schools do not offer. In time, with more awareness of the problem and through the greater development of civil society within Mongolia, these issues will be addressed more comprehensively.
Children also face the brunt of violence within families, and though various NGOs have reported that children of ger districts comprised of recent arrivals from the countryside that live on the edge of Ulaanbaatar, can face abuse, the abuse is not restricted to one socioeconomic class; it crosses all levels of income. However, lower socioeconomic classes are more vulnerable to stress, which can make it seem like the problem comes from poverty. Yet, just as there are those who drink and do not commit violent acts, there are also many in stressful financial situations who do not harm their children or spouses. Therefore, the solution is learning positive ways of resolving stress.
Incidentally, life-skills trainings are now offered by NGOs working with children from the ger districts, such as New Choice Children’s Charity and the Mongolian Youth Development Services Center. NGOs working with abandoned and orphaned children also offer life-skills trainings in an effort to break the cycle of violence and to increase the self-esteem of the children.
So, what can one do when overhearing domestic violence? Mijiddorj recommends calling the police. If language is a problem, enlist neighbors or friends who speak the language to call on your behalf.
I began this story with a heavy heart, not understanding the violence I overheard that evening in my building. However, I am now inspired and hopeful for the path Mongolia has taken to create a civil society of its own making.
Michelle Tolson is currently traveling and living in Asia. She has an MSc in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Michelle has written several articles for The UB Post, an English newspaper in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia about gender violence, civil society initiatives, and cultural topics.