Living While Female in Mongolia

The country has some of the worst rates of sexual violence in Asia—and old attitudes are proving hard to change.

A Mongolian woman walks along a road on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar on July 13, 2016.
A Mongolian woman walks along a road on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar on July 13, 2016. Wang Zhao/Getty Images

Wearing a sleeveless black dress and with her brown hair gracefully swept into a chignon, Solongo sipped some tea in an office in downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and slowly spoke about what happened when she was 18. While walking home from church next to the hodgepodge of homes and yurts crammed into the hilly areas north of the city, a man grabbed her, threatened to kill her, and then raped her.

“I didn’t call police. It was my secret,” the now 38-year-old, who asked to go by a pseudonym for her safety, said in July. Solongo berated herself for walking through a dangerous area instead of taking a bus—such self-blame is not uncommon among Mongolian women. Years later, her husband didn’t believe her when she told him about the attack. The two separated after he had an affair. She has no job; her sons are 8 and 11, and they are acting out. Her counselor, Yanjmaa Jutmaan, 41, listened intently as Solongo described her problems.

“Personal counseling is almost an unknown concept in Mongolia,” Jutmaan said later. I was in Mongolia helping her write an autobiography about her journey from being an abused teenager in 1990s Ulaanbaatar to the country’s first female college chancellor. In recent years, she’s pivoted toward helping abused women. “Most Mongolians dismiss it as only for the mentally ill. We are a closed, introverted people. Suicide and sex abuse rates are high. Our temperatures range from minus 40 degrees to plus 40 [Celsius]. It’s a poor country, and life here is hard.” Like many Mongolian women I spoke to, Jutmaan has experienced sexual abuse as well. She believes it is time for her country to tackle the rampant abuse of women head-on.

In 2017, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) did a first-ever survey on gender-based violence in Mongolia, which has a population of over 3.1 million. Key findings, which were released in June 2018, showed that Mongolia had one of the higher rates in Asia of sexual violence at the hands of people who were not their victims’ partners. One out of three women there (31.2 percent) who had ever been in a relationship had experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime. The most dangerous place is the home, followed by out on the streets. One out of 10 women said she was sexually abused before the age of 15. Two major triggers were jealousy and alcohol consumption by their partners. Abuse ranged from being hit, slapped, pushed, shoved, choked, and burned to being threatened with a gun. And in the landlocked country, where raising livestock is common way to make a living, nearly 1 percent of women reported being chased by a horse or lashed with a whip by their partners.

Abuse is by no means constrained to Mongolia’s poor, rural areas. The same week the U.N. results were announced at a press conference in Ulaanbaatar, Dorjdugar Gantulga, a member of the Mongolian parliament, resigned after being accused of raping a 25-year-old female student—he has since been sentenced to two years in prison. A month later, Mongolia launched a #HeForShe Campaign, which is part of an international movement for gender equality led by the U.N. Jutmaan, who lent her expertise to the cause as a statistician, thinks the rate of sexual abuse may be well over a third of all Mongolian women, the estimate given in the U.N. report. “It’s the common experience here,” she said. “It’s shame, shame, shame. Society blames the woman. Everyone has sexual problems, and marital rape is common.

As the mother of four sons, “it’s hard to raise boys to be gentle toward women, because the whole society is against it,” Jutmaan added. “Domestic violence wasn’t even a crime here until 2017.” Normally, Jutmaan, who has a doctorate in mathematics from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and has worked as a senior analyst for the Mongolian government in cybersecurity, policy, and data analysis, would be a prime candidate for a high-level government job. But she has chosen a less visible road helping the women of her country who have faced abuse. Hoping to eventually help such women full time, she is trying to raise the money for a new Christian counseling center on land she and her husband bought near the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park about 30 miles east of Ulaanbaatar. Her center would support the recent spate of One Stop Service Centers, which are a combination women’s shelter and medical clinic where abused women can also access legal and psychological services. They can live with their children there for up to 72 hours. Since the report came out, the UNFPA has built several One Stop centers around the country. The 15th opened this past November.

But most observers acknowledge that the centers will never be enough. “It is time in Mongolia to work not just for female empowerment, but to work with boys and young men,” said Ariunzaya Ayush, the chairperson of the National Statistics Office in Mongolia who helped put together the UNFPA report. Dressed in a copper-colored Mongolian deel the day I saw her in July, Ayush occupies a spacious third-floor office in a government building one block from Sukhbaatar Square, the city’s main plaza. Her grandfather, Puntsagiin Jasrai, was prime minister from 1992 to 1996.

“It all begins at the home,” she said. “Thirty-three percent of the boys are physically punished versus 23 percent of the girls. Parents statistically spend more time with girls. They pay less attention to boys and punish the boys more. Boys are also less educated. The Mongolian culture says men have to be heroes. Boys don’t cry. They have to be strong.”

That idea encourages the men to keep their women in line, which leaves the way wide open for abuse. There’s also a strong emphasis on family honor, which works against reporting one’s relatives or spouses as physical or sexual abusers, she added, citing a popular saying: “It is better to have your bones broken than your name dishonored.”

Plus, many women don’t realize that what they endure constitutes physical or sexual violence. One survey finding showed that 35 percent of women who themselves had experienced partner violence said that a husband was justified in beating his wife if she was unfaithful. Much smaller percentages agreed that other faults (disobeying him, not doing the housework to his satisfaction, refusing sex, and asking whether he’s unfaithful to her) also deserved a violent response. “Women don’t know differently here,” Ayush said. “They don’t see it as a crime, so they accept [violence] as the way it is.”

Housing is part of the problem. A large portion of Mongols live with their families in a ger, otherwise known as a yurt, which is a large circular tent with all a family’s belongings. Khongorzul Tuya, the executive director of Focus on the Family Mongolia, a branch of the evangelical Colorado Springs-based organization Focus on the Family, offers counseling and said that families get little privacy in such arrangements. “The relationships can be very abusive and neglectful,” she said. “There are lots of boundary issues. Abuse happens within the family, and they keep quiet about it. It’s related to the shame issue as well. If they are exposed to the authorities, the whole community finds out about the matter.”

Another issue is neglect, especially in rural areas. “Parents leave their children alone for long hours, especially in the countryside, because they have to work and tend animals,” she said. “They’ll tie a 2-year-old to the ger wall for long hours … to keep him away from the fire” at the center of the yurt. She and her husband, who joins her in counseling, believe that such children are so starved for affection that they tolerate sexual abuse, as it appears to be the only way they can find love and acceptance.

Gerelttuya Khishigdorj, a house mother at a Dutch-funded Christian orphanage in Ulaanbaatar, concurs. She oversees about 40 children. All the girls have been sexually abused, she said, plus about 75 percent of the boys. “One girl who lived with her mom and grandmother came to us at the age of 8,” she said. “She’d already been raped. Her mother was drunk, and some of the men raped the girl while the mother lay there.”

Domestic violence havens are in short supply in Mongolia. The National Center Against Violence runs one shelter in Ulaanbaatar—where women and their families can stay for up to three months—and two in rural areas, where women and children can only stay for a few days. The Mongolian Gender Equality Center, which concentrates on trafficked women, has one in Ulaanbaatar and one near the Chinese border. The government doesn’t fund shelters, which is why the National Center Against Violence approached Holt International, an Oregon-based Christian nonprofit, to help fund its work. The Desert Rose Foundation, another Christian nonprofit, runs a safehouse in a far-eastern suburb of Ulaanbaatar that houses 20 girls who have been sexually abused, abandoned, or have parents with substance use problems or who otherwise can’t care for them. One has to walk down a dirt road to get to the main building, which has a light blue faux brick exterior and a spotless series of rooms for the girls. An adjoining building has a large, airy library with window seats and books in Mongolian and English.

While there on a rainy July morning, I asked the director, Amarjargal Tsolmon, and assistant director, Suvdaa Jamsran, how long the kids stay there. “It depends on how much the girl is damaged, physically, emotionally, and sexually,” said Jamsran, who translated for Tsolmon and added some of her own comments. “We had a lot of teenagers at the beginning, but lately we’re getting smaller ones. We tell them they are precious people and what happened is not their fault.” She pins the problems on the end of Russian rule—Tsolmon says there were far fewer problems under socialist Russia during the 1980s: “We had wonderful childhoods under socialism. We could do any kind of sport or art class. We have free hospitals, free school, we could walk by ourselves to school. We could not imagine anything bad happening. Now we can’t send the girls alone anywhere.” The economy also tanked after the Soviets pulled out, and as factories closed, joblessness and alcoholism soared. Poisonous attitudes toward women that had always been simmering below the surface erupted. For years, the government took few steps to stop the sexual abuse and violence that resulted.

Things began changing, at least economically, in 2010 when Mongolia experienced a mining boom in the western part of the country. Its coal exports rose in the first quarter of this year by 15 percent alone thanks to China’s insatiable need for coking coal. Still, about 30 percent of the country’s population live in poverty, many of them in crowded, polluted Ulaanbaatar, which puts immense pressures on families and continues the cycle of violence. For now, it may be years before women like Solongo can get through adolescence without being attacked or raped. Government figures show that 46 percent of Mongol teenage girls feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods after dark compared to 87 percent of the men. And until the culture changes, the counseling centers, orphanages, and women’s shelters will be left picking up the pieces.

Julia Duin is a writer based near Seattle.