ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA — The young woman raced down the street, repeatedly glancing over her shoulder. Her face was twisted in fear and pain; her neck, arms and hands were bruised.
At the same time, Saranchimeg Oidov had just arrived at the kiosk where she works, in the Sukhbaatar district of Ulaanbaatar, the capital. She spotted the woman through her window and wondered: Was she running away from someone?
Saranchimeg, 50, is a water distributor, and therefore a fixture of many Mongolians’ daily lives. More than half of the capital’s residents are not connected to the water system, and instead get their drinking water from kiosks.
From her perch at kiosk 69, near a bus station and a school, Saranchimeg greets the same people, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., five days a week — meaning she is in a prime position to notice if something is amiss.
Saranchimeg is one of more than 600 water distributors recently trained to alert police to potential cases of domestic abuse. It’s part of a new public-private initiative called Smart Triangle, with water distributors and, eventually, shopkeepers and volunteers forming a trio of community watchdogs.
Officials hope the program will help curb an apparent uptick in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic. But in a country with little infrastructure to help abused women, it’s unclear how transformative the project can be.
Despite women’s gains in education and politics, Mongolia remains a deeply patriarchal society. Domestic abuse was only formally criminalized in 2016.
Myagmarsuren Battur, GPJ Mongolia
In a national survey of more than 7,000 women published in 2018, nearly 58% said that partners had subjected them to physical, sexual, emotional or economic violence or controlling behaviors. Among those harmed physically or sexually, only 8% told police. Many said they feared sullying either their reputation or that of their husband.
The pandemic likely made their lives harder — potentially trapping people with their abusers, and severing contact with friends or co-workers who could help them escape. Calls to abuse hotlines in Mongolia surged, the Asian Development Bank reported. Hundreds more women requested shelter services compared to the year before. According to the National Statistics Office, reports of crimes related to domestic abuse jumped from 21 a day to 34 a day.
In response, Ganbayar Uranchimeg created Smart Triangle. Ganbayar runs Lantuun Dohio, a nongovernmental organization that works to protect children. Over his career, he’s organized several anti-violence campaigns, including Be a Human, which involved training civilians how to spot child abuse. With Smart Triangle, he wanted to enlist water and food providers because their customers cut across age and socioeconomic lines. And he brought in the government to help.
“Violence is a social issue everyone should tackle,” he says.
The online training consists of three to four hours of instructional videos. In addition to identifying signs of abuse, such as bruises and swelling, participants learn how to contact police anonymously and reach out to government social workers.
The intent is to shift some of the burden of reporting violence from abused women to bystanders. According to the national domestic violence survey, which was published in 2018 by the National Statistics Office and the United Nations Population Fund, 1 in 4 women physically or sexually abused by their partners didn’t tell anyone.
In Mongolia, it’s hard to speak out. A majority of women surveyed said a husband should be the main decision-maker in a marriage, and a wife should acquiesce to his wishes even if she disagrees. A quarter said it’s acceptable for a husband to beat his unfaithful wife.
“There is little opportunity to report because the abused is in some way under the control of the abuser,” says Tserendolgor Tserendev, the leader of a khoroo, an administrative subdivision in the capital.
But there’s little evidence to suggest that bystander-intervention programs are the best solution. A review of more than 100 studies by What Works, a United Kingdom-funded program to reduce violence against women, found that these programs didn’t discernably reduce physical or sexual abuse. More effective are programs targeting the root causes of attacks on women, including gender inequality, poverty and marital conflict.
Providing support for abused women also helps, the review found, but in Mongolia, that’s tough. In a country where 3 million people are flung across 1.56 million square kilometers (604,000 square miles), there are only 32 shelters, and none offer permanent housing.
Smart Triangle has raised other concerns. Police worry volunteers might call in false reports, wasting officers’ time and resources, says Altantevsh Nemekhbayar, a police captain in Ulaanbaatar, who nevertheless supports the program.
And potential volunteers worry about their own safety. Altai Togoo, a pharmacist in the city center, has noticed customers with purpled faces and hands, and feared their partners were to blame. She says she considered doing Smart Triangle training, but feared that turning in a potential abuser could put her in danger.
“Of course, this program has its drawbacks,” says Ganbayar, the campaign’s creator. “But you can’t not do anything just because you have a weakness. Someone just needs to do something about violence.”
Myagmarsuren Battur, GPJ Mongolia
Ganbayar has enlisted several government agencies. Among them is the Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, which runs 625 water distribution kiosks, mainly in ger districts, ad-hoc neighborhoods of mostly yurts.
Distributors are trusted figures. Saranchimeg has spent four years at her kiosk, a small brick building with blue trim. Students fetch water for their families up to four times a week, greeting her by shouting, “Hello, sister of the well!”
A mother of two, Saranchimeg was thrilled to join Smart Triangle — if her own child were in trouble, she’d want someone to step in. “If someone who has been abused needs help, I will never pass by in silence,” she says.
The morning she spotted the fleeing woman, Saranchimeg rushed outside and asked through her face mask: “What happened?” Tears streamed down the woman’s cheeks; she eventually revealed that her boyfriend had beaten her. Saranchimeg asked, “Shall I call the police?” The woman nodded. They waited in the kiosk until help arrived.