ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia – In the sparsely populated steppe of Mongolia, where there are not always governing authorities to maintain law and order, nomadic families take care of their own affairs, and have done so for centuries. For some women and children, that means living with abusive husbands and fathers.
That was Amar’s life, before she finally mustered the courage to escape a hellish relationship filled with regular beatings and psychological abuse.
“It was torture,” Amar says, as she tugs a pearl ring back and forth on her finger. “He hit me until my face was flattened.” He would sometimes rape her at night, she adds.
Sometimes she’d have her children stay with family members so they would not have to witness the abuse.
“We’d sometimes bring our children to his sister’s, and when [he and I] got home, he’d tie me up in a chair and beat me,” she says.
It’s now been five years since Amar left home in the dead of night dressed only in her pajamas with her children. By then, she had put up with the abuse for three-quarters of her 27-year marriage.
She first went to a friend’s house, but has been constantly on the move since to avoid her husband finding her. She spent time in a domestic violence shelter and once lived at a construction site.
“Ever since, I’ve lived like a stray, going from place to place,” she says. One of her children is still with her; the others have grown up and left.
When Amar first told her parents and in-laws about the attacks, she said they had a hard time believing it and even suggested that the punishments were because she was failing as a housewife. “Now people blame me for marrying a bad man,” she says with tears in her eyes. And she can’t help but place some of that guilt on herself. “All in all, it was my bad luck for marrying a bad man.”
The U.N. estimates that one in five Mongolian women is subject to domestic abuse, but in the past, women’s advocates say, the police have been reluctant to get involved. When they did, there was nothing to stop the men from returning home and offending again.
But law enforcement in Mongolia is now better prepared to take on cases of domestic violence. A new law that took effect last year has made protecting people from their relatives part of a police officer’s job, and the police are now held accountable for ignoring complaints.
A police officer, who asked not to be named, says responding to domestic violence against women and children is a chief focus of changes within the police force, and that a special unit had been established for responding to domestic abuse.
“We rallied for change in the criminal code,” says Tsedevdamba Oyungerel, a former M.P. who made the law a cornerstone of her career.
In the past, abusers were given light penalties and were quickly out of prison after being sentenced. “There was a circle of violence to break,” Oyungerel says.
This isn’t the first time Mongolia has tried to tackle domestic abuse. Nordogjav Ariuntaria, a lawyer and a coordinator for legal reform at the National Center Against Violence (NCAV) in Mongolia, says a 2004 law that criminalized domestic violence didn’t have the teeth to punish offenders, nor to protect victims.
As a result, since 2010, over 100 people have been murdered and about 4,000 injuries inflicted as a result of domestic abuse, according to documents shown to News Deeply by NCAV. And those are just the cases that were reported.
“The police weren’t on board,” says Ariuntaria of the 2004 law. “It’s still a problem now, but things are better than before.”
NCAV says it has assisted 19,000 people – mostly women and children – since the organization was established in 1995. It runs three domestic violence shelters and provides counseling and legal support for women and children escaping abuse at home.
Ariuntaria says the new law is definitely an improvement, but the group and others think it can still be better. “There’s still work to be done,” says Oyungerel. “There’s still not a strong enough mechanism to protect women.”
Oyungerel and Ariuntaria say parliament has not yet voted on provisions that would enforce restraining orders and give some lenience for women who kill their spouses in self-defense. There are currently 36 women currently in prison for killing their spouses, and the NCAV believes they are facing unjust sentences. Around a quarter of the provinces outside the capital still don’t have any shelters for women and children.
Amar says the new law doesn’t do enough to help traumatized victims who have already lost everything. “I’ve spent half of my life running away,” she says, adding that she’s still on the run from her husband. “Now I’m 53 and retirement is coming, but I have no support, except medical insurance.”
“What about my youth and home?” she asks. “There’s still no support for women who start over.”