Collecting data on violence against women in Mongolia

"Violence is something we all know happens. It is distant and close to us always - but we didn't know how to talk about it."
Violence Against Women survey enumerator, Mongolia

In early 2017, around one-hundred women gathered in a hotel conference room in central Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. They had responded to a call to participate in a 'Women’s Health and Life Experiences' survey; to work as interviewers across Mongolia gathering data for the National Statistics Office (NSO).

Although the advertisement provided little information about the role and nature of the work, the NSO was looking for women who had the tenacity and empathy to interview women and girls about different forms of violence they may have experienced throughout their lives.

“I just thought it was another survey. The government often advertised for interviewers,” explains Lkhagvajav, one of the women who responded to the advertisement and, like most Mongolians, uses only her first name. “It was only when I started the training that I realised this was something different, and something really important.”

Lkhagvajav, along with the other women, would now be trained by national and international experts to embark on Mongolia’s first ever nationwide survey recording violence against women. It would take the women on a journey covering a combined total of 350 thousand kilometres across the vast and often challenging landscape of Mongolia. It was also a journey that was to have a profound effect on the women taking part and would mark a 20 year achievement for those who had defiantly lobbied the government to address the problem of violence against women in Mongolia.

Women training to work as survey enumerators, Ulaanbaatar, 2017. Photo credit: Henriette Jansen

Women training to work as survey enumerators, Ulaanbaatar, 2017. Photo credit: Henriette Jansen

In Ulaanbaatar, the trainee survey enumerators took part in 21 days of intensive training. The three-week course included information about gender and gender-based violence as well as important ethical and privacy considerations. The women were given information about sources of support and services available to both them and the women they would interview; an important consideration as many of the women would be recounting traumatic experiences, many for the first time.

They learnt how to interview women sensitively and effectively. Their interview skills would be crucial to getting women to disclose their most intimate stories. The success of the survey would rely on collecting the most accurate data possible.

Munkhzul, Enumerator, survey on Violence Against Women

Munkhzul, Enumerator, survey on Violence Against Women

Fieldwork began in the suburbs around Ulaanbaatar with the women working in small teams. Once familiarised with the work, and sensitised to the personal and emotional responses that often went with it, the freshly-trained enumerators were deployed among the 331 districts of Mongolia and tasked with tracking down and interviewing the women assigned randomly to their teams by the National Statistics Office. In all, 7319 women were interviewed by the teams of enumerators.

"One woman begged me to interview her sister who was living with violence. I had to explain that I couldn't do that. I had to stick to the list assigned by the Statistics Office."
Lkhagvajav, Enumerator

Interviews were done using a tablet to ensure smooth, confidential and accurate data collection

Interviews were done using a tablet to ensure smooth, confidential and accurate data collection

Fieldwork for the quantitative component was completed during May-June 2017 using tablets to collect the data. This allowed for the data to be accurately recorded and then uploaded daily to the National Statistics Office in Ulaanbaatar.

"One woman looked at me and said,
'I had a feeling I was
supposed to talk to you'. She
checked every box for forms
of violence. My hands were
shaking, I couldn't speak. "

Lkhagvajav, Enumerator

Lkhagvajav, Violence Against Women survey enumerator

Lkhagvajav, Violence Against Women survey enumerator

With a country as vast as Mongolia, the National Statistics Office faced many challenges. The survey took place in the summer months, but the unpredictable weather patterns still took a toll. Teams were pitted against the beautiful but harsh Mongolian landscape. Snow, sandstorms and boggy terrain provided many logistical challenges.

"During the journey, we got stuck in the sand and the snow, but these obstacles did not stop us. We had to complete our survey and have these women's voices heard."
Violence Against Women survey enumerator

The challenges of the weather and the terrain spurred the enumerators on, often forcing them to take gruelling detours and deviations to reach the women. "Our car got stuck one evening, so I asked someone to take me on a motorcycle," explains one the survey enumerators. "When I got to my destination, there was no road. I had to climb up a hill. By the time I got to the address, it was quite late at night and everyone was asleep. I had to wake the woman up to interview her."

The survey sought information from women about many forms of violence; physical, emotional, sexual and economic. The National Statistics Office had never organised this very sensitive kind of survey before; a survey collecting intimate, personal data related to gender-based violence. Such a project required careful planning. International experts with experience running similar surveys were brought in to offer advice.

A partnership was formed with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) kNOwVAWdata initiative providing technical support. The kNOwVAWdata project, which is funded by Australian Aid, supports and strengthens the capacity of countries in Asia and the Pacific to measure violence against women.

In Mongolia, close family ties mean that many women live in close proximity to extended families. But these close family bonds can also place a heavy toll on women who can be subjected to violence from their extended family, parents-in-law and, for the older women, their children and their children's spouses.

Alcohol abuse can also be a contributing factor: cheaply available alcohol fuels the problem. Mongolia has a disproportionately high number of people dependent on alcohol, a legacy of the unemployment and poverty faced by many people after the closure of industries and the subsequent loss of jobs in the previous decades. Mongolia, once a socialist state with a highly centralised government , suffered from the same problems as other post-socialist states; the closure of unsustainable industries, the loss of state support, the end of collective agriculture and, with it, mass urbanisation as people migrated to the cities in search of work.

Reaching Mongolia's Diverse Communities

Nailakh, an outlying district of Ulaanbaatar harbours many of these problems. A poor city with 37,000 inhabitants, it is also home to some of the 600,000 former herders who have migrated to the city over the past thirty years.

Socialist-era apartment blocks compete for space with traditional Mongolian yurts or 'gers' that serve as shelter from the brutal climate where temperatures can range from -50C in the winter to temperatures touching 50C in the summer.

'Ninja miners' tap into deserted and dangerous veins of old, abandoned coal mines to extract pure coal that burns in the harsh winter months and coats the city in a thick, black smog.

Nailakh has become home to many ethnic Kazakh people who abandoned their largely nomadic lives in the far western region of Mongolia.

The Kazakhs are the largest ethnic minority in Mongolia. The diverse population posed additional challenges for the National Statistics Office: How to ensure that all groups are represented in the survey and that no women slip through the cracks?

Aliya, Kazakh enumerator in Nailakh

Aliya, Kazakh enumerator in Nailakh

The Kazakh community is the largest ethnic minority in Mongolia

This predominantly Muslim group has their own cultural practices and speak their own language

The majority of Mongolia's ethnic Kazakh community still live mainly in the far west of the country, where the edge of Mongolia nudges both China and Russia, with Kazakhstan lying a few more kilometres to the west.

In the far west of Mongolia, nomadic Kazakh herders still tend their livestock and trade goods with their powerful neighbours along historic trade routes. For those who can thrive despite the harsh climate, it's a lifestyle that can be financially rewarding. Kazakhs in these districts tend to be wealthier than their more urban compatriots, but they are also isolated. Intermarriage is rare, families are large and many speak only the Kazakh language. 

Khandarmaa, National Coordinator, Survey on Violence Against Women

Khandarmaa, National Coordinator, Survey on Violence Against Women

The Kazakh community is predominantly Muslim. Religious practices tend to be more liberal in the big cities, but on the far western plains an understanding of the deeply devout religious practices was an important aspect of cultural understanding for the enumerators and survey designers. Ethnically Kazakh enumerators provided cultural and religious knowledge, as well as local language skills.

"I am from the Kazakh community. It was important that we spoke their language. I interviewed women from the Kazakh community in Nailakh, outside Ulaanbaatar, and also in the very far west of Mongolia." Aliya, Enumerator
Aliya, Violence Against Women survey enumerator

"I wanted to be a voice for women like me." Badmaa, survey enumerator

"I wanted to be a voice for women like me." Badmaa, survey enumerator

Advocating for change:

The National Centre Against Violence

Enkhjargal Davaasren has been fighting for women's right to live without violence for more than 20 years.

A lawyer and the founder of the National Centre Against Violence (NCAV), her organisation advocates for the rights of women and children, lobbies the government to legislate for women's rights as well as providing direct services in every district of Mongolia for women and children fleeing violence and sexual abuse. The NCAV played an instrumental role in getting the Revised Law to Combat Domestic Violence passed in 2016.

"In the past six years, there have been 106 cases of murder attributed to domestic violence. "
Enkhjargal Davaasren

Enkhjargal is cautiously optimistic that the government is committed to addressing the problem of violence against women. A revised law criminalising domestic violence was passed in 2016 and the national Survey on Violence is underway. The public perception of violence is also changing, spurred by a sense of outrage after high profile cases of the murder and abuse of women and children that were extensively covered in the media.

"Before, nobody would talk about violence, particularly violence in the home. Now it's on the agenda and government agencies and the general public are talking about it."
Enkhjargal Davaasren

Enkhjargal hopes that the data collected from the national Survey on Violence will provide vital information for services to be targeted to those most in need. "We need to see the different needs of these groups; young, urban, rural, nomadic people," she explains. "What are their needs? We need this data because in Mongolia we have such a diverse population with many different living situations and many different cultures."

But it's work she and her team have continued to do without any financial support from the government. Their work is funded by international organisations, foreign embassies and the the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). "The dream of NCAV is that the government takes over and starts to provide these services that are so vitally needed by its citizens," says Enkhjargal.

"When I first started the NCAV, I thought I could protect everyone, but I was only one voice. Now, after 22 years, there is a system. Now we need to make the system work."
Enkhjargal Davaasren

Enkhjargal Davaasuren, National Centre Against Violence

Nyamgerel Lkhamtogmid from the Ministry of Justice says what's needed now are more services for women and children.

As she points to a map she explains: "The survey will give us an idea about what needs to be done and who to target. We will know which parts of the country and which communities need specific resources."

Nyamgerel Lkhamtogmid, Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs

Nyamgerel Lkhamtogmid, Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs

A Coordinated Response:

The National Statistics Office of Mongolia

The National Statistics Office of Mongolia (NSO) was used to collecting data from across Mongolia, but the survey on Violence Against Women posed new challenges.

In the first nation-wide study on violence against women, the NSO would use an internationally recognised methodology for collecting and analysing the data; the World Health Organization methodology. The methodology involves a quantitative survey that consists of a structured questionnaire and a qualitative component that includes focus group discussions and in-depth interviews with other stakeholders. The qualitative component gathered information from men as well as women, people with disabilities and people from the LGBT community and was aimed at getting in-depth information to improve policy formulation and to more effectively target the allocation of resources.

A paper copy of the survey which was 58 pages long

A paper copy of the survey which was 49 pages long

"We did not have the experience to do this survey alone," explains Ariunzaya Ayush (pictured left) from the NSO. "We asked for technical assistance from UNFPA and the Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation (SDC) assisted us with funding."

Map of Mongolia showing geographic spread of the survey

Map of Mongolia showing geographic spread of the survey

"Our role is to find the hidden data on violence - the data from those women who have never reported their experiences before."
Ariunzaya Ayush, Chair, National Statistics Office of Mongolia

Ariunzaya Ayush Chair, National Statistics Office of Mongolia

A project as large and as sensitive as the national survey on Violence Against Women required the cooperation and coordination of many partners; government agencies, external donors and the provision of technical assistance.

Using the World Health Organization methodology, UNFPA supplied technical assistance through the kNOwVAWdata project, with funding provided by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) provided vital funding for the survey in Mongolia.

The survey data will be very will be a very critical step the country will be taking to eliminate violence against women and girls.
Naomi Kitahara, UNFPA Representative, Mongolia

Results from Mongolia's survey on Violence Against Women are currently being analysed and will be released in mid 2018.

With new insights and comprehensive technical data to work from, the Government of Mongolia, civil society organisations and all other stakeholders will be in a position to work together to better tackle violence against women and girls in Mongolia, helping those who have experienced violence and those who continue to live with violence in their lives.