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Darkhan-Uul, Mongolia – As the chief social worker and administrator of the Darkhan-Uul One Stop Service Center, a shelter and service center for survivors of gender-based violence, J. Tsetsegmaa has a challenging job under normal circumstances. Now, with the added obstacles brought on by COVID-19, her work is made all the more complex.

Situated in the industrial provincial center of northern Mongolia’s agricultural heartland, the Darkhan-Uul One Stop Service Center is one of 17 in Mongolia providing comprehensive assistance to women experiencing violence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for its services has only grown. As an example, Tsetsegmaa and her colleagues served close to twice as many clients in March 2020 compared to March 2019. 

“Gender-based violence awareness and mitigation is my number one priority now, while also protecting our staff and clients from COVID-19,” Tsetsegmaa underscores. “We need to keep providing essential services to survivors of violence, especially during this period of restrictions.”

The Darkhan-Uul One Stop Service Center was already a critical fixture in the community before the pandemic. According to the 2017 National Study on Gender-based Violence conducted by the National Statistics Office and UNFPA, nearly 60 per cent of women in Mongolia have experienced some form of violence—physical, sexual, emotional, economic and/or controlling behaviours—by an intimate partner, most often a husband, in their lifetime. In the year prior to the survey, 35 per cent of women experienced at least one of these forms of violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities and contributed to a drastic rise in gender-based violence globally, while also jeopardising prevention efforts and the availability of services for survivors.

A rapid assessment on the impacts of COVID-19 on gender-based violence conducted by UNFPA with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection showed a sudden rise in unemployment as Mongolia and its trade partners face pandemic-driven economic recession. The associated financial and psychological stress has increased tensions in families, which has sometimes escalated to violence. But COVID-19 and pandemic-related stress do not cause violence; instead, persistent and inequitable gender norms, discrimination, patriarchy and power imbalances between men and women do.

Further, to help control the spread of COVID-19, the government implemented an array of strict measures, including closures of schools and businesses, from as early as January 2020. Tsetsegmaa cautions that the COVID-19 restrictions mean many survivors are stuck at home with their abusers, which has led to an increase in frequency and severity of violence—both for women and their children, including neglect.

Service providers throughout the country have seen significant spikes in reported incidents of gender-based violence during the period when containment measures were most stringent. In the first quarter of 2020, reports of incidents of domestic violence to the National Police Agency increased by nearly 50 per cent compared to the same period in 2019. Even more striking, the average number of clients served by One Stop Service Centers increased by almost 90 per cent, compared to the same period in 2019.

The sudden spike in the number of clients at Mongolia’s One Stop Service Centers has placed a heavy burden on the already limited resources allocated to prevent and respond to domestic violence and violence against children. 

The pandemic also makes it more challenging for survivors of violence to seek help. Especially early in the year when little was known about COVID-19, some survivors were afraid to seek support because they were worried about contracting the virus. This concern is felt by frontline gender-based violence service providers, as well. Focus group discussions with One Stop Service Center staff revealed that fear, uncertainty and feelings of unpreparedness about COVID-19 led to fewer new clients being taken in, along with a drop in proactive community outreach.

To ensure continued gender-based violence service provision during COVID-19, UNFPA Mongolia distributed guidelines and organised training sessions with service providers nationwide on how best to adapt to the new and challenging context. And, for instance, the Darkhan-Uul One Stop Service Center has experimented with alternative methods of service delivery whenever possible so their essential and lifesaving support can carry on without compromising the health of clients and providers.

“Services for survivors are generally still available, but many consultations and counselling sessions are now done online or over the telephone,” Tsetsegmaa explains. “Technology like mobile apps, websites and TV programmes also help us continue reaching people in need through remote support.”

Indeed, technology has afforded improved coordination between multidisciplinary teams, too. If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic in Mongolia, it may be the deepened collaboration between sectors working to prevent and address gender-based violence. This includes multiple levels of government, school social workers, civil society, United Nations and other development agencies, and donors.

For example, Tsetsegmaa and her colleagues have leveraged online meeting platforms to coordinate with various service providers, such as health workers and legal advisors, to ensure One Stop Service Center clients continue receiving uninterrupted support during the pandemic. This is a feat anywhere, but especially in Mongolia, a country where a  relatively small population of approximately 3.2 million people is spread across remote communities in predominantly rural terrain, and where a nomadic herding lifestyle is still practiced by many.

“The lessons learnt in responding to gender-based violence amid the challenge of COVID-19 will be taken forward,” said Kaori Ishikawa, Head of UNFPA Mongolia. “We’ve seen a willingness on the part of all stakeholders, including high-level officials from the government, private sector and international community, to renew the push to tackle this scourge and build on the significant progress Mongolia has made in recent years.”

In Mongolia, One Stop Service Centers offer survivors of gender-based violence and their families a full range of services, including safe accommodations, health care, psychosocial counseling, protection services, and basic legal guidance. They are led by the Government of Mongolia’s Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs and the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, with support from UNFPA and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. In response to the influx of reported incidents of gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, two new One Stop Service Centers opened in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, works in over 150 countries, including Mongolia. UNFPA seeks to achieve zero maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls. 

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* Name has been changed for the survivor’s protection. Photos and anecdotes in this story are used with informed consent from the individuals featured.