5 Lessons from Mongolia’s Pandemic Hotline Project
October 13, 2021
Even before the pandemic, Mongolia had telephone hotlines offering essential services such as referrals for legal aid and advice, psychosocial support, emergency shelters, and where to report a crime. But as coronavirus lockdowns fueled an alarming and growing rate of domestic violence, it became clear that support for these kinds of crises was insufficient.
Through our local NGO partner Beautiful Hearts Against Sexual Violence, the Asia Foundation and its Lotus Circle supporters expanded two free, 24/7 hotlines for those experiencing gender-based violence (GBV). These hotlines provide access to specialized, psychosocial counseling for victims and survivors of sexual violence. Another partner, Green Balloon LLC, provides trauma-informed counseling specifically for women entrepreneurs. The hotlines are easier to access than in-person services, and as they offer much-needed support to callers they also provide new insights into the complex issues of domestic and sexual violence in Mongolia. Here are five lessons from our pandemic project to expand hotline and psychotherapy services to victims of GBV in Mongolia.
Lesson #1: The expansion of hotlines provided a deeper understanding of the prevalence and types of violence and the support that survivors need.
The services offered by the hotlines during the Covid pandemic were essential, but because data on sexual violence is not publicly available in Mongolia, the hotlines also provided important new information about the different experiences and needs of those seeking help. We found, for example, that almost 50 percent of callers sought help for sexual violence, 20 percent for domestic violence, and 13 percent for mental well-being during lockdown, and that the rest needed help to resist bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace. The most common issues for callers to the women entrepreneurs’ hotline included social anxiety, intimate-partner violence, pressure from extended-family members, and postpartum depression.
Lesson #2: Our LGBT-friendly partners created a safe environment for members of the community to seek help through the hotlines.
The two local partners that operated the sexual-violence and domestic-violence hotlines are grassroots, women-led organizations working to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence in Mongolia. As two of the pioneering civil society organizations in Mongolia’s gender equality movement, they worked to make the hotlines safe spaces for members of the LGBTQI+ community. We observed that once the hotlines had launched, many individuals identifying as nonbinary, who face intense discrimination in Mongolia, called to seek support.
Lessons #3: The number of incoming calls increased when hotline services were advertised through targeted channels rather than social media.
When The Asia Foundation and our partners disseminated information about the availability of hotline services for victims and survivors of sexual violence exclusively through social media (Facebook), only one in 6,000 engagements resulted in a call to the hotline. Previously, the 24/7 hotlines for women entrepreneurs had been advertised during an in-person, self-care and empowerment training conducted by Beautiful Hearts. Almost 60 percent of the participants in that training followed up, called the hotline, and scheduled one-on-one psychosocial counseling. Our observation, then, is that disseminating information about these hotline services during women-focused trainings is more effective than relying on social media.
Lesson #4: Inclusive and holistic trauma-informed services are key.
Psychologists offering counseling through the hotline have made efforts to ensure that callers are offered holistic and accessible care. In line with principles of intersectional feminism, therapists acknowledge the different forms of inequality and the unique needs and circumstances of each caller, and make accommodations to ensure that adequate services are provided. Counseling sessions start by building a trusting therapeutic relationship when survivors call the hotlines. Psychologists need to focus on psychological, emotional, and physical well-being and safety, and they should consider any potential cognitive, behavioral, or social barriers. For example, while working with clients with speech impediments, psychologists are careful to proceed slowly and not rush the session, despite time pressures. Clients are also offered video counseling rather than audio-only, because visual cues like facial expressions help clients to engage more intuitively and spontaneously in the therapeutic process.
Lesson #5: It takes time for women to get accustomed to psychosocial services, and it’s essential to provide the services continuously.
It is unrealistic to expect tangible results from short-term counseling. Trauma-informed psychotherapy requires building a trusting therapeutic relationship, and transformative changes in survivors’ lives can only occur with a long-term investment of time and resources by service providers. In 2020, when The Asia Foundation first launched psychosocial counseling services in Mongolia with funding from the Lotus Circle, we reached 10 clients, all women, with each receiving one to four sessions. With a second round of funding, we noticed a drastic increase in incoming calls, and the number of sessions that clients received grew to two to nine. During the pandemic we have further increased our commitment, providing four to eight sessions per client, which is not only more beneficial to clients but also indicates a shift from traditional attitudes in Mongolia that mistrust emotional and mental support from professionals.
During the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, the availability of free, comprehensive, trauma-informed counseling hotlines has been essential for victims of domestic and sexual violence in Mongolia. It has also provided important insights into trauma-informed counseling services, including best practices and a clear code of ethics.
Tsolmontuya Altankhundaga is a deputy program manager, Jargalmaa Amarsanaa and Purevkhand Tserendondov are project officers, and Tricia Turbold is the director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Program in Mongolia. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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