The Effect of Psychosocial Support for Women in Mongolia
May 3, 2023
In Mongolian culture, family matters are not typically discussed outside the household. When families experience domestic or intimate partner violence, this culture of family privacy isolates victims and normalizes these behaviors. One notable side effect of this cultural attitude is that psychological services are not widely available or generally accepted in Mongolia, including trauma-informed therapy.
The Covid-19 pandemic confronted Mongolian women with unprecedented social and economic challenges. School closures drastically increased their domestic care burden, even as rates of domestic violence spiked. When The Asia Foundation–Mongolia began implementing projects to support women entrepreneurs during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, we therefore made the decision with our partners to integrate free trauma-informed psychosocial counseling to respond to the psychological needs of women. This work continues to demonstrate the positive effects of including mental health services in our programming, and the use of these services is increasing, indicating growing cultural acceptance and understanding.
In 2020, with support from the Foundation’s Lotus Circle of private donors, we teamed up with partners Green Balloon and Beautiful Hearts Against Sexual Violence to address the growing incidence of domestic violence triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic by offering free virtual psychosocial support for women. Building on the success of this initiative, and with support from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we partnered again in 2021 with Green Balloon, a group of psychologists working for the public good, to offer these services to women entrepreneurs in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and the largely rural provinces of Gobi-Altai, Umnogobi, and Uvurkhangai.
Psychologist Enkhchimeg Purvee, CEO of Green Balloon, stressed the importance of offering free psychosocial support in rural locations in Mongolia and reflected on the positive impact it can have on the entire community:
It is rare to find professional and ethical psychosocial support in rural areas of Mongolia. Clients from these locations expressed to us that they had never received such a high level of service before. This is not just referring to psychosocial support but to any service. These communities are so small, and information circulates quickly. We saw how our services positively impacted the entire community.
This project is our most substantial investment of this kind to date, and it has given us insight into the positive effects of uninterrupted, trauma-informed psychosocial support, in terms of both the benefits to individual clients and changes in public attitudes towards counseling services and mental health.
When we first launched the project, in September 2021, the average number of incoming calls to the telephone hotline was just 23 per month, and the callers were overwhelmingly concentrated in the capital city, despite our efforts to reach clients in rural locations. With targeted outreach efforts through a mass text-message campaign, however, the number of calls increased by nearly 50 percent, and 40 percent of all calls were from rural areas. By the end of the project, in September 2022, the total number of incoming calls to the hotline had reached 436, and 101 clients had received appointments with psychologists for ongoing therapy.
This work has shed new light on the circumstances that clients endure. Psychologist Khongorzul Amarsanaa, the cofounder of Green Balloon, explained how violence was the prevalent issue that clients faced:
While 28 percent of callers reported acute cases of gender-based violence as the reason for seeking support, overwhelmingly other callers were dealing with issues related to unresolved trauma from past violence. This includes physical or sexual child abuse, observing domestic violence in the household as a child, or intimate partner violence experienced in a previous relationship as an adult.
Due to the complex nature and severity of their trauma, most clients need a high level of support. Many have reported that calling the hotline was a last resort for them. In most cases, they had sought help from family, community, and religious leaders unsuccessfully. As a result, the majority of clients required more than 10 therapy sessions, and some more than 20.
Addressing these issues and building a trusting, therapeutic relationship with a mental health professional proved to be very effective. Clients reported increased self-esteem, more hope for the future, a better sense of their own strengths, and a growing curiosity to learn new skills.
Another highly effective component of the mental health support program was psychological education. Clients were given information to study and asked to complete assignments between therapy sessions to help them better understand their own issues, learn healthy ways of coping, and gain a sense of control over their situation. Clients reported that these insights gave them a new sense of compassion for themselves and other survivors of violence, and they expressed their desire to support other women who shared their situation.
As we continue to learn more about the positive impact that psychosocial support can have on women in Mongolia, we are convinced that these services should become a national priority. Our targeted outreach efforts dramatically increased the number of clients from rural areas, suggesting that public awareness and acceptance of psychosocial support services has grown, and the impact on clients has been profound. While our project was a small one that attached psychosocial support to other economic empowerment programs aimed at women, it is increasingly clear that Mongolian society would benefit from greater availability of these services. Development practitioners should consider including mental health support for project beneficiaries far more widely in Mongolia, not only to improve citizens’ psychological health, but also to break down the social stigma surrounding therapy.
Tricia Turbold is director of economic empowerment, Purevkhand Tserendondov is a project officer, and Tsolmontuya Altankhundaga is a project manager for The Asia Foundation in Mongolia. They can be reached at [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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