Mongolian women fight for law against widespread sexual harassment

Ulaanbaatar (AFP) –


The arrest abroad of Mongolia's most senior judge on allegations that he groped a woman has sparked a fierce debate over his country's lack of laws against sexual harassment.

The constitutional court judge, Odbayar Dorj, was detained by airport police in South Korea at the end of October after being accused of inappropriately grabbing a Korean Air flight attendant.

The case did not surprise many in Mongolia, where widespread sexual harassment goes largely unreported -- because it is not illegal.

"If a Mongolian flight attendant is harassed, they can't speak up because there is no law to protect them," said Arvintaria Nordogjav, of the National Centre Against Violence.

She added it was only because the alleged victim was not Mongolian that this case had garnered public discussion at all.

The court voted Friday to dismiss Odbayar as chairman, but he remains one of the nine members of the judicial body.

While the #MeToo movement exploded on the global stage in 2017 after alleged serial sexual harassment and assault of young actresses by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein became public, it hasn't had the same impact in Asia as it has had in the US and parts of Europe.

But in Mongolia, Odbayar's case has stirred up the issue again, and rights groups have made fresh demands that parliament creates legislation to protect against such behaviour.

On Monday, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, UN chief Antonio Guterres called for action to protect women and "end rape and sexual assault of all kinds."

"I call on governments, the private sector, civil society and people everywhere to take a firm stand against sexual violence and misogyny." he said.

A sexual harassment law was introduced in 2015 in Mongolia but it was dropped two years later as politicians voiced concerns that it could be misused.

"The reason why parliament removed it from criminal law is that the action was taken in the same vein as sexual violence, so it was unfair for men," said parliament member Oyunkhorol Dulamsuren.

- Inadequate system -

The gender equality law says all organisations must have their own sexual harassment policy -- but there are no repercussions if they do not.

"(We) must create new sexual harassment regulations... so we can guarantee women's safety," said politician Oyundari Navaan-Yunden.

Harassment cases are handled by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

But Togookhuu Ikhtamir, the commission's head of monitoring and complaints, said the system is inadequate.

As an example, she said the commission's involvement helped force the resignation of one employer sexually abusing a woman who worked for him.

But the man didn't have to face criminal proceedings -- and the details of the abuse only emerged after the victim was beaten by her husband, who accused her of having an affair.

According to a 2017 NHRC survey, 63 percent of those surveyed had experienced sexual harassment from their boss.

"There is no regulation to compensate for loss and damages to the victim," Togookhuu admitted.

This leaves victims in a vulnerable position if they speak out.

One woman told AFP she was still struggling to move on after her employer attempted to rape her 12 years ago after sustained harassment in their office.

The woman says when she kept refusing his advances, he gave her extra work and forced her to work long hours.

One evening, the official called her to his office, pulled down his trousers, and attacked her.

"Thankfully, another colleague heard my screaming and stopped him," she said.

"He was very close to raping me."

The colleague who intervened told AFP that when she came to help, the man threw vodka in her face and said she would be fired if she told anyone.

"After that I didn't want to be a career woman any longer and I didn't want people to notice me," the alleged victim said.

- Divided opinions -

Journalist Altantsetseg Badgar recently wrote a widely-shared Facebook post alleging harassment she received at work, including accusations of politicians regularly groping her.

Another Mongolian woman told AFP she ended up leaving her job because of harassment at work.

The 30-year-old, who worked in a local radio station on a night shift, said she worked with two male colleagues who used to regularly grope and harass her and in the end she resigned, without telling her director about their behaviour.

But despite the issue being plunged into the open by the Odbayar case, campaigners for the sexual harassment law face an uphill struggle.

Odbayar's case has divided Mongolians -- some online commentators even suggested he should have groped a Mongolian flight attendant, so there could be no follow-up.

But the case also prompted women to share their own experiences of sexual harassment at work.

"Men like Odbayar always mock and abuse us," one wrote woman on social media, calling for Mongolian women to unite.

Some said they were envious of South Korean women, who had their safety protected by law.

Mongolian officials have tried to play down the accusations facing Odbayar.

The parliament speaker told press the airport police had confused the seat number and "arrested the wrong person".

The constitutional court's press secretary said Odbayar was arrested because he was protecting a Mongolian man accused of groping the flight attendant.

According to news agency Yonhap, South Korean prosecutors fined Odbayar seven million won ($6,000) and he was allowed to return home.