How are women faring in Tajikistan?
As one of five Central Asian Republics that have become separate, sovereign states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan has endured a five-year civil war, two decades of economic devastation, disease epidemics, natural disasters, massive labor migration and dangers associated with a thriving drug trade – all in its ‘young’ history. Tajiki journalist Amina Murodova speaks with AWID’s Lejla Medanhodzic about how women are faring in this country of just over 7 million people.
AWID: Generally, what is the current situation in Tajikistan?
Amina Murodova*: With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan had to rebuild anew. We had to create a new state system and legislative framework and transition from command-administrative methods to market economies, which included restructuring all our vital industries.Our situation worsened in 1992 with the beginning of a civil war that did not end until 1997. More than 25,000 women were widowed by this war.
Even with relative peace now, the country is far from stable. We’ve been facing disease epidemics (including typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis and polio), natural disasters (such as repeated floods, drought and excessively cold winters) and increased criminal activity. For example, in August this year, 25 members of an international terrorist group escaped from the city jail in Dushanbe, our capital, and are now operating uninhibited.
Tajikistan's economy has been devastated for two decades, since Soviet disintegration. Due to lack of jobs and little demand for labor internally, more than one million Tajikis have migrated to Russia, Kazakhstan and other republics of the former Soviet Union for work. Because of the number of widows and the number of women whose husbands have left the country for work, as many as 80% of households are headed by women at a given time.
Additionally, our country still remains a transit point for the transport of Afghan drugs to Russia and further on to Europe.
AWID: What about women’s rights? Are they guaranteed in the legal system? If so, do these rights exist in practice?
Amina Murodova: Tajikistan ratified CEDAW in 1993, and thanks to the persistence of local women’s NGOs, the 1994 Constitution stipulates that “women and men have equal rights.” In 1998, a National Action Plan was created and adopted to enhance the role and status of women. This basically allowed us to bring our family,labor and land codes in line with international regulations.
So now we have a long list of laws and government programs but little implementation or enforcement because people either do not understand the laws or do not believe that they have any power to regulate social relations. Still, there is a tendency to create more laws. But many believe that if the laws already issued are respected to at least 80%, new laws would not be necessary.
AWID: Is violence against women widespread in Tajikistan? What forms of violence do women face?
Amina Murodova: In Tajikistan, women face all kinds of violence: physical, moral, economic and sexual. Domestic violence is considered a family affair and most women do not report it to the authorities for fear of being stigmatized.
Also, I think women face a form of economic violence. Specifically, because of cultural belief systems, many women do not work in paid employment. This makes them fully financially dependent on their husbands and consequently unable to leave situations in which they suffer beatings and humiliation. Circumstances are changing now due to economic necessity.
Polygamy also leads to violence. Officially, it is banned in the country but it is very common. Due to the demographic situation and the proportion of men killed during the Civil War, in addition to some migrating to other countries in search of work, there is a category of women who are ready to become second wives. Perhaps this is the most common form of domestic violence to date. Because of jealousy, various conflicts affect everything,and there is a constant state of hostility among adults in the household.
AWID: Can you tell us about the recent law that raises the age of marriage to 18?
Amina Murodova: During the civil war in Tajikistan in the early 1990s, cases of abduction and trafficking of girls, sexual violence and killings of girls and women were widespread. There were even rumors that Tajik girls were taken away to neighboring Afghanistan and exchanged for arms. Most parents feared for the safety of their daughters, so they took them out of school and got them married to save them from violence and shame.
Even now, when the situation in the country is relatively calm, there are parents who withdraw their daughters from school on the pretext that they cannot afford the cost of education. They give their daughters to marry as early as 16-17 years of age. In rural areas, there have been cases of girls being married off at 14-15 years old. In 2010 alone of the 38,000 marriages officially recorded, 1500 concerned girls under 17 years old.
When girls marry young, without secondary education, housekeeping skills and not knowing their rights, they are subject to accusations,ridicule and violence in their husbands’ families. Divorces are increasing and the number of girl suicides related to early marriage has doubled within the last year.
Recently, the Family Code has been amended such that the legal age of marriage is 18. Government officials say this will “ensure the rights of girls to education and training for an independent life." But there are skeptics, and many believe that people will find ways to circumvent the law as long as enforcement mechanisms are weak.
AWID: Has the smuggling of narcotics through Tajikistan affected women at all, including increasing rates of HIV/AIDS transmission?
Amina Murodova: Yes, drug smugglers who transport drugs from Afghanistan through Tajikistan into Russia often use women as carriers, believing that they are less likely to be suspected. In mass media here, there was a popular story when police arrested a woman who tried to smuggle drugs on board the aircraft in her genitals. Occasionally, there is a story of a woman trying to smuggle drugs in items such as bread, a thermos or dried fruits.
Also, injecting drug users contribute to the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. In spite of some interventions, the rates of HIV infections are rising and are spreading rapidly among sex workers, migrant workers and their families – many of whom do not know they are infected. The UN estimates than more than 10,000 people are infected even though the number of officially registered people living with HIV is 1482 people,including 371 women.
AWID: How has the global economic crisis affected women in Tajikistan? Is there a decrease in available employment? And a decrease in remittances from outside the country?Are more women poor as a result?
Amina Murodova: Of all the countries in Central Asia,Tajikistan is the poorest. 46.7% of people live below the poverty line, and this figure is higher in rural areas. In the villages, about 70% of households are headed by women, because men went to Russia and other CIS countries in search of work and earnings. Women manage family farms to keep their families from being abjectly poor and hungry. Many micro credit projects of international organizations in Tajikistan focus on women.
Because of the crisis, workers remittances from Russia have decreased and many have been forced to return home due to loss of jobs. Recent surveys are showing not just household income decline but increases in debt and reduced spending on food and health care.
AWID: How strong is the women’s movement in Tajikistan and what are the challenges it faces?
Amina Murodova: The women's movement in Tajikistan consists of women, youth, NGOs and foundations. At this stage, many are focused on improving the legal literacy of women, providing legal services to low-income women's groups, and conducting skills training for women who are heads of families,including those left without a breadwinner.
In addition, there are women's organizations organized by the village self-help groups, and micro lending organizations for women, including those for rural women to establish their small businesses. At the moment, the main objective of most women's organizations is the fight against poverty.
*Note: Amina Murodova is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the interviewee.
Russian to English translation by Lejla Medanhodzic
Editing by Masum Momaya