Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gender Equality a Dead Letter in Tajikistan

Despite a raft of equal opportunity laws, women in this conservative society are often treated as chattels.
By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva
For six years now, Firuza has been trying unsuccessfully to get her house in southern Tajikistan back, through a succession of court actions.

In the Nineties, she and her husband were allocated a small plot of land in Kulob (also known as Kulyab) and built a small house there.

But dreams of domestic happiness faded as Firuza’s husband drifted into drug addiction. To get her husband away from bad company, she persuaded him to move to the capital, Dushanbe, where the two of them lived in a rented apartment for several years.

The house in Kulob was left temporarily in the hands of her husband’s younger brother.

When Firuza’s husband died of an overdose, she tried to return there, but her relatives refused to let her move back into the house.

In pursuit of her claim, Firuza went through the court system all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favour but it had no effect. Back in Kulyab, her family ignored the ruling and no one enforced it.

Firuza, with two children to care for, says she is defenceless as she has no male relative who will stand up for her.

“I can’t get anything done because I’m a woman,” she complained. Terrible things happen to women here - we are totally without our rights and that’s especially true of sisters-in-law and daughter-in-laws,” she adds. “If my brother was a prosecutor or a judge, no one would dare say a word against me.”

Firuza’s story is typical of many women in this former Soviet republic.

Despite the fact that the constitution guarantees equal rights to both sexes, women have far fewer rights than their male counterparts in reality.

It is not that the government has been slack in addressing the issue. Since independence, it has passed domestic laws and ratified international conventions on gender equality, such as the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, СЕDAW.

In 2005, parliament passed a law enshrining equal rights and opportunities, while the government has run two long-term programmes designed to bring about gender equality.

Tatiana Bozrikova, chair of the non-government group Panorama, says the government takes gender equality seriously, but the problems come when legislation has to be translated into action.

Women’s representation in national-level politics is reasonably high. Although there are no female ministers in the cabinet, women currently hold 17 per cent of seats in parliament.

Bozrikova says this is not nearly enough, as the 2005 equal opportunities law demands equal representation of women in all government institutions.

“Women do hold various secondary positions in government institutions, ministries and departments, but they haven’t yet reached 30 per cent in any of them, let alone equal representation,” she notes.

In society as a whole, Bozrikova said, traditional gender stereotypes have changed little over the years. “The situation is changing, and the roles that men and women play in reality are changing, but views about what women should be like generally remain the same,” she said. “We are even seeing a resurgence of patriarchal attitudes.”

Nodira Rahmonberdieva, coordinator of the National Association of Independent Media, explained that women were usually too busy scraping a living to engage in politics.

Tajikistan remains a poor country and hundreds of thousands of its men go abroad to work as seasonal labour. Women are left at home, struggling to hold families together and to earn money if their husbands stop sending money back.

Rahmonberdieva summed up the way society is still male-dominated by citing a proverb which encapsulates many men’s view that women are inferior - “Long hair, short on brains”.

Other analysts agreed that traditional values held women in low esteem.

“For 70 years [under the Soviets] we lived in conditions in which women were emancipated and veils were discarded,” said Bihojal Rahimova, a consultant for a land reform project run by UNIFEM, the UN Development Fund for Women and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. However, she said, “Over thousands of years, a patriarchal attitude has developed where women are subjected to the authority of men, who are the head of the family.”

Traditionally, the role of women in Tajik society was to look after the home and raise children.

While official legislation gives women equal status, custom and practice dictate that they have fewer property and inheritance rights.

When women get divorced or their husbands die, they are often left without a share of the family home.

Such was the experience of Idimoh, a 44-year-old widow from the Bokhtar district of southern Tajikistan. After she lost her husband, the sole family breadwinner, during the civil war of 1992-97, his relatives then kicked her and her three children out of the house.

She returned to her parents’ home, where she took care of her sick mother. But when her brother returned from working in Russia, he forced her to leave that house as well.

Her situation improved when a women’s rights group helped her go to court, where judges awarded her a small plot of land where she now lives.

Idimoh was relatively fortunate. Many women, especially in the countryside where 70 per cent of the population lives, find it impossible to obtain justice.

A UNIFEM study from 2006 on the land tenure rights of women in Tajikistan found that while the burden of agricultural work falls on women because the men are away working in Russia, they are not given equal access to resources including land.

This imbalance is also reflected in the distribution of more responsible jobs – while more women than men work the land, they only accounted for 15 per cent of farm managers and technical experts.

Women are paid half what male farmworkers get, and they also have less of a chance to acquire their own land. In the process of land privatisation, most plots are allocated to men. Only six per cent of private farms are registered in the name of women, and they average less than half the size of the farmholdings owned by their male counterparts.

Rangina Nazrieva, an agricultural specialist with the International Finance Corporation, complains that few rural women assert their rights and improve their position, largely because they lack the general education and legal knowledge to do so.

Improving women’s education in rural areas will be an uphill struggle. In village communities, there is a strong tradition that girls ought not to continue in school past their teenage years, and should instead marry and become housewives. (See Tajikistan: Teenage Girls Dropping Out of School, RCA No. 481, 02-Feb-07.)

Local authorities do little to improve the lot of women.

“If local government won’t support women, then there’s really nothing that can be done,” said Nazrieva.

This is certainly the experience of Jannatbi, a housewife and mother who tried to lease land from the state and start up a private farm in the village of Rohi Lenin, in Bokhtar district, last year.

Local officials were uncooperative, with one telling her she would not be able to pay her rent on time and saying, “Women are less capable of working and do not have organisational skills”.

Margarita Khegay, head of Traditions and Modernity, a local NGO, says Tajik society is doing itself no favours by keeping women in check.

Unless drastic measures are taken to make theoretical gender equality a reality, Tajikistan will have difficulty in extricating itself from its current economic crisis, she warned.

Aslibegim Manzarshoeva and Jamila Majidova are IWPR-trained journalists in Dushanbe.

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