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Poverty Makes Hirelings of Uzbek Women

Casual labour in the Fergana Valley is increasingly being taken over by women desperate to support their families.
By Nigora Sadykova

In the face of their children's hunger, women all around Uzbekistan's conservative Fergana Valley are putting up with humiliation, pitiful pay and even possible rape to put a little food on the table.


Large groups of women in the Fergana now set off each morning for the Baghdad Road, which links the biggest towns in the region, to seek employment as day-labourers. While "hirelings" seeking casual labour in farmers' fields have long existed in the region, this sort of work has always been the domain of men.


The fact that women are now forced to offer their labour depresses many Ferganians. "I have lived a long life but never heard about female hirelings. Now my granddaughters pick farmers' onions," said 70-year-old Saizimat-opa.


Traditional family structures remain strong in the fertile valley of eastern Uzbekistan. "The man is the bread-winner and the woman brings up the children and takes care of the household, " explained a school-teacher in Margilan.


But more and more, women are sharing responsibility for helping the family to survive. Poverty, unemployment and a lack of any government assistance simply leave them no other choice but to take up work such as weeding or picking produce on plantations.


Sanobar, 42, a hireling from Fergana, is embarassed to be reduced to such a state, saying that it is only because the textile plant where she used to work always had huge delays in issuing cheques. Her husband has also not received any pay for four months. "If they gave me my salary on time, we would not go to the neighboring oblast to work," said Sanobar almost apologetically.


Perhaps even more sadly, Hilola Turdibaeva, 14, had to give up her dream of one day entering medical school to help her family in one of Fergana's regions as they could not even afford to keep her in high school.


Age, indeed, appears no bar to working in other people's fields with teenage to middle-aged women turning out for pitiful pay.


Head of the Fergana administration on labour and social security, Shakirjon Ganiev, says the feminisation of such work is strongest in the Yazyavan region, where day-labour is almost the only means for earning money. His figures show that out of 378 people who travel to the Andijan oblast for day-labouring, 310 were women.


Employers themselves express a variety of reasons for increasingly turning to women. They cite their conscientiousness, thoroughness and diligence, and more alarmingly their low wage demands and uncomplaining attitude to often dismal conditions.


Hired only as and when needed with no form of employment protection, several farm owners when talking to IWPR even openly and scornfully referred to the women labourers as a "free work force".


They are in fact paid, but only 1,000-1,500 soms (1 - 1.50 US dollars) for a day of labour in fields or private gardens. Food supplies are commonly substituted with three kilogrammes of vegetable oil a day, which are considered very good pay.


Not that women always get to keep all this with an increasing trend to middle men who set up the "delivery" of women for farmers needing work and then demand a commission for their services.


Sometimes, women who are paid later find that the promised rates of pay and conditions never materialise.


Women forced to put up with such conditions also face a number of other dangers with one such labourer, Shahnoza Mamadjanova, telling IWPR that a young child had drowned in a pit after accompanying its mother to work in the fields.


There are also frequent cases of women being raped by employers or young and attractive girls being offered no jobs other than prostitution.


Local municipality employees say that they are aware of the situation in female day-labour employment and the head of the oblast's municipal secretariat on family, protection of motherhood and children, Khakmakhon Tadjibayeva, promises that they are doing the best they can. "We are taking all the measures to solve this problem. For instance, we hold various seminars," she said.


The female labourers themselves are sceptical, preferring to see some action.


They also claim that much of the money allocated to the area by central government never makes it to the people most in need.


"Municipality employees live in the mansions, while we cannot receive child benefits. When we come to their offices and they see our shabby clothes they refuse to talk to us," said one 45-year-old woman.


And shabby clothes are, it seems, the least of these women's problems as they labour hard, long and often dangerously, for their families.


Nigora Sadykova is the pseudonym of an independent reporter in Fergana


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