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

Scraping a Living

Dismal economic prospects mean low paid, menial and dangerous work is often only way to make ends meet.
By IWPR staff
When Klara Orozova took to the streets in the months before the Tulip Revolution, like thousands of other Kyrgyz women she was protesting the poverty in which she and her children were forced to live.



The demonstrations succeeded in driving Askar Akaev from power, and the new regime promised changes to improve the lives of women. Months after the uprising, however, Orozova is a disappointed woman.



“[We] protested because children live in impoverished conditions,” she said. “Many families go without meat for months on end. Since the revolution the situation of those families has not changed.” (1)



Though such events have not yet touched other countries in the region, Orozova’s complaints are echoed by women from Tajikistan to Dagestan, Chechnya and Azerbaijan, whose lives changed forever with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic downturn that followed.



Many found themselves as the main wage earners for large and needy families, often without the support of their husbands or the government.



It was their stories that the Institute for War & Peace Reporting’s Women’s Dialogue and Reporting Programme set out to tell.



Reporters around the region spoke to women who’d been forced to take on low paid, menial and often dangerous work to make ends meet. But they also met Elena Shtratnikova who – broke and jobless – found the energy to start a successful legal aid NGO in Tajikistan that today boasts a hefty one million US dollar budget. (2)



Sadly, however, women like Shtratnikova were in the minority. More typical was Kalymkan, a shuttle trader from Kyrgyzstan. Leaving her two children to buy and sell goods in Russia and China was the only job open to Kalymkan in a country that remains beset by poverty and unemployment despite the revolutionary promises. (3)



Some 70 per cent of those in the shuttle trade – which emerged in 1991 after the demise of the Soviet Union - are women, travelling routes to Russia, Kazakstan, Korea, Turkey, India, China, Pakistan, Poland and Italy. “Back at that time everyone was lost,” said political scientist Elmira Nogoibaeva. “Many people did not know how to provide for their families. Many men just gave up, but women became accustomed to the new harsh conditions and went to the market places, which offered their only opportunity to survive.”



Though often unpleasant and dangerous, the shuttle trade is for the most part above-board and legal work. Increasingly, however, economic constraints are forcing women to look outside the law for sources of revenue.



In Turkmenistan, IWPR reporters found women who’d taken up drug dealing for want of better options to feed and clothe their families. Zohra, who recently served 12 months for drug offences, was typical of the women they met. She said a friend got her into the business. (4)



“She felt sorry for my family. We had virtually nothing to eat. My husband had been unemployed for a year, and we’ve got four children. So she offered me some work.”



Some have turned to prostitution to make ends meet. Unlike in the West where prostitution is often the result of social problems like drug addiction, in these traditional and conservative countries where prostitutes risk shame and ostracism if found out, it is the direct consequence of economic hardship.



Rather than survive on “subsistence wages”, Shokhsanam Abdukhailova from Andijan earns up to 22 dollars per day by selling her body. (5)



Radmila turned her back on a strict upbringing when she came to the Dagestani capital Makhachkala to study medicine, abandoning her course after hearing that prostitutes at the local sauna earn 25 dollars an hour. (6)



She told IWPR that she was ashamed that her shabby clothes and meagre possessions betrayed her poor rural background to the other students. “They were so well presented,” said Radmila. “They all had mobile phones and cool stuff, and I was wearing my sister’s hand-me-downs.”



It was the desire for new clothes and other luxuries they couldn’t afford that lured teenagers Lyuda and Sveta - from southern Kazakstan where Muslim influences are strong - to Turkey.



They were promised jobs as saleswomen but instead were sold as sex slaves and forced to work up to 18 hours a day as prostitutes. The girls eventually escaped and returned home, but to an uncertain future in a conventional society largely unsympathetic to their plight.(7)



Not surprisingly, the economic hardship faced by so many in the region, and the choices it forces them to make, often result in a sense of hopelessness and despair that can be hard to overcome.



An increasing number of Kyrgyz women have turned to drink to escape the harsh realities of daily life. (8) Tursunbek Akun, chairman of the country’s presidential human rights commission, blames widespread joblessness and boredom in villages where there is little to do to pass the time for a rise in alcoholism in Kyrgyzstan.



Gulnara Maratova, from a mountainous village in the south of Kyrgyzstan, began drinking out of hopelessness and in reaction to her husband’s own alcoholism. “My children are growing up in poverty, and sometimes I feel like escaping from all this,” she said.



Kyrgyz analysts and parents say other social problems including a rise in teenage pregnancies can also be directly attributed to the country’s economic woes. (9) In the past, they say, women stayed at home to look after their children, but today are forced to go out and earn a living, leaving their kids to their own devices.



Kasiet Sadykova, a housewife and mother of four, said, “No one brings up the children. The mother and father are busy earning money. Children are left to themselves, on the street and watching television.”



In Tajikistan, meanwhile, concern is growing that rising poverty is taking its toll on female education. (10)



Though a return to patriarchal customs and traditions is partly to blame for the steady decrease in the number of girls attending school, poverty is also playing a part. Many families need their children to work to help make ends meet though, like Dushanbe resident Rakhima Kadyrova, some will allow their boys to continue to study. At a cost of five dollars per month, Kadyrova said she couldn’t afford to send all four children to school so chose her sons – again for economic reasons.



“I try to give my two sons an education in economics so they can work in a bank or rich firm that pays well,” she said. “But why should my daughters study? Their husbands will probably insist on them becoming housewives.”



If they do make it through secondary school to university, Tajik women tend to study health or education rather than law and finance where the better-paying jobs are found. For Malokhat Boeva, a former student from Kulyab, a university degree is a distant dream. She said she dropped out because her student grant wasn’t enough to pay her expenses. Higher education is only possible with money, she said.



Financial woes have inevitably affected the health of women in the region.



Afghanistan, for example, has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world, with an average of 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births. (11) This is still far lower than in the northeast, mountainous province of Badakhshan, which has seen the highest levels ever recorded globally – up to 6,500 deaths per 100,000 births.



Multiple factors contribute to the shocking statistics including decades of war and lack of roads and healthcare facilities. But the desperate state of the economy also comes in for a large share of the blame.



“The major reason for women dying during childbirth is the economic situation of their families,” Dr Fakhria Hassin, director of the mother and child department at the public health ministry, told IWPR. With no money for doctors or medicine, she added, many women die unnecessarily. Meanwhile, under nourishment during childhood increases a girl’s risk of developing problems later on.



In Chechnya, more than half the babies delivered at Grozny’s Central Maternity Hospital have serious illnesses - that’s around 1,100 in the first half of 2005 alone. Nationwide the statistics are just as grim, with every fifth baby born with health problems such as pneumonia or defects of the heart and nervous system. (12)



At the root of the problem, experts say, is the poor health of mothers in Chechnya, caused by low standards of living, poor nutrition and unemployment. Problems with their babies are often only detected after birth, as many pregnant women cannot afford regular check-ups. Even if they could, genealogical clinics are few and far between in Chechnya’s ailing healthcare system. The days when women were examined by a district doctor from the first weeks of pregnancy up until birth are past.



Traditional healers are enjoying a boom in Kyrgyzstan, where analysts say the lives of many women could be saved if only they could afford conventional medical treatment. (13)



IWPR met women suffering from cancer who’d turned to folk doctors for help, often at a serious cost to their health. Though many swore by the treatment they’d received, some suggest that they would be more likely to get help from cancer specialists if the treatment they offered was cheaper. The state contributes only four per cent to the cost of cancer care, meaning it is simply too expensive for most ordinary Kyrgyz.



“First patients have to sell a cow to afford treatment,” said doctor Damir Abdyldaev. “This is only enough for one month, and then they have to sell a second cow. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country. For a full course of treatment for cancer, a whole heard of cows has to be sold.”



Some communities like Afghanistan’s Kuchis suffer more than others from economic hardship and the problems it brings.



These nomadic Pashtuns who eke out a precarious living as livestock herders clamoured to tell an IWPR reporter about their lives in the cheerless Khushal Khan district of western Kabul. (14) One of them lived in a tattered tent, empty except for plastic sheeting covering the floor.



The Kuchis have been hardest hit by the catastrophic events of recent years. They have been displaced by conflict, their grazing grounds sown with landmines and their crops shrivelled by the crippling drought of the past seven years. Promises of mobile clinics and other facilities for Kuchis have gone unfulfilled, they say, leaving them poor, sick and uneducated – with women bearing the brunt of the burden.



Azeri refugees of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict are still struggling after more than a decade to adapt to their harsh new life. (15)



IWPR met Nisa, housed in a decaying and depressing former student residence in the capital Baku for 12 years, whose family lives on her monthly pension of 55 dollars. Though her son has found work on a building site, her husband hasn’t been so lucky. “He worked all his life. Now he doesn’t even know what to do with himself,” she said.



Eight years after the Tajik civil war, female refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan find themselves marginalised by poverty and lack of education. (16) Though overwhelmingly of ethnic Kyrgyz origin, they have been unable to take out citizenship in their new home, meaning they can’t get the identity documents necessary for most aspects of life.



“We are deprived of everything,” said Altynay Jamalova, who lives in a village near Bishkek largely inhabited by refugees. “We can’t obtain a certificate of high school education and then find a job. We can only do unskilled labour for miserable pay.”



Though much of the work done by those featured in the Women’s Perspectives stories was menial and underpaid, there were notable exceptions that offered encouragement to those still struggling.



Like Elena Shtratnikova who founded the Law and Welfare NGO in Tajikistan, one-time refugee Malokhat Kadyrova has also overcome numerous obstacles and now lives in Dushanbe, where she runs her own business. (17) “In three years I earned enough money to buy an apartment, and I’m currently expanding my business,” she said.



Back in Kyrgyzstan, the women who rallied last March have a message for their new leaders. These forgotten revolutionaries say they won’t go away and if their economic problems remain unsolved they may once again take to the streets to demand their voices be heard.



One Kyrgyz who could be speaking for women around the region, “In the 15 years since independence, Kyrgyzstan has been ruled by men. What is the result? An economic and social crisis, corruption and unemployment. Now we women must muster out courage and rule the country.”



(1) Kyrgyzstan: Forgotten Revolutionaries (WP No. 11, 06-Oct-05)

(2) Tajik NGOs Flourish But Lack Political Bite (WP No. 12, 20-Oct-05)

(3) Shuttle Traders Risk All (WP No. 2, 02-Jun-05)

(4) Turkmenistan: Women Drawn Into Drug Trade (WP No. 7, 12-Jul-05)

(5) Police and Prostitutes in Unholy Alliance (WP No. 6, 29-Jul-05)

(6) From Village Life to Prostitution in Dagestan (WP No. 9, 08-Aug-05)

(7) Kazak Women Sold as Sex Slaves (WP No. 2, 02-Jun-05)

(8) Depressed Kyrgyz Seek Solace in the Bottle (WP No. 10, 22-Sept-05)

(9) Rising Teen Pregnancies Blames on Ignorance (WP No. 13, 03-Nov-05)

(10)Tajik Girls Disappearing From Classrooms (WP No. 4, 30-Jun-05)

(11)Afghanistan: A Life for a Life (WP No. 9, 08-Aug-05)

(12)Sick Babies Add to Chechen Woes (WP No. 12, 20-Oct-05)

(13)Kyrgyz Cancer Sufferers Turn to Healers (WP No. 15, 01-Dec-05)

(14)Kuchis Struggling to Survive (WP No. 8, 25-Aug-05)

(15)Azerbaijan: Refugees Dream of Home (WP No. 7, 12-Jul-05)

(16)Kyrgyz Refugees Long for Recognition (WP No. 12, 20-Oct-05)

(17)Seeking Refuge from a Man’s War (WP No. 7, 12-Aug-05)