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

A Shared Suffering

Women in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus face official and societal discrimination.
By Anara Tabyshalieva

Gender inequality and a tradition of discrimination at family, community and national levels are still rife in the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus - in spite of these nations' commitment to international conventions on women's rights.

In these republics, women comprise half the electorate and many are taxpayers - yet they are grossly under-represented in all the national parliaments and governments.

Women and children have paid a heavy price in the many conflicts that beset these regions - yet female representation is non-existent in peace talks and security conferences in the post-conflict societies of Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Abkhazia, Afghanistan and Chechnya.

In the oil and gas-rich republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan, women do not benefit from the considerable revenues generated from the industry. And civil society groups and female professionals do not have any significant influence on the decision-making processes that impinge on women's lives.

In each republic, conservatives have been at the forefront of the national revival that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These figures want a return to traditional values, and consider the emancipation of women as an undesirable western preoccupation that should be resisted.

In Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the authorities have restored community institutions such as the mahalla - a traditional form of self-government - and the court of elders. These institutions generally support old-fashioned views that may negatively affect women's rights at a grassroots level.

All the former Soviet republics inherited an education system that enabled women to attain high levels of literacy and professional competence.

But increasing numbers of girls are dropping out of school - especially in rural areas - because their families believe that mostly boys should be educated.

Conversely, increasing numbers of female students in tertiary education in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan since independence shows that good progress can be made in spite of privatisation and severe budget cuts.

Nonetheless, educated women still have hardly any opportunities to use their skills when they leave school or university. Women missed out on the privatisation of properties and businesses that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as mostly men were granted access to land and other assets.

With no property or collateral, would-be female entrepreneurs often cannot get sufficient loans or credit to start their own businesses.

Women continue to pay a high price for these republics' painful transition to a market economy and democracy, and are severely affected by poverty, unemployment, the collapse of social infrastructure and the ongoing crisis in the education and health sectors.

A lack of gender sensitive data complicates attempts to monitor disparities in the labour market and access to resources, and makes it very difficult for anyone to implement a strategy of support for the most vulnerable groups of women.

Official statistics also fail to take into account the impact of widespread unregistered religious marriages and divorces, polygamous families, underage unions and many other gender-sensitive indicators that affect women's lives and status in society.

The custom of bride kidnapping still ruins the life of both women and men in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, and polygamy is on the rise across the region. The practise, which is legal in Afghanistan and banned in post-Soviet states, is currently fashionable among wealthy men - with the poor social and economic status of many women compelling them to take the humiliating position of co-wife. This is especially true of post-conflict areas such as Tajikistan, where a five-year civil war left thousands of women widowed.

Post-Soviet legislation can be insensitive to the many property problems caused by multiple marriages, and no legal provision has been made to protect the rights of co-wives and their children.

Unmarried women face a different set of problems. Many are viewed as the property of their family and not as independent members of the community, and are discriminated against by older women who support the age-old traditions dominated by males. This encourages forced and under-age marriages, and ensures that female family members cannot inherit any family assets - which, of course, pass to men. This contributes to a vicious cycle of impoverishment and powerlessness, especially in rural areas.

In all these countries, the most alarming development in recent years has been the rise in prostitution and trafficking of women. Each year, thousands of mostly young and under- age women become the victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The problem has not been helped by a lack of statistics and poor cooperation between governments. This makes it difficult for analysts to gauge the scale of the problem and its impact on society, and suggest ways to combat it.

Domestic violence is another major issue in the region, and can be so severe that young wives in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan see no way out other than suicide - usually though the horrific method of self-immolation, which can result in terrible, if not fatal, injuries.

The post-Soviet decline in health provision has also hit women hardest, and this is reflected in a high level of female morbidity and a high maternal mortality rate. Poor reproductive health facilities and access to information also complicates matters for women.

And for all the rhetoric on gender equality spouted in each republic on March 8, International Women's Day, the pattern of excluding women from political and economic power structures continues.

Some governments pay lip service to women's rights issues, and some even provide financial support for pro-authority non-governmental organisations working in the gender equality field. By manipulating the women's movement in this way, the male-dominated authorities hope to consolidate their power by securing the female vote.

In Tajikistan - the only former Soviet republic to allow an Islamic opposition in line with its constitution - the battle for women's votes is taken very seriously indeed. In November 2004, the authorities sought to secure the female vote by banning women from attending mosques in an apparent attempt to limit their access to Islamic political thought.

Another issue concerns the Muslim headscarf or Parandja. In Soviet times, its use by women was strongly frowned upon, but since 1991 an increasing number of mostly young women are choosing to wear it. Such women face harassment and even discrimination from the authorities if they dare to put on clothing overtly reflecting their faith. In Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, for example, women who insist on wearing the headscarf have been expelled from universities as part of the state campaign against Islamic fundamentalism.

However, numerous civil society groups are confronting this discrimination. From the Northern Caucasus to Afghanistan, heated discussions on the rights of women rage between conservatives and modernists at national and community levels. In many cases, the divide is between the urbanised middle class - which supports the empowerment of women - and the more conservative rural communities.

Clearly gender equity cannot be achieved by simply signing up to international conventions for the elimination of discrimination against women, which these governments have already done. This must be backed by factors such as access to and ownership of economic resources, and women's influence on decision-making at local and national levels.

Regional dialogue and cooperation can also have mutual benefits in addressing the common obstacles that hamper the advance of women in these countries.

Anara Tabyshalieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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