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

Turkmen Bashed Mothers

Turkmenbashi's reforms and traditional values are forcing women into subjugation, destitution and prostitution.
By Polina Mikhailova

Turkmen President Saparmurat, aka Turkmenbashi, Father of all Turkmen, is full of praise for the country's women, but they hardly get their just desserts.


"While bringing up 'deserving' sons and daughters, mothers of the Turkmen nation represent wonderful examples of bravery, patience, beauty and moral purity, " is typical of Turkmenbashi's paeans to motherhood.


At the same time, however, their benefits have been slashed, their access to education and employment limited and domestic abuse has been tolerated.


As part of an economy drive, child benefits and paid maternity leave have been drastically reduced. Single mothers get no benefits at all. The latter suffer from the mores of a traditional society which frowns on illegitimacy and often has a misplaced belief that unwedded mothers have sugar-daddies relieving them of the need of state help.


But even those who are entitled to state support, struggle to get hold of it. "Three years ago, I gave birth to my son," said Enejan Ataeva in Ashgabat. "I had completed all of the necessary paper work, but was told that I was not eligible for child benefit."


The law which eroded the state support network and radically changed the lives of Turkmen women came into force three years ago. Though local NGO's complained that the female deputies, who hold around a fifth of the seats in parliament, were doing nothing to lobby against this, they had to admit that even if women held 99 per cent of the seats, they were powerless. After all it's Turkmenbashi who wields ultimate authority.


One of the apparent consequences of the reduction in benefits is that abortions are now sky-rocketing. Rural families typically used to have up to eight children, but now have only two on average. Those in the city are opting for just the one child.


"My husband and I both work, but it will be a while until we decide to have a second child," said Djennet Allamuradova in Ashgabat. "It is very hard to provide even for one child if you want it to have a full, healthy life."


Since Turkmenbashi is keen to see the birthrate rise, he has banned abortion. Those wishing to terminate their pregnancies go to backstreet clinics, where they pay far more that the 10-17 US dollars they would have done in state facilities.


Women also feel the brunt of legislative changes which have been dragged in by the Turkmen government as part of an attempt at market reform.


Layoffs in sectors which have traditionally employed females, such as education and healthcare, have also taken their toll, with the workforce halved. Left without state jobs, women have taken to shuttling goods to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran.


"After completing high school in our country, it is virtually impossible to get into a university if you don't have money," said Gulistan Alieva. " Only children from wealthy families can afford it." Alieva was lucky enough to complete a management course but struggled finding a job. It was only through her father's connections that she managed to get a place as an office manager.


Less fortunate women graduate from high school into prostitution. They used to flock to Schevchenko street, the main red-light district in Ashgabat, but now that Turkmenbashi has outlawed prostitution they have been forced underground.


All of which rather goes against the grain of the Turkmen constitution which accords equal rights to men and women.


Life in the countryside is even more difficult. With no jobs, women make a pittance selling homemade wares at local market. Working from home they are increasingly the victims of abuse from their husbands. Studies suggest that many suffer in silence, realising that they could cause family rifts and divorce if they open their mouths.


"I know that my husband has a mistress and has fathered a child," said a mother of five in Mary province, who preferred not to be named. " But I can't say anything as he will beat me up. Once I contracted a sexual disease from him but what could I do. I had to suffer."


Maths teacher Gulijen Annamuradova from Ashgabad calls her husband (and cousin) a good man. "But I was forced to marry him. I knew that my parents would not allow me to wed a guy from the neighbouring village who had proposed to me. I gave in to their will like many of our women do. I had no choice," she said.


There are not many places women can turn to get support. The Union of Women, Goorbansultan-edshe, named after Turkmenbashi's mother is a pro-government organisation run under the auspices of the education ministry, and hardly offers any real help to women.


It coordinates a network of 30 NGOs throughout Turkmenistan, but its aim is purely propagandistic. Among independent women's groups - most of whom are unregistered and thus are limited in their activities - it is regarded as a tool for the authorities to channel international funds into government controlled NGOs.


Polina Mikhailova is a pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan.