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

Turkmen Girls Miss Out on Schooling

As increasing numbers of girls miss out on school in Turkmenistan, the declining levels are being blamed both on the economic factor, where parents lack money to provide their daughters with an education, and social changes as families prefer girls to hav
Over the last five years, there has been a significant rise in the number of girls missing school. A survey conducted by UNICEF and UNESCO indicated that the problem is much more serious than official statistics show.

The low attendance rates are due to a range of reasons. Local analysts offer a variety of explanations, with some saying the causes are purely economic, and come down to levels of prosperity. Poverty, the growth in child labour, and the official and unofficial payments levied by schools for upkeep and teachers’ pay all count as important factors.

Didar Kurbanov, a resident of the Kaakhka district in the central Ahal region, explained why he did not want to send his daughter to school. He has five children, and neither of the two girls go to school, because Didar can’t afford the outlay. He believes education in Turkmenistan is free only on paper - there are never-ending collections of money at school. School administrators explain that they need to maintain the school.

Didar says that it is easier not to send your children to school than to have to worry about where to get the money for their daily needs.

Other experts believe the phenomenon has social as well as economic roots. Since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, there has been a return to traditional and religious values, and women’s status has also undergone change. Women are now seen as housewives, mothers and wives.

Jemal-Eje, who lives in the Ashgabat suburb of Baharden, says she keeps her daughter away from school for various reasons. Firstly, because school is a waste of time since her daughter will never get a job anyway. When she turns 16 she will get married, so her husband will support her and the children. The husband should have been to school, while Jemal-Eje will teach her daughter everything a true Turkmen girl needs to know – how to keep the house tidy, do needlework, bring up the children and understand her husband.

Secondly, Jemal-Eje explained, educated girls are not greatly valued these days. During the matchmaking process, the first question the girl’s parents will be asked is whether she has gone to school. If she has, the bride-price offered will be much lower. Other qualities are valued more - whether she can weave a rug, embroider a skullcaps, sew a dress or knit socks.

Jemal-Eje says she wishes only happiness and a good family life for her daughter. And it seems an education is superfluous.

The present situation is quite different from Soviet days, when female education was a priority and large numbers of women went to university. An Ashgabat headmaster, Toili Meredov, said that in those days having an education was considered prestigious for a woman, and parents insisted on their daughter attending an institute or university. After graduating, women tended to choose career over family life, although they usually managed to combine the two. Meredov recalls that most of the people who graduated from teacher-training college in his year were women.

Religion is another reason behind falling school attendance. Girls from devoutly Muslim families are opting out of secular education, both because their parents object and for other reasons.

Ailara, who comes from a religious family and is now studying at a Turkish-run school in Ashgabat, says she has made her mind up not to continue in the secular school system. Wearing a headscarf elicits mockery from her classmates and rebukes from her teachers. In Turkmenistan, school pupils are required to wear Turkmen national dress. So Ailara prefers to go to the home of her religious teacher, where other girls like her also meet to learn Arabic script and verses from the Koran. It’s the only place where she feels at ease.

More IWPR's Global Voices