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

Turkmenistan: Suffering in Silence

More support is available for battered Turkmen women, but too many are resigned to their fate.

“My husband often hits me when he’s drunk, even when there’s no reason for him to be angry. He does it, as he says himself, as a ‘preventative measure’,” said Ogulnabad, a young woman who has been married for five years. “When I complained about him to his mother, she told me that a true loving wife must put up with her husband’s nature, and that all women go through this, but none of them take this problem outside their own home.”

Women’s issues have never been given much attention in Turkmenistan - it was as if problems did not exist. It is only recently, for instance, that the prevalence of domestic violence here, as well as the psychological damage that it causes to women, has been recognised. Previously, this topic was considered taboo, and in fact violence towards women was considered the norm.

“A resident of our village, a nice quiet woman, shocked all her neighbours by filing for divorce after her husband went on a drinking binge,” said Merjen, who lives near Serdar, a town in western Turkmenistan. “A few days later we found out that her husband’s relatives had come and ‘talked’ to her, and the next day she went to withdraw the statement herself. After this her husband went into a frenzy, and even the neighbours heard the cries from their house. In the morning they found her burned to death in the yard behind her house. She had set fire to herself.”

According to the director of a women’s centres, one of the main reasons women are unable to extract themselves from such situations is that they are ignorant of their own rights, and thus are prepared to accept violence from their husbands. “Women think that pain and suffering are part of their lot,” she said. “It is interesting that these women are predominantly from villages and small towns, where the level of education is lower and there is a high level of social problems. They believe that they are obliged to do the housework, raise the children and look after their husbands.”

The establishment of women’s resource centres in Turkmenistan – there are now 11 in the capital Ashgabat alone - is a promising sign that attitudes are starting to change. Yet women still seem reluctant to use such services, choosing instead to rely on family members for support and advice. Unfortunately, the advice they are often given is to suffer the violence in silence.

“In Central Asian countries, the problem of domestic violence is still very much taboo,” said a gender studies academic. “Thus, conflicts are not solved, and women do not stand up to the violence, but resign themselves to it and learn to put up with it.”

If a woman does decide to complain to the authorities about her husband, she usually withdraws her statement several days later under pressure from her relatives or out of pity for her husband.

“I withdrew my statement myself. I came home, sat down and thought: he is still the father of my children, [and] although he can be like this sometimes, he was not always like this. I was just hysterical and in despair. I should be more patient,” said Amangul, who made a complaint to the police about her husband for beating her regularly.

Other women, such as Sonya, cave in to pressure from relatives. “When his family and my family found out that I had filed a complaint, they all gathered at our house and started screaming at me,” she said.

“They said that I was to blame for what had happened, and that only women are responsible for scandals in the home, and that I would bring shame to the whole family, everyone would find out and I would become a laughing stock. They asked me how I would look my children in the eye when they found out that I had put their father in jail. I didn’t even get support from my friends. The next morning I went to withdraw the statement.”

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