Women's education in Central Asia: a forgotten crisis

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
22 February 2008

This report comes from Bahar Salimova in Azerbaijan. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Whilst everyone has been busy focusing on rebuilding governments, mastering counter-terrorism measures, pushing for economic deregulation, creating free markets, and addressing other issues topping the democratization of post-Soviet countries agenda, the education of girls in Central Asia has been forgotten. Nobody has noticed that young women in Central Asia encounter significant problems in participating in secondary education. This growing trend can be attributed to the last decade's education reforms, religious and traditional revival, and socio-economic changes in the region. Chief amongst these is the revival of cultural and religious norms which influence the overall role and status of women.

As a part of the Sovietization policy carried out for more than 70 years from the early 1920s, the central Soviet government prohibited exercising religion and traditional lifestyle in the soviet region, including the republics of Central Asia. Leaders emerging in the post-Soviet period therefore used freedom of religion as a core populist principle in their politics. They tried to fill the identity vacuum formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union with religion. Since Central Asia is traditionally Muslim, Islam became a unifying identity that distinguished new regimes, specifically in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, and reintroduced core values.

At the same time, the proximity of Central Asia to the countries practicing conservative Islam contributed to the fast penetration of strict and radical religious norms. In many instances this revived old-fashioned traditions and created stereotypes about women's roles and responsibilities in society. For instance, religiously conservative parents believe that once girls reach puberty they should not interact with non-relative males and should be prepared for an obedient married life. Often these parents decide not to send their daughters to secondary schools, specifically in the areas lacking sufficient number of separate education schools or madrasas.

Early marriages have also become important for many families in the region with the average marrying age for girls now between 14 and 16. Young girls are brought up in anticipation of marriage, and the wedding becomes the most important event in their life. Early marriage pushes back education and personal development depriving girls from future educational and career opportunities. As a young Tajik female student explained when interviewed for an International Crisis Group report, "For them (girls) it is the only opportunity to see another house beyond their four walls. So they are happy about it, out of ignorance. Some are simply forced to marry and then it is too late because they get pregnant."

This tendency is especially evident in the rural and remote areas, where social expectations have deeper roots in everyday life. Women in many villages are required to wear long skirts and have chaperones, and cannot travel far without a male escort. The latter restriction is quite important in rural areas because girls attending secondary schools can be kidnapped as a part of the traditional marital ritual. Parents therefore do not feel comfortable allowing their teenage daughters to commute long distances to continue their education.

The resulting widening gender gap in education will have long-term economic and social implications in the region. National governments and international development agencies should recognize this and take immediate measures against it. If this problem is not addressed now, it will shrink the number of girls in tertiary education, strengthen the inequality in workforce, impede the creation of healthy families, and weaken the social status of women in the region. In a broader context, this trend even threatens to destabilize the general development of Central Asia.

Bahar Salimova currently works as a Network Researcher with the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (iKNOW Politics) project/UNDP. All views and opinions expressed in this report are solely those of the author, and in no way represent the views of the iKNOW Politics project or any of its partners.

Further links on related issues: Women and Power in Central Asia Radio Free Europe, Education in Tajikistan (Unesco), Gender Assessment Report: Uzbekistan (Asian Development Bank), Women in Mind: Educational Needs of Women in Central Asia The Mountain Forum

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