In Tashkent, women facing violence at home have nowhere to go. No one has heard of shelters, and if a woman has no friends or relatives, the situation becomes impossible: no hotel will take a locally registered single woman, on suspicion of prostitution. It’s pointless contacting the police, even in the most desperate circumstances. In a recent case, police refused to accept a statement by a 14-year old girl that she had been raped, because she was “of the age of consent and had no obvious signs of injury”.
Cases such as these happen in Uzbekistan more often than one can imagine. Neither the law, nor society is interested in protecting victims, instead telling them to find their own way out of difficult circumstances. Uzbekistan was and remains one of the few countries in the world that lacks legislation on domestic violence.
Furthermore, women experience restrictions in a range of spheres. Until 2017, for example, women couldn’t travel freely – in order to leave the country, a woman needed a sticker (the equivalent of an exit visa) from the visa and registration department, and this required the permission of her parents or husband.
Since the death of president Islam Karimov in 2016, however, attempts have been made to improve women’s rights - at least legally. Here’s an overview of them.
In April this year, Uzbekistan’s Women’s Committee published a draft law designed to prevent sex discrimination. The Women’s Committee, set up in 1991, aims to improve women’s status in society, and this draft legislation is the first ever document of its kind published in Uzbekistan. It goes into relevant terms (gender equality, discrimination) in great detail – and, for the first time in Uzbek law, discusses the concept of societal stereotypes about gender. It also describes future mechanisms to protect these rights and establishes penalties for violating them.
In February, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree that aims to “fundamentally improve support for women and strengthen the institution of the family”. The law criticised the current situation with women’s rights and their participation in affairs of state.
This decree also created the Oila (“Family”) research centre, which aims to strengthen marriages, study issues of reproductive health, investigate problems faced by modern families and compile lists of low income households. Staff at the Oila centre travelled across the country, talking to women about violence and their own family situations. The centre was also given responsibility for “strengthening families” and for divorces. Previously, if you wanted to end your marriage, you had to ask your local council office for permission, but now the Oila centre is responsible.
This official initiative to support women is, of course, important in itself, but there is a built-in contradiction. On the one hand, the Oila centre should do everything it can to help women and try to resolve difficult situations. On the other, the centre has to do everything it can to keep a family together. This can lead to serious conflict: in situations where divorce should be permitted, centre staff attempt to persuade the couple to continue living together.
Help is unavailable
In 2018, the Women’s Committee opened a hotline for women who had experienced violence – you now can dial the number 1146 to contact a doctor, psychologist or lawyer. Tanzila Narbayeva, who heads the committee, tells me they didn’t expect the number of phone calls and requests for help that were triggered by the line.
Last year, the committee also opened the first shelters for women who are victims of domestic violence. People familiar with the situation tell me that initially committee members weren’t entirely sure what the shelters were for and, instead of offering refuge, organised handicraft groups.
“The Women’s Committee reports on opening shelters and hotlines, but there are either too few shelters or they haven’t opened yet, and all this information has to be verified,” says psychologist Liana Natroshvili. “It’s the same with the hotline: some of my clients have tried to call the number when they have been in a difficult situation, but the line was either down or inaccessible.”
Natroshvili believes that these steps remain critically inadequate: “This is still a new issue for our country. We’ve been talking about violence and gender questions for a year or two, but everything is still at an early stage. People in the regions who need to react quickly to new policies still share the old stereotypes about women. They aren’t ready for the new realities.”
A turning point in the protection of women from violence was the “Preventing Domestic Violence” draft legislation published in September 2018. For the first time since Uzbekistan became independent, the country has draft legal definitions of psychological, economic, domestic and other types of violence. Discussion of the project’s proposals ended a month later, but there’s been no further progress – the draft bill remains in a state of limbo.
Then in May 2019, the Women’s Committee published a new draft bill against domestic violence, which would also protect women from harassment or bullying at work and at home. This draft is an updated version of a bill on domestic violence from the previous October. Discussion lasted for a week, but there is no certainty that it will be passed in the future.
Faina Yagafarova, a feminist activist, believes that these initiatives aren’t enough - it’s still difficult for women in Uzbekistan to have their rights observed. As proof of this statement, Yagafarova tells me that it’s still not easy for women to work and be mothers – companies in Uzbekistan have to pay maternity benefits, but believe mothers should pay these costs themselves, and are therefore unwilling to take women on.
“You can receive maternity benefits until the child is two years old, but nurseries only accept children when they reach their third birthday,” says Yagafarova. “It turns out that if you don’t have relatives to take care of the child, a woman has to live without state support or work for a whole year.”
"Local doctors refuse to accept complaints about beatings, saying that ‘they have had enough of resolving family feuds’. The police won’t throw abusers in jail and medical examiners re-traumatise women who come to them"
According to Yagafarova, the situation is similar in the judicial system – the police confirm that fines for domestic violence are paid out of family budgets, although legislation provides for alternative punishments, from community service to imprisonment or house arrest.
“The violence prevention law still hasn’t gone through Parliament. No one in the regions complies with the Criminal Procedure Code. Local doctors refuse to accept complaints about beatings, saying that ‘they have had enough of resolving family feuds’. The police won’t throw abusers in jail and medical examiners re-traumatise women who come to them [after being attacked].”
There are also problems with divorces: even a court ruling against a husband for beating his wife isn’t sufficient grounds for divorce in judges’ eyes. And high court fees for divorce deprive many women of the opportunity to file a complaint, even if they are living daily with domestic violence.
“Those feminists have some nerve!”
But change is happening. While the government tries to figure out the “women issue”, ordinary Uzbeks are gradually shifting their position on gender equality – at least in the capital and other large cities. In Tashkent, for example, there are local projects on feminism and violence prevention, and there is even a growing independent feminist community. Social media channels focusing on sexism are also appearing and the press is writing about gender inequality issues.
“Currently people look to traditions and persistent stereotypes which have been passed down from generation to generation. We need to change society’s perception of how things have to be"
One important project is the “Speak Out!” online discussion group. This channel, which was set up a year and a half ago on Facebook and Telegram, helps women who have experienced violence. It also explains terms such as sexism, debasement and feminism to other users.
This channel began by explaining what was wrong with the debasement of women and why reactions in the spirit of “it’s her own fault” are bad, as well as how to help anyone who has experienced violence. The most difficult thing was to build up a loyal following that grasped the importance of the issue and didn’t try to devalue victims’ experience.
After a time, having acquired a more or less loyal and appreciative following, the project produced an anonymous form for women who had experienced or were experiencing or witnessing domestic violence. The “Speak Out” forum then shares the experience of victims of this violence.
Irina Matvienko, the human rights defender who set up the project, feels that public attitudes to feminism are changing, but the changes are not major ones.
“According to Facebook, the target group for my project are generally Russian-speaking people living in Tashkent,” says Matvienko. “And it’s unlikely that our experience can be applied across the country. But I can see from our followers that some attitudes are changing. Many people, for example, have discovered the concept of ‘blaming the victim’ and learning why we mustn’t put the emphasis on the victim. The choice of violence, after all, is always down to the attacker, who decides whether to inflict pain or not. And we need to think about the person inflicting the violence, not the behaviour of their victim.”
Despite the recent draft legislation on gender equality, Irina Matvienko believes there is still not enough being done to fight against societal stereotypes on gender. There is a need, Matvienko believes, to re-examine television content on the basis of how it portrays gender stereotypes.
Are these changes happening in the world?
Each year, international research bodies look at women’s position in society and publish reports on the question, using a system of league tables. One of the best known is the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which monitors gender equality throughout the world. Last year’s report predicted that it would take at least another century to wipe out the economic, social and political inequality between men and women – and that only if the trend towards equality continues.
In 2018, all Central Asian states, apart from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, were included in the index, with Kazakhstan in 52nd place, Kyrgyzstan in 81st and Tajikistan in 93rd (out of 200). Uzbekistan was nonetheless included in a recent World Bank report (“Women, Business and the Law 2018”), which analyses attitudes towards women across the world. The statistics on Uzbekistan do not make for happy reading, with most of its figures at the low end of the scale - on the “protection from domestic violence” line the country has zero points. After all, Uzbekistan has no law on domestic violence. In this respect, the report’s authors compare Uzbekistan with Russia and Myanmar.
A more detailed look at the tables reveals that the situation with women’s rights in Uzbekistan is, however, better than in the Middle East and North Africa, where women’s rights are strictly de jure. Uzbekistan limits women’s rights de facto: most Uzbeks believe that the man is still the head of the family; it is he who decides what to spend the family’s income on, where his children will go to school and whether his wife can work outside the home. These points are unlikely to come up in reports by the World Bank, the World Economic Forum or the UN. Uzbek law is by and large on the side of women, but local officials or the public mood are not.
“There’s no point in explaining to people what gender equality is if you start with the premise that ‘the man is the head of the family’"
Liana Natroshvili thinks that society’s role is one of the most important when it comes to understanding a woman’s place in Uzbekistan.
“Currently people look to traditions and persistent stereotypes which have been passed down from generation to generation. We need to change society’s perception of how things have to be. We need to change things in all social groups: a family’s attitudes towards a daughter, for example. She shouldn’t just amount to free labour who will eventually get married and then cease to be part of the family. This all needs to be discussed and explained in schools and nurseries, workplaces, universities and colleges and elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, the Women’s Committee is proposing that the Uzbek public examine its draft legislation and comment on it. As far as gender equality goes, there are still far too few women engaged in the country’s political life. There are very few women’s faces to be found at meetings of ministers and officials. And the business sphere is the same: it’s a man’s world which lives by its own laws.
Uzbekistan wants to downplay its problems, rather than nipping them in the bud, concludes Faina Yagafarova. “There’s no point in explaining to people what gender equality is if you start with the premise that ‘the man is the head of the family’. This automatically makes the woman subordinate. I think we need another model of relationships – one of partnership and equality, where no one is more important by virtue of their gender.”