gender

On the slow progress on women’s rights in Uzbekistan

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With the opening up of Uzbekistan under President Mirziyoyev, I have been able to expand my blog’s coverage beyond my traditional territories of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The dominant narratives for higher education in Uzbekistan over the past couple of years have been the dizzying speed of reforms and the massive drive to internationalize the higher education system by creating new joint or international universities in the country. Take a look at some of my recent posts about Uzbekistan to get a flavour of the depth and breadth of change.

As with any reform package there will be winners and losers. Huge changes are being foistered onto Uzbek society and for many, this is making a positive difference. But for some groups, much still needs to be done. This is why I am sharing an excellent article [en] / статья [ru] published on the also-excellent website Open Democracy about women’s rights in Uzbekistan.

Authored by Darina Solod, the article points out where changes are being putting in place that will support gender equality/equity, but also explains how and why much deeper societal transformations are still required.

The article is below, (c) Open Democracy and Darina Solod. The Russian version is here.

In Uzbekistan, women’s rights are changing – but not fast enough

Uzbekistan still lacks a law on domestic violence, and legislation on gender equality is yet to appear.

Darina Solod
4 July 2019
In Uzbekistan, women facing domestic violence have few mechanisms to defend their rights

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CC BY-NC 2 Vladimir Varfolomeev /Flickr. Some rights reserved

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.

Draft laws

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.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev | Source: President of Uzbekistan

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.”

Electoral suffrage doesn’t guarantee women the opportunity to defend their rights | (c) Valery Melnikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved

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.

Impunity

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.

Дочь не должна быть бесплатной рабочей силой, “отрезанным ломтем”, которая выйдет замуж и больше не будет причастной к семье. | CC BY-NC 2.0 Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved

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.”

Empowering girls through education in Tajikistan

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super-cat_o_593743
Channel your supercat this year! Be like Tajik teacher Hamadony Muzafarov and work for a better world.

Happy new year! I hope that 2019 will bring you health and happiness, and I hope that the world becomes a slightly more sensible place this year (I can hope, right?).

Kicking off the year is a wonderful story about an inspiring teacher in rural Tajikistan who over the course of many years has shown great dedication to his students.

Hamadony Muzafarov is particularly committed to his female students, working to raise the opportunities and prospects for girls and women both in and out of the classroom. As Muzafarov says:

“My passion for empowering local girls, sharing the benefits of knowing English, and making children excited about learning, drives my desire to teach. Even in this remote corner of Tajikistan, it’s important to inspire and educate the future leaders of our world and all of its individual communities.”

-Hamadony Muzafarov

His ‘day in the life’ story is below. Read, enjoy, and be inspired to take action!

The article is (c) TES and can be found in the original at https://www.tes.com/news/day-teaching-life-ofhamadony-muzafarov

A day in the teaching life of Hamadony Muzafarov

This teacher faced opposition when he began teaching girls English in the rural villages of Tajikistan, but he refused to give up

By Hamadony Muzafarov

30 December 2018

When I left my remote village to attend college in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I dreamed of becoming an English teacher in Tajik villages. But when I started teaching, I had significant problems with local attitudes: local men told me that it’s better if their wives are uneducated so that they won’t be able to talk back or challenge them, even in the case of physical violence.

Realising the severity of the problem, I dedicated my work to women’s education in this difficult climate. Slowly, I’ve changed local attitudes: first ensuring that girls can complete high school and eventually, in 2014, integrating classrooms, so that boys and girls could learn together. English is key to female empowerment – in Tajikistan, knowledge of the language is necessary to attend university.

Mastering the English language can open a student’s mind and allow them to exchange ideas, opinions and cultural views. Similarly, it plays a great role in intercultural relationships and increases opportunities for the future. It will allow students to pursue higher education, apply for scholarships abroad, and it increases their employment opportunities.

To reach these goals, I ran my own language centre, Dunyoi Donish, from 2006 to 2016 and taught in local schools. Since 2010, I have worked in partnership with the US Embassy in Tajikistan to teach the English Access Micro-Scholarship Programme, which is targeted at children from low-income families.

Until 2014, the male and female students who were accepted on the programme were separated from 10 to 14-years-old until I started mixing them. Throughout the year, I facilitate a girl’s empowerment club. Every summer, I run a summer leadership Program and organize a free summer English club for children which teaches English and leadership.

My passion for empowering local girls, sharing the benefits of knowing English, and making children excited about learning, drives my desire to teach. Even in this remote corner of Tajikistan, it’s important to inspire and educate the future leaders of our world and all of its individual communities. I strive to create a safe and friendly learning environment inside the classroom, and outside of the classroom I plan activities where students can encourage and empower other students.

At times, it’s been an uphill battle. I fight daily in a traditional society where it is challenging for girls to reach even secondary school. Tajik girls in rural areas are often pulled out of school as teenagers and forced into marriages. I’ve worked with girls from rural and underprivileged backgrounds by building trust with parents when I launched an all-girls group.

Once I won trust in the community, I started gradually mixing girls with boys to foster gender balance in my classroom. My first female students have become “trailblazers” in the community, have confidence, and share their knowledge with other girls in the villages. They have learned English so well that they have become competitive for highly sought-after slots in American exchange programmes.

In 2015, I created a leadership development club for girls where 100 schoolgirls attended seminars on women’s rights, gender issues, parenting, environment, sewing, debate and peer training. The project included speakers who came to discuss the importance of education and disadvantages of child marriage.

In the Rasht region, war has damaged the quality of education. The remote locale of my district reduces opportunities for low-income citizens to receive a proper education. Female attendance in my region has been historically low because many families think education for girls is useless. This situation presents a unique set of challenges for any educator.

In 2010, the US Embassy provided me with funds for a pilot programme that encourages talented female students to study English. All the girls applied to institutions of higher learning to become English teachers, physicians, or other professionals.

Two of them were the first in their village to go to the US with exchange programmes, the first from their village. One of them, Madina, was one of my private students. After studying in the US, she became a teacher in Dushanbe.

She’s a clear success story. One of the judges of the Teaching Changes Lives competition at Oxford University even commented: “If we need proof that teaching changes lives, [Madina’s story shows] beyond doubt the power of education.”

The importance of teaching female students in a conservative society has been groundbreaking. So many girls regularly attend my classes and I have no doubt that all will be successful.

Hamadony Muzafarov is an EFL teacher, ambassador at TeachSDGs and runs a University Prep Club for Girls

(c) TES, https://www.tes.com/news/day-teaching-life-ofhamadony-muzafarov

University admissions in Tajikistan: Who wants to be an engineer?

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It’s university admissions season in Tajikistan and as a record number of school leavers sit the nationwide university entrance exams, ever-reliable news outlet Asia-Plus took a look at the prospects for the class of 2021.

This unified nationwide testing system was introduced in 2013 as part of a project funded by the World Bank and with Russian government assistance. This follows a pattern seen across the post-Soviet states, where university-specific admissions arrangements have been centralized into a national testing system with one of the main goals being to overcome corruption (bribe-taking, use of contacts etc) in university admissions.

(For a more detailed overview of shifts in access to higher education across the former Soviet Union, I recommend this 2012 paper by Anna Smolentseva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia)

In the Tajik university entrance exam system, all potential university students have to take three exams in Tajik language, maths, and the history of the Tajik people and the foundations of the state and law. Then, depending on the subject you wish to specialize in, you also take another three exams focusing on that area. The five subject-specific clusters are: natural and technical sciences; economics and geography; philology, pedagogy and art; social studies and law; and medicine, biology and sport.

The National Testing Centre produces a useful document for future students called ‘How to choose your course’ [ru] (this uses the term “spetsialnost’” or specialism, which dates back to the Soviet era of planned economy and direct pipeline from university to job market). The guidance suggests that candidates consider the following questions:

-What do you expect to achieve from this specialism?

-Does it meet your interests, aptitudes and abilities?

-Can this area satisfy your needs?

-Can you make a living from this area?

The guidance underlines the importance of the last question and highlights a phenomenon also identified by Asia-Plus, where the prestige of subjects such as economics and law has led to a glut of graduates who now sit unemployed because demand far outstrips supply.

With over 10,000 candidates competing for less than 5,000 nationwide places in subjects related to social studies and law, there is clearly a large gap – not just between those who will make it to university and those who won’t based on the exam score, but in the subjects students want to study and what the government thinks the labour market can bear.

Asia-Plus spoke to candidates taking the exams about how they’d chosen their areas of specialism. Farrukh aspires to be a prosecutor or investigator because they are “the most respected people” and they earn a lot. Muhammad’s father is a teacher and would like him to become one too, but Muhammad is pessimistic: “Teaching isn’t a prestigious career anymore. My dad’s a teacher and where has that got him? He hasn’t even got a car. He owes everyone money.” Like Farrukh, Muhammad dreams of joining the legal profession.

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Sure you can fix it, but the problem is that there aren’t enough engineers to go round in Tajikistan

The perceived prestige of economics, law and medicine has in parallel downgraded the prestige of science and technology related jobs. However, as one commentator in the Asia-Plus article notes, “I think that electricians and plumbers earn a lot more than doctors and lawyers. I paid an electrician $800 for 3 days’ work!”.

People I’ve spoken to in universities here are acutely aware of the need for more students to fill scientific and technical positions in the labour market, and it’s clear that the government is also trying to encourage students in this direction. As Asia-Plus notes, Tajikistan has a great need for more graduates with skills in new technologies, geology, industry, transport and energy.

Yet it is the overwhelming and now fairly enduring trend towards areas such as economics, law and medicine that make the headlines. This interest is generally associated with the earnings potential of jobs in these areas – both the take-home pay packet and in the potential to unofficially earn extra on the side.

The take home message here is not all negative. The fact that nearly 100,000 school leavers are choosing to take the university entrance exams because they want to continue their education is laudable. If spread evenly across the subject clusters, that would mean an average of 1.5 candidates for every university/college place available. Demand is high. The tradition established during the Soviet era of placing strong value on higher education in Tajikistan persists, despite the difficulties the country has experienced since becoming independent in 1991.

Nevertheless, a supportive underlying culture in this case is not enough.

I am a great believer in the transformative power of higher education, but it also seems that a dose of labour market-related realism is in order here.

Much more outreach work needs to be done in schools to help young people learn about the post-university job options that are available to them. The prestige of technical jobs has to be addressed creatively and positively. Public sector jobs ought to attract greater salaries so that good candidates are not turned off by the prospect of spending four years in university only to earn $100 a month.

And another point that is not made in any of the government documentation is the need to enrich the job opportunities (and social mobility possibilities) available to female students, especially those from rural areas. As one respondent to Asia-Plus’ interviews noted, she’d ideally like to be a banker or a tax inspector. However, as a rural woman she’s instead limited to being a midwife or a teacher.

And so the cycle continues…

Gender gaps in higher education across Central Asia

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After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.

I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:

http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20160707140807406

I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.

Steps towards gender equality in Kyrgyzstan

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Happy new year / S novim godom / Soli nav muborak to you all!

Kickstarting this year’s set of posts is a report from Kyrgyzstan on steps being taken – primarily by the government and a small but growing number of local NGOs – to bring greater equality to the country.

The article can be found at https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/cristina-maza/challenging-patriarchy-in-kyrgyzstan.

The author points out the unusual situation of formerly Soviet-run countries where women’s roles have actually decreased in equality terms since the fall of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s. Soviet policies towards women were, like many aspects of its rule, largely economic-led (e.g. more women in the workforce = greater productivity), but had knock on social and cultural impacts that benefitted women’s status.

Christina Maza’s balanced and interesting article offers an insight into how gender roles are developing in independent Kyrgyzstan. What is most fascinating is the stark divide for women, where the haves (middle class, educated etc) take bold steps towards a greater role for women by, for example, holding high level government posts but the have nots (often rural and from poorer backgrounds) may marry young and not be able to access opportunities for educational and/or career development.

I have in the past read about initiativesthat are bringing concepts of gender equality and women’s rights to more rural areas, but much more needs to be done to give parity to women within Kyrgyzstan. Last summer, I met with senior female university managers, one of whom has since been appointed to a very high level government post. I was perhaps even more delighted to meet a female taxi driver in Bishkek, a profession in many countries predominantly held by men. These women are in their own right extraordinary people, and I hope that across Kyrgyzstan more women will be able to develop and employ their skills on at least a level pegging with their male counterparts.

Visualising educational disparity in Uzbekistan

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UNDP has produced this eye-catching visual representation of what would otherwise be a very long statistics heavy report showing the state of education in Uzbekistan, which a focus on the differences in participation and outcome based on gender. Reproduced below (c) UNDP Uzbekistan, source http://visual.ly/women-and-men-uzbekistan-difference-education.

Infographics are an excellent way of familiarising people with what can sometimes feel like very ‘heavy’ numbers. By looking at this infographic, you would grasp a number of facts quite quickly. The most striking to me – which is not as gender specific as some of the data – is the drop in participation in higher education and the fact that only 9% of school leavers are going on to university now. Compare that to neighbouring Tajikistan (20% participation rate) and don’t even think about other neighbours Kazakhstan (41%) or Kyrgyzstan (51%) (source: World Bank, 2011).

The implications for Uzbekistan’s future human potential are deeply worrying and not even a beautiful infographic like this one can hide some serious concerns.