Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ozoda Eshmuradova came to Tashkent a year ago from her home in Uzbekistan's southern Kashkadaryo region. Her husband had died suddenly and Eshmuradova was left to support two children alone -- something that was impossible on her schoolteacher's salary.
But in the city of 2.5 million, 43-year-old Eshmuradova had no choice but to join the leagues of women eking out a living as day laborers -- cleaning buildings, weeding farm plots, in exchange for as little as 3,000 soms ($3) a day.
"I would love to work in my profession, but harsh economic conditions forced me to quit my job. My salary at school was about 10,000 soms [$10], which is the price of one sack of flour. How was I going to live? What was I going to eat? Socio-economic conditions are very bad; there are no jobs in the villages. You can find work only on collective farms, but you never get money for your work. Instead they give you one kilo of oil and some sugar and that's it."
"We make a group of 10 to 15 women. Usually we go to a field to weed carrot or other vegetables plots in the growing season. There are many times when an employer makes us work hard all day long and then sends us back with just a little money, or no money at all. In such cases, we can only cry and try to remind our employers that we are also Muslims and call upon them to be merciful."
The ranks of female day laborers, or "mardikors," are growing throughout Central Asia, where the post-Soviet transition has left many educated and professional women jobless and destitute. The emergence of women mardikors is an especially bleak reminder of the troubles of the times. Mardikor, a Farsi term, has always specifically meant a man. There is no female equivalent of the word -- until now, one was never needed.
Marfua Tokhtakhodjayeva is the co-founder of the Tashkent-based Women's Resource Center, a nongovernmental organization focusing on women's rights. She says economic hardships and growing unemployment in rural Uzbekistan are forcing more and more women like Eshmuradova into manual labor and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
"Legally, these women have no rights at all," she said. "Their legal and social status is unclear, and there are no regulations or laws to defend their work or the way they live. First of all, Uzbek society doesn't approve of their choice, since the type of job they're doing is vague. That's why they are regarded as streetwalkers -- which is true, to a certain degree. Knowing that they have no rights, their employers may force them into sex. And then prostitution may become just one of the jobs offered at the labor markets."
Uzbek authorities have attempted to regulate the mardikor bazaars by creating temporary employment centers under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But women like Eshmuradova say they fear ministry authorities would subject them to even worse conditions because of their illegal status. Shermuhammad Torayev of the Uzbek Labor Ministry says such concerns are unfounded.
"Temporary job centers will register 'mardikors' without requiring any documents," he said. "Their work is nontaxable, and we regulate the mardikor's labor conditions with his or her private employer."
As a well-educated woman, Eshmuradova knew even before she moved to Tashkent that women mardikors have no legal protection. But the reality of her circumstances has still been a shocking adjustment for her. She is constantly stopped by policemen, who know that she -- with no residence or work permit -- will agree to pay a bribe rather than risk being thrown out of the city.
Another danger, she says, is that it is impossible to know a potential employer's true purpose. "They say that they need you for cleaning, doing their laundry or for some field work," she says. "But once you are at their disposal, some may try to force you into sex.”
"There are some women who don't want to work hard and who turn to prostitution. Allah will judge them. But I am working honestly and making my daily 2,500 to 3,000 soms through hard work," she said.
Marfua Tokhtakhodjayeva says it is not only collapsing economic conditions that push women into accepting the risks of the manual-labor market.
"Today, more and more Uzbek women are getting divorced due to domestic violence. In many cases, there is no source of financial support for them after they divorce. More and more girls are being married at the age of 15 to 16, with no proper education or skills. How are they supposed to survive if they get divorced? The only option for such women is to 'sell their hands.' "
Eshmuradova, too, has found no other way to earn money. But she says the risks and hardships of life as a mardikor are worth it -- each month she is able to send up to 100,000 soms back to her two children, who live with her parents in Kashkadaryo. She says she is waiting for the day that she can return to her native village with dignity, and once again be a respected member of her local community.
Until then, she travels each morning to the Chorsu market, risking sexual abuse and police harassment for a day of backbreaking labor and little pay.
"I am here because of harsh conditions, not because of pleasure. Thank God, I have my two children. I am earning my money through hard work. I believe that there is nothing shameful in working hard to make ends meet."
(Barno Ishaqova, a Tashkent correspondent for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, contributed to this report.)
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