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Central Asia: Women’s Rights Groups Fight Gender Violence

Tajik women Gender violence is present in every country of the world. But in some conservative societies of inner Asia, it has not even been considered an issue until recently and remains a taboo subject for public discussion. It is not only men committing acts of violence against women. In many cases in these traditional societies, it is older female relatives that are the tormenters. As women’s rights groups across much of Eurasia on 25 November observe an annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign, RFE/RL looks at some of the people working to change local opinions about violence against women.

Prague, 24 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Women have few rights in the patriarchal societies of Central Asia, and they are sometimes the victims of domestic violence.

But there is now hope that the situation can change.

Organizations supporting women’s rights and actively campaigning against gender violence are now appearing in the region. Many of them will begin observing an annual 16 Day Campaign tomorrow to educate the public about domestic violence. The campaign was initially launched by the Open Society Institute -- a U.S.-funded rights forum active in the former Soviet Union since the mid 1990s.

The task of the women’s groups is a difficult one. There are no statistics yet as to the extent of domestic violence, but conservative estimates by the organizations indicate one in five women is a victim.

In the traditional extended families of Central Asia, that means that almost everyone has a female relative who has been subjected to violence. Such abuse is most often associated with men, particularly the husband.
Alone, in a strange household, and suddenly burdened with new tasks and a critical mother-in-law -- all while trying to form a new relationship with her husband -- scores of young women have resorted to suicide.

One man in Kazakhstan offers this common view of why men mistreat women: “It is usual that a man wants to dominate a woman. In Muslim society a woman’s rights are less than those of a man. Men’s rights are a priority and women are usually a source of quarrels. Women are more promiscuous than men. Men are usually silent unless they are disturbed.”

In Kazakhstan, organizations championing the cause of women’s rights are increasing in number. The Women’s Crisis Center Kamkorlyk (Care), for example, has opened 19 facilities since the late 1990s.

Kamkorlyk Director Zurkhra Turganbai says that more than 10,000 women have sought help from the center since it was founded. She describes the situations in which the women who come to the centers face at home: “The women who come to us are mainly suffering from physical violence, from psychological violence and economic violence.”

One of the roots of violence against women in Central Asia is the ancient practice of “kalym,” or “bride price.” Arranged marriages are still common and newlyweds are often unfamiliar with one another up to the day of their wedding.

After the wedding -- and particularly in rural areas where two-thirds of Central Asia’s population lives -- the bride often goes to live with her new husband’s parents. Often she is under 20 years old.

Once in her new home, it is not only the demands of a new husband the young wife must contend with. She also most face the often domineering figure of her mother-in-law.

Shahrigul Mirjanova is the coordinator in Tajikistan for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s project for decreasing violence against women. Mirjanova says not only the mother-in-law but also sisters-in-law in a cramped household can be both verbally and physically abusive to new wives.

Alone, in a strange household, and suddenly burdened with new tasks and a critical mother-in-law -- all while trying to form a new relationship with her husband -- scores of young women have resorted to suicide.

Mirjanova says there are cases of young women resorting to self-immolation, not only in Tajikistan but all over Central Asia.

The Uzbek nongovernmental organization Najot (Vital Aid) recorded the story of one young woman whose mother-in-law accused her of being unfaithful. The woman told the group that the accusation led to beatings, then “they simply threw me out in the streets.”

Women in such situations are often without resources. They have no money or means of support. Their own blood relatives and the police often recommend the ostracized young woman do what she can to ease tensions and go back to her in-laws and husband.

Kamkorlyk Director Turganbai says her centers are staffed with psychologists and lawyers. The centers offer legal counseling to help battered women reach agreements with their in-laws when possible.

“Ten thousand women have come to us, and of these only 400 women made use of our legal teams," Turganbai says. "I believe that our purpose is to keep the family together.”

The international rights group Amnesty International says in a November report that the problem of domestic violence goes far beyond crises in individual families and homes.

The reports says "the increasing spread of HIV/Aids among women and sexual violence are interlinked. If governments are serious in their fight against the disease they also have to deal with another worldwide ‘pandemic’: violence against women."

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)