In October 2004, Karimova spoke with Andrea Powell, director of the Washington-based NGO FAIR Fund (www.fairfund.org). FAIR Fund is an international organization that supports and engages young women in civic activism to better their lives and communities. Through cross-cultural collaboration, education, funding, and training, FAIR Fund advocates the active and successful participation of young women and girls in the development of civil society.
Below, Karimova discusses the desperate situation of girls in Uzbekistan, and why trafficking is such a big problem. (Interview used with permission from FAIR Fund.)
Nodira Karimova: Thousands of girls are being kidnapped from their homes and forced to work as sex slaves each year. Our campaign is opening a hotline, informing Uzbek girls and women of risk of accepting one of the 'dream' jobs offered to them in other countries. These people offering the jobs aren't their friends; they just want to use them for money. We want girls who are trying to come home to know we can help them. At our hotline center, a specially trained operator will give free and anonymous information on the telephone. In the last few months, we have received more than 1,000 calls, among which are calls from parents and relatives whose daughters or wives were kidnapped and forced to work as slaves. Most of these callers don't even know if their daughters, wives, girlfriends are alive or dead.
FAIR Fund: What inspired you in starting your organization?
Karimova: I have worked with a lot of different organizations dealing with women's issues. I was always worried about the fact that women in lower economic classes were ignored and did not know about the help they could be offered by these groups. The government and social services did not pay attention to poor women. But they are the ones that need the assistance the most. It was my observation that these women and girls don't ask for help because they have been taught there is no hope for their situation. They see so many hungry, poor people around them, and eventually they give up on a good future. It is my hope that my organization can really bring hope back to lives of these women and their children through real solutions.
FF: What personal and professional problems did you have while starting your organization?
Karimova: A lot of my family and professional friends did not understand why I wanted to start my own nonprofit organization. They were worried that I was trying to solve a problem [trafficking] that was never going to get any better. They thought it was impossible to help girls who 'don't want to help themselves.' But I talked to them and eventually they started to help me. My biggest supporters were actually my husband and my father. They told me to not be impatient, and to really trust my inner voice. This was very important for me because I was pretty impatient in the beginning. I wanted to save every girl possible, but first I had to build a structure to do that.
FF: Why do you think trafficking is such a big issue in your country?
Karimova: I think that for a long time Uzbek people and the government hid the problem. We are a secretive society that does not like to share their problems with the world. A good Uzbek woman had to be first a daughter, then a wife, and finally a good mother. The girls who went abroad were not considered to be good girls. People thought any girl who would do this are just doing it be a prostitute. They did not realize the true deception of the traffickers. Most of these girls need the money -- that is why they agree to go.
For a long time, no one here really sat back and wondered about how these girls get abroad. No one asked what the problems were that a girl was so desperate to agree to go with a stranger to a foreign country. People just kept closing their eyes, and every time they opened them, the problem was bigger. I decided that we needed a hotline for people to call and ask us questions. A lot of girls call us about their offers to work abroad. And a lot of families call us because they want to find their daughters. I think that any one can look at our country and see that we are at a crossroads. The economy, patriarchal views of the woman, corruption -- it all leads to a fertile ground for girls to be kidnapped into slavery.
FF: Do you think your government is dealing with the problem of trafficking in an adequate way?
Karimova: If we compare the trafficking situation from one year ago to the present one than we can be sure the situation has improved a little. I think that the latest U.S. Department of State report, "Trafficking In Persons," released this summer has made an influence on my country's attitude to trafficking prevention and prosecution of offenders. Our country was classified as tier 3, which means we are one of the worst countries for trafficking. Before this report was released, our country didn't really tackle these issues seriously. But, now we are already busting trafficking rings that have been in existence for a long time. I really hope that our government will make relevant conclusions and direct all its efforts in preventing this human tragedy.
FF: What has been the response of the girls you speak to when you tell them about trafficking?
Karimova: When we held the seminars for schoolgirls in Tashkent, the girls were really skeptical in the beginning. They only knew very little about the problem, and they were certain that good girls would not be caught in that situation. We told them about the real picture. They learned about the ways that a girl can be tricked into thinking that the job is teaching languages, selling clothes, or translating. We also told them that really poor girls are often the most vulnerable because they are afraid of living on the streets.
After these talks, they started to understand why a girl would go abroad. This is very important because girls who go are often thought of as 'bad women' or 'sluts.' They were really shocked about the beatings, forced sex, and even deaths of the girls who are trafficked. They didn't know about any of this even thought the problem is very big in our country. The more that these girls know about the problem, the better they can handle dangerous situations or false job offers. These seminars can save their lives.
FF: What are your future goals for yourself and your organization?
Karimova: First of all we are going to expand the "Information Campaign For Antitrafficking" all over the country. For the past year we have gained a lot of partners and support from organizations like FAIR Fund. This shows that our work is being recognized, and that we are becoming stronger. The information campaign will include establishing more hotline call centers in our three branch offices in Termez, Jizzak, and Syrdarya and highlighting the trafficking issue through collaboration with the local press in these regions.