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Uzbekistan: NGO Helping Women Secure Their Rights

The 20th century brought great changes to the lives of Central Asia's women. Incorporation of much of the region into the Soviet Union brought with it some liberation from traditional Islamic custom, but events after independence have threatened to reverse some of that progress. Janyl Chytyrbaeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service looks at the situation for women in Uzbekistan.

Prague, 29 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan's incorporation for more than 70 years into the Soviet Union resulted in better education for women and an improvement in living conditions. Under communism, for example, women were offered better health-care and other benefits. But many of these benefits have disappeared with the economic slowdown in the country since it attained independence in 1991.

Lola Abdusalamova of the non-governmental group (NGO), Counterpart Consortium, in Tashkent, says the situation is especially dire in rural areas. She says patriarchal and religious traditions, especially outside the cities, contribute to lowering women's status: "Questions like whom to marry or how many children to have are decided by either the parents of the girl or by her husband's parent. A woman does not always have the right to defend her interests or to determine what is better for her."

Counterpart Consortium -- actually the Tashkent branch of Counterpart International, which has offices in all five Central Asian capitals -- is a non-profit organization financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Its mission is to promote the development of civic institutions.

Lola Abdusalamova says after independence, when the Islamic revival was in a full swing, life for women became especially difficult. In some places, girls again were forced to wear traditional head scarves: "Islam is misinterpreted and, at the end, this affects women. They say that in the Koran women are praised and glorified very much. In fact, with us, girls are brought up with many restrictions -- such as not to make eye contact with men, not to sit with men, and not to talk to them. And these restrictions all were said to be what Islam prescribes."

After the Tashkent bombing in February 1999, the government issued a decree that forbid the wearing of religious clothing. Now, there are cases where policemen may threaten women wearing a scarf with the possibility of court sentence.

There are some 45 NGOs dealing with women's questions in Uzbekistan, a country of 25 million people. Most of them are financially dependent on foreign support.

Abdusalamova says the NGOs have met with only limited success because of the country's repressive political environment. Only a fraction of the groups, she adds, actually pursue women's causes in the political arena:

"Uzbek women's groups are more oriented to social issues, because -- I can openly say this -- many are simply too afraid to go into politics."

Abdusalamova also says that the media are not much help. She says women's problems are almost never covered in the press: "Until recently, journalists never raised any problems at all. They try to avoid them. And now not only NGOs, but the government too, rebukes the media for failing to raise substantial issues, including women's issues, although there are burning problems and one can talk, and must talk, about them."

One area where progress is being made is in setting up crisis centers to deal with women's problems, including rising violence aimed at women. Crisis centers are now operating in Tashkent, Samarkand, and Fergana city.

Mavljuda Shirinova is the director of the Samarkand "Sabr" crisis center, the first to be established. Her center primarily offers women counseling services, both face-to-face and on the telephone. She says three of the workers at the center are men, a necessity because almost a quarter of those seeking assistance are male: "There are six on the staff, plus 12 volunteers. Three of the staff are men -- one is a chief psychologist, another a sexologist, the third a lawyer. We need them because, of those who call or come to us, 20 to 25 percent are men."

The men who come to the center mostly have problems with drugs, drinking, or depression. In this way, Uzbek women are helping each other and, at the same time, they are extending a helping hand to men.