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Uzbekistan: Domestic Violence -- Saving The Family, But Sacrificing Women (Part 2)

In the second of a two-part series on domestic violence, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at the situation in Uzbekistan. Human rights activists say women who are abused by their husbands in Uzbekistan have little hope of protection from the government. Instead, Uzbek authorities often force women to remain in violent marriages and block their access to divorce.

Prague, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan celebrated 1998 as the Year of the Family. Since then, building on the notion that a strong family equals a strong society, Uzbek officials have been doing everything possible to prevent couples from seeking divorce.

Human rights activities say this official "save the family" policy has only deepened the hardships faced by abused Uzbek women. The problem of domestic violence has never been an acknowledged social ill in Uzbekistan, and the past four years have seen government officials continue to ignore the plight of the country's battered women.

In the interest of maintaining low divorce rates, the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says local officials are encouraged to overlook instances of domestic violence. In the name of strong families, regional authorities intimidate local officials with the possibility of censure if they allow the number of divorces to grow. Representatives of state women's committees pressure wives to remain in abusive situations. HRW says police often refuse to investigate instances of domestic violence.

As a result, there are almost no statistics kept on domestic violence in Uzbekistan. Women's rights activists largely depend on anecdotal evidence to measure how widespread the problem is.

Matilda Bogner, the Uzbek researcher for HRW, says the problem of domestic violence is widespread but completely ignored by Uzbek officials. As a result, Bogner says, Uzbek women have almost no escape from a violent home: "Often what a woman will do will be to turn to her local authorities. In Uzbekistan, there are what are called mahalla committees. In every neighborhood, there is a mahalla committee. They're supposed to deal with local problems, with local issues that arise. Women will often turn to them or will go directly to their local police station. Because of government policy to keep families together, the mahalla committees or the police officers in local police stations will often send the women back into the home without providing any significant protection."

Bogner says the abuse of women is in many cases seen as a normal part of household life in Uzbekistan. If anyone is to blame, Bogner says, it is often the woman herself for failing to live up to domestic expectations: "Culturally, it's not seen as a big issue. I think that domestic violence is seen to be an issue within the family. Often it's seen to be an issue of the woman's behavior that if she behaves correctly within the family sphere then she will be treated correctly by her husband. If she behaves incorrectly, perhaps shows some disrespect towards her husband or towards her in-laws, then that's probably the reason why she has been beaten."

The sole legal measure taken by the government against domestic violence is the criminal prosecution of abusers who "drive a person to suicide." Sadly, Bogner says this form of escape is becoming increasingly common in Uzbekistan: "I have had several reports of women committing suicide, and it seems that that is quite a large problem within Uzbekistan, although it's not talked about at all widely within the country. It's seen as something which is shameful and should be kept within the family and not a public policy issue."

Bogner says the situation for women in Uzbekistan has become much harder since the fall of the Soviet Union. She says traditional notions have resurfaced in Uzbek society after the collapse of centralized norms of female equality: "Since the fall of the Soviet Union, I think that the situation for women has gone backwards. Women have less equality. From anecdotal evidence, there seem to be less women in high positions in work. There seems to be less respect for women to have positions outside the home. Culturally, women are seen as mothers and wives. In that sense, they are respected. But they are culturally supposed to stay within those fairly fixed roles. And if they step outside of that, there is not a lot of support for them."

Deborah Reed is the Uzbek program manager for the Women's Integrated Legal Literacy program, an internationally funded women's rights network. Reed works with locally trained counselors to run workshops focusing on domestic violence. She says the lack of government support for public awareness programs is one of the network's greatest hurdles. "By far, the biggest problem is that national government and local government both deny that there is any existence of these problems. When we give workshops to women, it's like a light bulb going off in their head. They [say,] 'Yes. And you're telling me that my life doesn't have to be that way?' And it's wonderful for them because they've never in their life been told that."

But Reed says it's difficult to break through the societal acceptance of domestic violence. She says counselors are most effective when they explain to men and women that domestic violence is dangerous for children. "The approach we've been taking is that it's bad for children to grow up in a violent home. This is the one thing that will make them listen. If we let them know the negative effects on children growing up in a violent situation in their home, then they'll listen because they value children greatly in this society. If they think it's hurting their children, then they'll change it. So that's the angle we've been working at lately."

Currently, Reed says 93 counselors are running workshops throughout Uzbekistan. She says demand for the workshops is increasing dramatically.

Although Reed acknowledges that talking about domestic violence alone will not stop women from being abused, she believes that improving public awareness will force Uzbek officials to acknowledge the problem and begin to develop the necessary legal protections for abused women.