Ruyo, a 23-year-old victim of domestic abuse in Tajikistan, says her unemployed husband beat her often at their home in Dushanbe before she finally separated from him and filed for divorce.
“He punched me even when I was pregnant,” says Ruyo, who asked that her full name not be used because she doesn’t want her family to recognize she is speaking out publicly about the abuse.
“He was unemployed and would spend all his money on alcohol and take his anger out on me,” Ruyo told RFE/RL.
Despite the regular beatings, Ruyo’s parents encouraged her to stay with her abusive husband and try to make her marriage work -- a common approach to family matters in Tajikistan.
She says she also didn’t report the violence to police, fearing it would bring shame on her family.
“My marriage was a very painful and lonely experience most of which I spent crying,” Ruyo said.
Finally, after the birth of their second child in 2018, Ruyo fled with both of her children to a one-room apartment that she rented in Dushanbe and filed for divorce.
Although the divorce has not been resolved by the courts, she says she sees no prospect of receiving alimony payments from her unemployed husband.
That, she says, leaves her dependent upon a small state child support subsidy and handouts from her relatives.
Domestic violence against women is commonplace in Tajikistan. According to UN Women, a United Nations entity that works for the empowerment of women and gender equality, at least one in five women in the Central Asian country are affected by domestic abuse.
The real scale of the problem is unknown as most victims, like Ruyo, don’t report the abuse to authorities. In Tajikistan’s conservative and patriarchal society, domestic abuse is often seen as a private, family matter.
Tajikistan in 2013 adopted a Law on the Prevention of Violence in the Family. But it does not criminalize domestic violence.
Victims seeking a remedy through the justice system must bring claims against their abusers under various articles of the Criminal Code.
While some progress has been made in addressing the issue, victims still lack adequate protection from the government. Most don’t have access to shelters and other services they desperately need.
WATCH: Tajiks Discuss Prevalence Of Domestic Violence
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented some of the obstacles that domestic violence victims face if they try to receive help or seek justice through the legal system.
The report, Violence with Every Step: Weak State Response to Domestic Violence In Tajikistan, provides examples of the physical and psychological abuse that survivors have shared with the international rights group.
They include marital rape, beating with sharp and heavy objects, strangulation, stabbings, and being deprived of food and clothing by their spouse.
In one horrific case, a woman told HRW that her husband tortured her by taking a heated brick from a stove and placing it on her face.
Documenting Domestic Violence
"In this report, we document dozens of cases of very severe violence -- from beatings, some with the fist, but others with sharp objects,” says HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow. “I also met a woman who was hanged from the ceiling by her husband for several hours for a beating.”
“I met victims of rape. I met victims who had been tortured in other ways -- psychologically,” Swerdlow told RFE/RL. “We met with one woman at a shelter who experienced 14 years of all kinds of abuse. In one case, her husband, when he was unhappy with something, he put her in a garage outside, poured dirty water on her, shaved her head."
HRW says victims testified to being targeted by violence that “caused injuries, including internal bleeding and damage to vital organs, concussions, skull fractures, broken jaws, and severe bruises, as well as symptoms of trauma and emotional distress.”
The law guarantees victims’ rights to protection and social services, but in reality, HRW says it is rarely implemented.
Citing advocates and survivors, the HRW report says police often “refuse to pursue investigations, issue protection orders, or arrest people who commit domestic violence, even in cases where the violence is severe, including attempted murder, serious physical harm, and repeated rape.”
In the country with some 9 million residents, Tajikistan has only four shelters for women affected by domestic abuse.
The government offers no financial assistance to victims, even if they have dependent children, the report says.
Counselling usually focuses on reconciling a battered wife with her abusive husband and sending her back to the marital home where she faces continued abuse.
Poverty and widespread unemployment are among other factors forcing many women to stay with abusive husbands.
HRW is urging Tajik authorities to explicitly criminalize domestic violence and ensure that police and the judiciary investigate complaints and prosecute abuse cases.
HRW said it hopes to present its report to Tajik authorities in October.
The government in Dushanbe has made some tentative steps to combat domestic violence.
A state program launched in 2014 to address the issue and help victims acknowledges deep-rooted problems and gender-based violence that “needs to be tackled.”
Several abusers have been brought to justice in Tajikistan in recent years.
On September 23, Hisor district resident Fathullo Sharipov, was sentenced to 5 years in prison on charges of driving his wife to commit suicide.
The court said Sharipov “treated his wife and children with cruelty…abused them physically and verbally” to the point that she drowned herself and her two small children in 2018.
In July, a 64-year-old resident of the southern Jayhun district was charged with driving his daughter-in-law to commit suicide through his verbal abuse.
In a high-profile case from August 2017 in Tajikistan’s southern district of Vose, 24-year-old Zafar Pirov was sentenced to 7 years in prison for driving his 18-year-old bride to suicide over a virginity dispute.
Pirov was accused of verbally insulting his bride and putting enormous psychological pressure on her. She killed herself by drinking a fatal dose of vinegar just 40 days after their wedding.