Uzbekistan: Authoritarian measures against women's NGOs

Sweeping and stringent measures introduced recently by Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government threaten, among other basic rights, the existence of the country’s independent progressive women’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Many NGOs have been forced to abandon their work and advise staff to find alternative employment. We urge you to act to ensure that such independent women’s NGOs can continue to make their positive contribution to the promotion and protection of women’s rights and to the overall development of Uzbekistan society.

It is WLUML’s experience that suppression of independent progressive groups, like women’s rights groups, fuels fundamentalisms such as those that have been gaining ground in the Central Asian region over the last few years. This is one more example of a global trend to control progressive NGOs.

In solidarity,

Women Living Under Muslim Laws
International Coordination Office
Authoritarian Measures Against Women’s NGOs

Since the beginning of 2004, women’s NGOs working for women’s equality and empowerment have come under increasing pressure from the Uzbekistan government with the proclamation of decrees and the issuing of secret directives to banks that have obstructed the activities of women's NGOs and at times made their work impossible.

The independent women’s movement in the country is now under serious threat largely because of its continued criticism of the government. Using the excuse of the global 'war on terror’ in which the Uzbekistan government has been a major US ally, President Islam Karimov has sought to increase controls on progressive elements in civil society, particularly the outspoken independent women’s movement.

According the Decree No. 56 of the Cabinet of Ministries of Uzbekistan, issued in early 2004, ‘On Measures for Effective Calculation of Funding for Technical and Humanitarian Aid and Grants Received from International and Foreign Governments and Non-Governmental Organizations’: “In order to prevent the possibility of and to close the channels for money laundering, all funds from international grants must be transferred to the Uzbekistan National Bank or Asaka Bank.” This decree in effect meant the freezing of funds for NGOs who in order to access their funds had to obtain permission from various committees at the Central Bank and the Cabinet of Ministries. These committees are to assess whether or not the project supported by international donors is useful to Uzbekistan, whether or not the NGO’s project activities are in any way different from the activities of government bodies, and whether or not it duplicates the efforts of government bodies or GONGOs (Government Owned NGOs). The investigation committees consist only of persons from government bodies and the justice system. In some cases, funds have been simply returned to donors unused.

On 1 March 2004 a Decree was published requiring the licensing of educational programs (including NGOs).

On 25 May 2004 another Decree was published considerably expanding the influence of the official Women's Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan: all Women’s NGOs have to apply for re-registration and only those that are recommended by the Women's Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan can be re-registered. This means the Women's Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan will now greatly influence the activity of women’s NGOs and be able to determine who is appointed an NGO’s director; in the event that the NGO objects, the Committee can refuse to re-register the NGO. Independent women’s NGOs also fear that the Committee will register only those NGOs who are run by their allies, leaving these NGOs as the exclusive representatives of Uzbekistan’s civil society in the international community.

On 11 June 2004 yet another Decree was published requiring all NGO publications to obtain licences. License commissions consist of persons from government bodies.

Against this background and with the Ministry of Justice refusing to give permission for women’s NGO meetings, many NGOs feel it impossible to continue their work and have advised staff to find new jobs.

Background to the Women’s Movement in Uzbekistan

The autonomous women’s movement emerged in the early 1990s after independence. However, unlike official women’s committees, which were a legacy from previous Soviet structures, women’s independent NGOs have been outspoken and determined critics of Uzbekistan’s government and its failure to protect and promote women’s rights, as well as its overall authoritarian control of society.

Women have borne the brunt of the social upheaval of the social and economic transition, while public debate about women’s rights has been cynically manipulated by both the government of President Islam Karimov and the extreme Right religious opposition. Karimov, for example, has repeatedly ordered that women must neither wear ‘westernised’ clothing nor be veiled. Although Uzbekistan ratified CEDAW in 1996, it has made little progress in addressing a whole range of issues, including domestic violence.

Local women’s groups fear that the more outspoken NGOs who highlight women’s problems and overall problems and issues in Uzbekistan’s society are blacklisted and will now simply not be re-registered.

Previous avenues for interacting with the government, including the Forum of Women’s NGOs which held several successful annual meetings and provided a useful forum for bringing issues to the attention of the government, have now been closed as the Ministry of Justice has not given permission for Forum meetings.