Tajikistan: Tajik Women’s Groups Press for Domestic Violence Law

As more and more suicides among women are attributed to violence in the home, pressure is building for a law to end the climate of impunity.
Tajik women’s groups are lobbying hard for a draft bill to protect families from violence, claiming a growing number of suicides among women can be blamed on the phenomenon.
Though few would dispute that discrimination and violence against women are endemic in Tajikistan, the law has yet to acknowledge the problem exists. There is no legal concept of “violence within the family”, and this creates a climate of impunity among offenders, experts say.

On November 25, the day the United Nations has dedicated to ending violence against women, Tajik non-government organisations, NGOs, held a round table at which they renewed demands for more effective action against domestic violence, in the shape of a draft law.

A bill has already been submitted to the government, and following amendments, it will go before parliament in 2008.

“The bill has a preventive and educational intention, above all,” said Guljakhon Bobosadikova of the NGO Association for Gender Development and Preventing Violence Towards Women.

The law would mean that individuals accused of violence within the family would have to be formally notified and warned on receipt of the first complaint. After a six-month grace period, the alleged offender would be liable to prosecution if the situation repeated itself.

The legislation would also provide for new refuges for the victims of domestic violence.

A few shelters have already been set up in Tajikistan with international help, but women’s rights groups and experts say the government must start to take the burden on itself.

High Suicide Rate Among Women

The number of suicides in Tajikistan, including those of woman, has increased year by year, according to international organisations, government officials and NGOs.

In 2004, there were 132 deaths recorded suicides in the first six months, of whom 67 were women. Eight were women who set themselves on fire. This year, by comparison, there were 158 suicides in the first six months according to the interior ministry, 85 of them involving women. Of the latter figure, 25 were under-age girls.

The motives for suicide are often hard to ascertain, but some NGOs believe about 40 of this year’s suicides involving women were attributable to domestic conflict.

Participants at the round table said it was urgent to adopt a bill that would help the country fulfill the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ICCPR. Tajikistan is a signatory to both.

Moves to develop and pass such a law in Tajikistan are not new. A campaign started back in 2005, while a coordinating council on violence issues, linking interested NGOs, international organisations and governmental agencies was set up in 2006.

The NGOs started with an awareness-raising campaign to alert the population to the scale of domestic violence.

The coordinating council then presented their recommendations in the form of the current bill. Before the draft reaches parliament, there are plans to hold public discussions of its contents among the population at large.

Self-Immolation a Common Method

Munira Odinaeva, a doctor who works both with the Bovari Crisis Centre and at a Dushanbe hospital’s burns unit, says she frequently sees women who have tried to burn themselves to death and ended up in her centre.

“There are women here who have been driven to despair by their husbands and by their husbands’ relatives,” she said. “After trying to commit suicide, many regret they’ve survived.”

Mohsharif is one such victim. Married at 17, she found her dreams of a happy life faded fast when she joined her new family. Her husband and mother-in-law beat her almost every day, even when she was pregnant.

“When I gave birth to my son, I thought my life would change but it got even worse,” she recalled. “They beat not only me but my baby as well, which I could not bear”.

In the end, Mohsharif took the desperate step of pouring petrol over herself and setting herself alight.

After she was taken to hospital, she says her husband and mother-in-law visited her only in order to persuade her not to make her reasons for attempting suicide public.

Experts say self-immolation is one of the more common paths to suicide chosen by young women in Tajikistan - partly because this form of ending one’s life is widely considered less sinful among Muslims than some other methods.

There is also easy access to fuel. Electricity is often turned off in winter in rural Tajikistan, so cans of kerosene or petrol are present in almost every household.

Odinaeva told IWPR about one young woman she had seen, aged 35, who died in hospital of third-degree burns.

Her mother-in-law had apparently been very hostile to her, and her husband beat her routinely. Neither she nor the children were allowed to eat with the other family members, and ate their food in the kitchen.

The woman tried to go back to her parents’ house but her stepfather did not want to take her and her two children in.

The family claimed her burns were the result of an accident, and her husband denied any complicity. Visiting the hospital after his wife’s death, according to Odinaeva, he said. “Yes, I yelled at her but nothing more. I didn’t encourage her to commit suicide.”

Women who survive suicide attempts have been known to die “accidentally” after their discharge from hospitals, according to Odinaeva.

“Their husbands beg them to ‘fall’ [from a height], and make it look as though they killed themselves by their own recklessness, so that they [the men] will not be condemned and thrown in jail,” she said.

More Action Needed From Government

Although the problem of suicide among women is clearly widespread, there has been little attempt by the government to collect reliable statistics and take action.

Even officials speak – though only in private - of the lack of effective government action on domestic violence.

“There are almost no funds from the government for combating domestic violence, nor are there statistics,” one high-ranking official who did not want to be named told IWPR.

“The government obliges us to maintain statistics, but we have no resources or funds to do it, and nobody talks about it.”

This official acknowledged that female suicide remains commonplace and often occurs as a direct consequence of domestic violence.

The state has not been totally inactive. The government long ago adopted a programme designed to ensure equal rights and opportunities by 2010. Its aims are to develop strategies to prevent violence against women, build closer partnerships and cooperation with relevant NGOs and international organisations, and improve the legislative framework.

Violence Viewed as a Family Affair

But in practice, say NGO representatives, government bodies such as the police are reluctant to tackle abusers.

“Many talk about cases of domestic violence, but so far the government has not taken real steps, and the law-enforcement agencies are reluctant to work with victims of violence,” said one NGO activist, who wished to remain anonymous.

She said society still viewed domestic violence as a family’s private affair. “District policemen are aware of cases of violence in some houses, but often ignore them,” she explained.

“When responding [to violence], instead of using the criminal code, the police act as mediators. They rarely arrest the tormentors.”

Jamila Zokirova, from the Bovari Crisis Centre in Dushanbe, agreed. “One often hears, especially from district police inspectors, that violence in the home is not a crime but a ‘family scandal’,” she said.

Police and the judiciary appear prone to believe that the victim usually “provokes” the violence.

Police Insist They Are Doing More

The interior ministry, which controls the police, disagrees that it is ignoring the problem, and points to several recent initiatives. Kurban Alimov, head of the ministry’s department for public order, says the police are more proactive than before in responding to such cases.

Alimov recalled a ministerial order from May this year instructing police to prevent domestic violence towards women and children, and warning them that if they failed to respond to complaints in time they would face severe disciplinary penalties.

He said the ministry had set up a special department dealing with domestic violence and other forms of assault.

As a result, in the first eight months of 2007, the ministry had reviewed 65 allegations of violence in the family and some were being sent to court for consideration. All claims of domestic violence were now being formally recorded and carefully examined, the ministry told IWPR.

An Unspoken Subject

The ministry says it becomes impossible to gather accurate statistics on the scale of domestic violence or female suicide among women when relatives conceal such cases so frequently.

This is undeniable. Suicide specialist Davron Muhammediev says the relatives of victims often prefer to hide the real causes of the victims’ deaths, explaining them away as accidents. “Otherwise, they might be refused the right to bury the body because of Muslim tenets, and this would be seen as an indelible stain on the entire family,” he noted.

This makes it hard for officials and analysts to assess the real scale of the problem, he added.

To most Tajiks, suicide remains a social and religious taboo. Like many religions, Islam views suicide as a mortal sin, and traditional social attitudes mean even the relatives are .

Shifting Roles Make Men Insecure

Dilrabo Inomova, the head of the Social Development Group, which is is implementing a Swiss-funded project tackling violence against women, said one frequently neglected factor in domestic violence is the economic downturn that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This, and the civil war that shook Tajikistan in the Nineties, has led to a reversal of traditional gender roles in some families.

In some cases, she said, “the women work to support their families while the men just sit around with no jobs”.

“Many find it unbearable not to be the main provider, which is why men treat their wives badly - to keep control over them.”

In rural areas, however, according to one Tajik legal expert, 99 per cent of women remain economically dependent on their husbands - and many of them are illiterate.

Women’s rights groups argue that the bill to protect women and other family members from domestic violence will start addressing the problem.

“We cannot blame the authorities for the fact that such a law has not been passed before, as approving any law implies major expenditures,” said Bobosadikova, adding that the time had now come for action.

By: Mukammal Odinaeva and Nafisa Pisarejeva

19 December 2007

Mukammal Odinaeva reports for the Biznes i Politika newspaper and Nafisa Pisarejeva is a freelance journalist in Dushanbe.