In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones
TAJIKISTAN: Civil war has left one in three women victims of domestic violence
Three Tajik women outside Dushanbe
Khujand, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - Fatima and Zuhra Sultanovas are twins. Local legend has it that twins have similar destinies. The sisters' history suggests that the legend may come true. They married - on the same day - twin brothers named Hasan and Hussein. Six years have passed and they have both given birth to two children.
But domestic violence forced Zuhra to return to her father's home, while her sister Fatima was harassed by a neighbour. Later, Zuhra's husband made her have an abortion in her fifth month of pregnancy.
"I was in shock for several weeks," Fatima told IRIN in the northern Tajik city of Khujand. "I could not get away from the idea of committing suicide. I was looking for an easy way of death: I thought of plunging into the river or hanging myself - anything not to live in this world. But my parents stopped me and I am very grateful to them for their moral support."
The twin sisters dared to go against the generally accepted view that only death can wash away disgrace. Fatima and Zuhra made up their minds to fight for their human rights and to get justice. They saw an advert in a newspaper for the Gulrukhsor Crisis Centre, called the hotline and were advised what to do. Then they applied to a court.
An official of the city's prosecuting authorities, Said Babev, had this advice for female victims of violence: "Immediately apply to a court for a medical examination and do not lose your torn clothes. This will all serve as material evidence. Unfortunately, our society and even our investigative bodies gossip about such things... I advise women that, regardless of these prejudices, they should trust in the law and apply to law enforcement bodies."
Many abused women driven to suicide
Unfortunately, many desperate women still choose the ultimate protest - suicide.
But now there are several crisis centres set up by NGOs where women victims of violence can apply for help, either through hotline numbers or directly.
According to data from the crisis centre run by the Women of Science of Tajikistan Association, in 2002-03, 47 per cent of all registered incidents of violence against women related to sexual violence by their husbands or others, while 51 per cent were cases of psychological cruelty, according to the director of the association, Muhiba Yakubova.
Experts say that two-thirds of women are exposed to domestic violence. In 2002-03, about 90 women committed suicide. In the period 2001-04, 344 women took their own lives and 433 were murdered by their partners.
Along with poverty, some observers link growing violence against women in Tajikistan with the aftermath of the civil war of the 1990s, that led to the death of at least 50,000 people while 1.2 million became refugees or were internally displaced. Women, as ever, suffered disproportionately during and after the conflict.
"Apart from a general deterioration in the position of women, which one should expect during a civil war, women were specifically targeted by the Islamists in the Tajik conflict factions on 'moral grounds'. Islamic behaviour and dress code were brutally enforced, thus degrading and dehumanising women. Moreover, forced marriages and human trafficking - mainly of young girls - became more acceptable during the war," Sergei Andreyev, a research fellow at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, told IRIN.
Another consequence of the civil war, albeit indirect, is the increasing participation of Tajik women in drug trafficking: they are used as "mules" since they are least likely to attract scrutiny by law-enforcement bodies.
But some traditional religious scholars, like Mirzomuhiddin Homidzoda, blame women daring to venture from the home for an upsurge in violence against them "If the woman is a true housewife and is busy with raising her children... she will bring up worthy and well mannered members of society. But alas, these days women are more independent than men. Women are trading in the market, working as labour migrants and businesswomen... In my opinion, all this leads to violence."
Cruelty against women may be on the increase
Anecdotal evidence suggests that cruelty against women has recently become worse, with mothers-in-law treating their daughters-in-law as servants with no human rights.
"I've been married for three years and feel that I have been sold as a slave," said Malika, barely holding back the tears. Although she works every day from early in the morning until late at night she is constantly accused of being lazy.
"I am sure that neither the prosecutor's office, the police nor my relatives can help me. Family quarrels never get punished by the law. And I cannot apply to a court because my relatives would judge me. My husband and mother-in-law would laugh at me. Sometimes I feel that I have no human rights at all and that the only option is suicide. In such a case, society would blame me for everything, saying that my husband was good, my family was friendly, everything was all right for me," Malika said.
The executive director of the Gulrukhsor Crisis Centre in Khujand says: "The more society becomes civilised, the more the methods of violence will become contrived. Domestic violence exists and one can say that accusations by husbands and mothers-in-law have become more caustic. That is why domestic violence drives women to suicide."
The victims of violence apply very rarely to the legal system. This is for cultural reasons and because they do not believe that their rights can be defended in such a manner. Most think that the only way out is to commit suicide.
Little help from the legal system
The state judicial system has been ineffective in aiding the victims of violence. Human rights organs do not respond to cases of violence and related suicides. The Gulrukhsor Crisis Centre has decided to help such women. The case of the Sultanovas sisters prompted them to organize the training of lawyers to defend victims of violence.
Recently, suicide cases have become even more tragic. Victims kill not only themselves but also their children. In September 2003, the inhabitants of Kulob city were shocked by a tragic case in which the victim burned herself together with her two children. Although her elder daughter managed to escape, they could not rescue the mother and her younger daughter. The reason for the suicide appeared to be the financial plight of the family, with the children hungry most of the time. Their father had gone to Russia and not sent anything back for two years.
In another case, in April of this year, a 22-year-old woman living in Khujand town plunged into the Syrdar'ya River from the dam at Kayrakkum power station together with her six-month-old daughter.
But the Sultanovas sisters got to court. Zuhra won her case and her husband was imprisoned for two years.
"In the near future we are going to set up temporary refuges at the crisis centre for those women who have undergone violence and have nowhere to go," Muhiba Yakubova of the Women of Science of Tajikistan Association says. Such refuge centres are already active in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and other CIS countries.