While Kyrgyz dissidents have loudly asserted their civil rights since a clash with police in March left five citizens dead, many women in South Kyrgyzstan do not know what rights they can legally defend.
The Legal Information Center in Osh, the biggest city in troubled South Kyrgyzstan, reported in autumn 2002 that nearly 75 percent of women in the region are unaware that they can legally seek government aid or resist domestic violence. This statistic comes from an analysis the center conducted of its first two years in operation. The Kyrgyz Women’s Congress, a long-standing advocacy organization, set up the center with private funding in 2000. So far, 398 women visited the center in 2000 and 468 in 2001. Most are mothers from large families who live without newspapers or television, raising the possibility that many more women live with legal grievances in private. According to Karamat Abdullayeva, the vice president of the Women’s Congress who runs the center, women in the area often have no understanding of who can address various issues or have lost hope of getting help from authorities. A popular saying warns that "in order to find a truth one needs money." For Kyrgyz women, not seeking facts can mean suffering in silence.
Persuading women to seek legal help is often slow and emotional work. "Not all women agree to write an application," says Mrs. Abdullayeva. "Most of them are afraid and address us either orally or by phone." Most complaints, Abdullayeva says, involve frustrations over efforts to find employment or housing assistance.
But "the most sore subject" usually involves violence women suffer at the hands of their husbands or mothers-in-law. Women tearfully tell center staff about their husbands’ drinking, drug addiction, violence or embezzlement. Abdullayeva has also heard claims of abandonment. "Unemployment has changed the character of family attitudes," she says. "Nowadays it is not unusual when men leave their wives and children and go to rich women. Earlier such cases caused sharp negative [reactions] in society."
Though she took part in a 2001 media campaign aimed at educating victims of domestic violence, Abdullayeva knows that Kyrgyz culture strongly discourages such victims from talking. Many women find it useless to report home violence to district committees or militia officers. Usually, say the women who spoke to EurasiaNet, officials tell "complaining women" that family problems must remain within families and scold them not to wash their "dirty linen in public." Since many women thought filling out an anonymous questionnaire at the Legal Information Center would be too risky, it is impossible to tell how many women are living with abusive husbands or relatives. Statements at the center indicate that the misery that has spurred calls for Kyrgyz reform is also roiling Kyrgyz homes.
Poverty runs through these women’s stories. "My husband does not have stable work. I am afraid when the end of the working day is coming," said Zamira Tolubayeva. "My husband is waiting for me and leaves somewhere and comes back drunk." Like other visitors, Tolubayeva said she earned her family’s keep and worried about the "awful atmosphere" in which her son was growing up. "[My husband] humiliates me, beats, there were cases when it happened even in the presence of neighbors," she said. "I am earning somehow. I tried several times to divorce, but my husband punished me to such an extent that I am horrified." One woman says her husband secretly used their apartment as collateral for a loan he could not repay; the couple and their three children reportedly ended up on the street. Another woman said her husband had run away ten years ago after losing money at gambling, leaving her with two children, an aged mother, and a host of in-laws. Some women complain of mothers-in-law or sisters-in-law kicking them out of their homes.
Abdullayeva says she hears several such stories each day and cannot always help. Her main purpose, she says, is to educate women about their legal rights. This is relatively straightforward – if not emotionally easy – when women have failed to fill out proper paperwork, such as a deed or a passport. "Quite often women themselves are guilty, as they don’t know elementary things," she says. "For example, a husband [insists] that it is not obligatory to register the marriage, it is enough to go to a mosque.
And then she does not have any rights for house and property, and even sometimes for children." When women live with domestic violence or abuse, the idea of a legal response is much less credible.
Cultural traditions strongly discourage legal interference in the family. Among ethnic Uzbek families like Abdullayeva’s, a husband’s mother traditionally serves as a woman’s "tutor." Rather than subject her sons to this arrangement, Abdullayeva says she permitted them to live separately with their own families after they married "though it is a violation of tradition." Often, women who visit the center say, mothers-in-law treat them as "slaves" and punish them if they do not adequately complete household chores. Even a woman who taught in an Uzbek school says she was "unloading coal from the car at nights while all the family was watching TV" and still endured the sound of her in-laws berating their son for marrying a "slut."
In this context, the woman who consciously chooses to break family ties is rare. Most of them accept violence from mothers-in-law and other relatives as inevitable. With so many calls for change echoing through Kyrgyzstan, though, the Legal Information Center may spur more women to challenge the notion that domestic traditions need never change.
Alla Pyatibratova, EurasiaNet, October 2, 2002