Last Updated: 04/19/2004
Uncovering Domestic Violence in Uzbekistan
We replace the editorial this time with UN reporting on domestic violence
There is also almost no public debate or media interest in the issue of domestic violence in Uzbekistan. When a recent Human Rights Watch report was published it was dismissed as "lies" by state-run newspapers and on television and radio.
KARSHI, 19 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - In a drab apartment block in the southern Uzbek town of Karshi, an anonymous, unmarked door divides two different worlds. Behind it is a shelter for victims of domestic violence, run by Najot - one of just a handful of NGOs in Uzbekistan offering a place to turn to in a society where the issue is largely ignored.
Mekhriniso took refuge there a month ago. "My mother-in-law accused me of being unfaithful to my husband, then the beatings started. Three months ago they simply threw me out on the streets," she told IRIN in Karshi, which lies in the southern Kashkadarya province.
She was forced to leave her four children and had no choice but to seek help at the shelter, more than 120 km from her home town. "My husband is a former policeman. He used to beat me regularly. I applied to the court, but the judicial officials didn't protect my rights," she said.
Another shelter resident told IRIN a similar tale. "My husband is a teacher by profession. He started drinking when he lost his job. He would taunt me and beat me when he got drunk. I had no choice but to flee with my two younger children," the mother-of-six said. Her future is uncertain - after a traffic accident in February her husband told her bluntly he didn't need a disabled wife.
The Najot shelter can only accommodate four people. It's always full and demand for the facility is growing. "A woman who has fled because of the domestic violence finds a place to live here temporarily, but we cannot cope with the number of women who need our help - there are too many right now," Gulbakhor Erkaeva, head of Najot, told IRIN in Karshi.
FAMILY VALUES AND POVERTY ADD TO THE PROBLEM
There are no statistics on levels of domestic violence in Uzbekistan, and no legislation protecting women from it. "The rate of violence against women in the home is rising. This is partly due to increasing poverty and partly due to a national regression to 'traditional' family values that do not recognise women's rights," Muiasser Maksudova of the Women's Resource Centre, an NGO in the capital, Tashkent, told IRIN.
According to Najot, things were better during the Soviet era, when women at least had some rights. But now, the government's policy of forging a national identity around conservative family values was leading to official reluctance to even acknowledge the existence of the problem. "Here there is a huge stigma attached to marital separation, and for Uzbeks what goes on within a house is not something for public consumption," another activist maintained.
Since independence, Uzbekistan's government has attempted to institute some safeguards for women's rights, mainly in the area of social welfare support. But domestic violence remains a serious problem, against which the government has failed to take effective measures, activists maintain. On the contrary, state policies intended to keep families together and foster community assistance to those families experiencing conflict have compounded the situation of women facing abuse in the home, and often prevent them from obtaining either relief or redress.
In an effort to try and help the growing number of victims of domestic violence in Kashkadarya, Najot was founded in February 2000. "Initially, we intended to start a crisis centre, but the authorities refused to accept the idea. So in effect we are forced to work underground. We don't shout about what we do as that would invite problems," Erkaeva maintained.
"Generally women, even 14-year-old girls, call us on the phone anonymously and they are either severely depressed or stressed. They even sometimes say that they want to commit suicide," Nodira Usmanova, a psychologist working for Najot, told IRIN. "Our women don't know their rights and if a divorce occurs, the woman could easily find herself out on the street," she explained. Domestic disharmony was also being stimulated by an increase in polygamy, particularly in rural areas, and by multi-occupancy of houses - a function of poverty, Maksudova said.
Lola Beknazarova, another psychologist at the NGO, told IRIN that she was noticing that females seeking support were getting younger. "They are married off as early as possible. These girls often have no education and are immature. The husband abuses them or throws them out, saying they are not 'proper' wives," Beknazarova explained.
The lack of economic development in Uzbekistan was also driving women out of the home, causing new tensions among many families. "The men work and after work they lie down to rest, while a woman after work does the housework and has to take care of children, cook and wash. In other words everything is on the shoulders of women, putting enormous pressure on them," Erkaeva said.
Staff and volunteers at an informal refugee for women outside Tashkent said local officials routinely refuse to take violence against women seriously, blaming the victims and blocking women's attempts to escape brutality and violence in their marriages. Those who commit physical abuse rarely face criminal prosecution.
VICTIMS IGNORED OR STIGMATISED
Progress in the position of post-independence Uzbek women is also being hampered by neighbourhood committees or Mahallas - local government authorities with the power to administer a range of activities, observers say. The Mahallas are being used to enforce government policy to prevent divorce at the expense of women's rights to protection from domestic violence, a report, "From House to House: Abuses by Mahalla Committees", published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last September, said.
Serving as a gatekeeper to law enforcement and the courts, Mahalla committees frequently deny battered wives access to both, deny them permission to divorce, and hold women responsible for violence they face in the home. "The women are often sent back to potentially dangerous domestic environments," Matilda Bogner, former office director for the watchdog group in Tashkent, told IRIN.
All the evidence suggests that domestic violence is a markedly under-reported crime. Of 20 women victims of domestic violence interviewed by HRW for a July 2001 study, only six had gone to the police. Of those six, in two cases the perpetrators paid fines, and in one case the perpetrator served just 15 days in jail. None of the cases resulted in criminal charges being filed.
According to many police, activists, lawyers and victims themselves, there are various social forces that greatly discourage women from divulging their experiences of domestic violence to anyone outside the home. The very act of complaining about family violence is widely considered to be humiliating for the woman herself, an indication that she is a "bad wife". Women prefer to return to their parent's home or appeal to local authorities or the Mahalla committee.
There is also almost no public debate or media interest in the issue of domestic violence in Uzbekistan. When the HRW report was published it was dismissed as "lies" by state-run newspapers and on television and radio. A recent UNIFEM-run workshop on violence against women in Tashkent was met with a barrage of editorials dismissing the issue and urging Uzbek women to be "good housewives".
Meanwhile, the woman with the two children at Najot's shelter wants to go back to her family, but there is little hope while her husband remains drunk and jobless. "I can stay at this place for two months or so, but after that, what can I do?" she asked.
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