Excellent article on the rollback in women's and children's rights in Kyrgyzstan, and the efforts to change that.
Women's rights wronged
After the collapse of Soviet communism, Kyrgyzstan's economic and cultural life collapsed and an authoritarian patriarchal value system rushed in to fill the moral gap - to the detriment of women
Her father lives just a few hundred yards down the road, but three-year-old Jide may never meet him. Since she and her mother, Aigul Saralaeva, moved into her grandmother's house, he hasn't even knocked on the door.
"As soon as we were married, my husband began to beat me," explains Aigul. "Even when I was pregnant with a second child, a son. At seven months he hit me so hard that I fell to the floor and fainted. I was taken to hospital - the only time during my pregnancy I was allowed to see a doctor. They found that my baby had been dead inside me for 10 days. I had been beaten so hard that his skull was smashed in."
Aigul and Jide live in Gulbaar Aravan, a village in southern Kyrgyzstan. The nearby city of Osh was an industrial centre when the country was part of the Soviet Union, but after independence, the Moscow subsidised economy collapsed and the factories closed. In the surrounding areas, the communal farms, apartment blocks and tractors were replaced by ox carts, mud shacks and subsistence smallholdings almost overnight.
"Things changed very rapidly from 1991 to 1994," says Dr Mathjis Pelkmans, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. "But the pace of improvement since then has been very slow. It's tremendously frustrating."
Women, respected as equals in the culture of Kyrgyz nomads and under the Soviet system, suffered most. In the aftermath of communism, traditional values re-exerted themselves along newly patriarchal lines. Girls are expected to marry young, often against their will and without legal recognition.
Scared of being stigmatised as a spinster, Aigul married late by local standards, at 24. Her marriage was typical: an unofficial religious ceremony known as nike, carried out by a Muslim holy man. Once living with her husband, she was expected to cook and clean for his family, and to tend their farm singlehandedly.
The pressure on women to accept abusive relationships is so powerful that even after her miscarriage, Aigul considered going back to her husband. After being rejected by his relatives, she finally pressed charges. He was ordered to pay just 350 soms (£4) a month to the court for two years.
Aigul and Jide receive nothing. Without a marriage certificate, she is unable to claim alimony from her husband or rights to their shared property, like the valuable livestock she reared.
Senior Islamic clerics in the area, like Zakariya ajy Akmataliev, speak out against offering nike for couples whose marriage hasn't been state-registered. "Religion and the law must operate together," Akmataliev explains. "I tell people who perform nike without a licence that it is not a game; it is not just a procedure. It is somebody's fate."
Nevertheless, the practice is widespread, often justified by the cost and complexity of getting official papers.
With no income of her own, Aigul is training to be a seamstress with an all-female self-help group, Ai-Churok, which makes traditional crafts and uniforms for local schools. As well as vocational skills, Ai-Churok teaches advocacy classes for vulnerable women like Aigul, helping them to understand and assert their rights. The courses were initiated by the Kyrgyz Red Crescent, supported by funding from the EU and the British Red Cross.
"Every village, every family will have experienced problems like Aigul's," explains Jamilya Shayahmetova, head of health and social care at the Red Crescent. "After we destroyed all the Soviet values, no one taught anything to replace them. Schools are weak; they don't pay attention to issues like the treatment of women. Parents work too hard to survive to notice their children's cultural development. We have lost this entire generation."
The government recognises the issue. Before the 2007 elections, quota systems were put in place to guarantee female representation within parliament and the civil service. As a result, a new working group, the Youth, Gender and Sports Committee, has been established. It's led by the MP and former boxing champion, Orzubek Nazarov.
"The biggest issue that women face in this country is abuse," says Nazarov. "It has been a closed issue, not spoken about until recently." Already, he explains, the number of protection orders issued for victims of domestic violence has risen from 167 in 2008, to more than 1,000 in the last eight months. But reports suggest that up to 89% of women have been victims of abuse, and access to authorities is hard for those who can't pay.
"The complicating factor is that corruption has become systemic," says Dr Pelkmans. "That has severe effects for the poorest. It is very hard to carry out political reforms other than on paper. If bureaucrats can simply be bought, the existing situation will continue."
With government salaries as low as 5,000 soms (£70) a month, there's little incentive for teachers, doctors and the police to stop selling services to the highest bidder.
The self-help groups, however, provide more than employment for women like Aigul. Gulsan Omosheva sits on a veranda outside the workshop of another women's cooperative, Altyn Olmok.
In 2003, Omosheva and nine other women from her village graduated from the first Red Crescent courses. They found out about grants from the World Bank-funded Rural Advisory Council and microcredit from the Kyrgyz Ayil Bank, then used them to buy sewing machines.
The small workshop doubles up as a classroom, where the women of Altyn Olmok pass on their education to others in the village. Spin-off groups have set up a fruit-processing plant and a bakery nearby.
"When they saw how successful we were, even the men came to us to ask our advice," says Omosheva. "Now they have their own groups, breeding livestock, poultry farming and gardening."
"Ayil Bank came to us and asked: 'Why have you stopped asking for money?'" smiles Omosheva, her gold teeth reflecting the sun. "We replied that we don't need them any more; we are like a bank ourselves!"
*Some names have been changed