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Women Likely to Suffer Most in Central Asia's Turmoil

Sunday, September 30, 2001

Soviet domination meant Islamic religious zeal was suppressed in Central Asia, even as women advanced educationally and professionally under socialism. Religious revival has not been kind to women and military action is likely to hurt women most.

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Soviet domination meant Islamic religious zeal was suppressed in Central Asia, even as women advanced educationally and professionally under socialism. Religious revival has not been kind to women and military action is likely to hurt women most.
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Tajik children

(WOMENSENEWS)--Central Asia, a region fraught with social, political and economic tension, is quickly developing into a key staging area for the United States' widely anticipated strike against Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan. A danger exists, however, that U.S. military action against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts could lead to broader regional instability. If such upheaval occurs, women in Central Asia are likely to suffer disproportionately.

A U.S. military buildup is already underway in Central Asia. Cargo planes arrived last weekend in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, laden with intelligence-gathering equipment and military hardware.

Social and economic conditions in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan's northern neighbors, are volatile, as a combination of political repression and economic disarray fuels popular frustration.

Now, U.S. action could potentially upset tenuous stability. For example, a massive influx of refugees could overwhelm the infrastructures of Central Asian states, precipitating social chaos. Or U.S. raids might alienate moderate Muslims in the region, causing a strong backlash against the governments playing host to U.S. forces.

"If conflict occurs in Central Asia, and it causes massive disruption of services and transportation, women and children stand to suffer disproportionately because of the way those societies are set up," said Roxanna Bonnell, an public health expert at the New York-based Open Society Institute.

"When it comes to access to nutrition during a crisis, we've seen studies that show that women and, of course, children suffer more in comparison to men. Men tend to gain first access to nutritional resources and women get whatever is left over."

Since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, women in Central Asia have experienced a drastic decline of living standards, along with a drastic contraction of career opportunities. The decline has occurred against the backdrop of a cultural revival in Central Asia.

Traditional Islam Was Repressed, Women Advanced Under Socialism

States in the region are traditionally Islamic, but the region's religious and cultural heritage were severely undermined during the Soviet era, when Communist leaders maintained rigid control over religious activity. While the Soviet system also imposed strict limits on freedom of expression and movement, it opened up wide-ranging educational and job opportunities for women. Many women, for example, became doctors.

Since Central Asian states gained independence, political leaders have promoted a state-managed renewal of Islamic values. They see such policies as an essential component of an overall strategy to establish distinct national identities for their nascent states. As a result, some of the gains made by women during the Soviet era have eroded during the past decade.

Tajik woman and girl"In addition to living under unstable, corrupt and repressive regimes, which have little respect for human rights, Central Asian women face various cultures that condone discrimination and violence against women," said Debra Schultz, a women's rights advocate who monitors developments in the former Soviet Union.

"Women are under enormous pressure to get married and an independent existence is almost impossible," Schultz said. "In some areas influenced by more harsh interpretations of Islam, there is evidence that girls' education is being curtailed."

Domestic abuse of women is emerging as a serious problem. For example, Human Rights Watch observers say that in Uzbekistan, the government policy seeks to maintain marriages at all costs, making it difficult for women to abandon abusive relationships.

A variety of international pacts are designed to protect women's rights, including the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly. Although several Central Asian states, including Uzbekistan, are signatories of the treaty, its provisions often go unimplemented.

In Times of Economic Upheaval, Women Fired First, Suffer Most

Government economic mismanagement has added to the hardships endured by women. Central Asian states have not recovered from the economic crash that accompanied the Soviet collapse. Subsequent, timid reform efforts have, for the most part, failed to attract foreign investors. As a result, the large majority of people in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are caught in a hand-to-mouth existence. The situation is worst in Tajikistan, where up to 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Even in natural gas-rich Turkmenistan, per capita annual Gross Domestic Product is estimated at the equivalent of $4,300.

In the desperate economic climate, a growing number of women have resorted to illicit activities, including prostitution and drug smuggling, in order to subsist. In Tajikistan, large-scale drug traffickers have used women as couriers, figuring they would attract less scrutiny at border checkpoints.

"We have lots of anecdotal evidence that some women involved in drug trafficking are not even paid in cash, but instead get paid with flour or other essential goods that they need to feed and care for their families," said Sue Simon, associate director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program, a nongovernmental project that works on addiction-related issues.

A growing body of evidence indicates that disproportionate burdens are having severe consequences for women. In 2000, for instance, officials in the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan reported that an unprecedented number of women, 209, attempted suicide. Of those attempts, 71 resulted in death. Meanwhile, in Tajikistan, drug addition among women has exploded. Addiction among women was virtually unknown before 1991. But recent data compiled by the Harm Reduction Project indicates that women now make up 3.2 percent of the total number of registered addicts in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

The looming war against Afghanistan, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden heightens the risk of upheaval in Central Asia. But it also provides an opportunity to improve social conditions. However, a prolonged U.S. military presence in Central Asia will likely be required to help foster such improvements. A poorly managed peace could accelerate the downward spiral for Central Asia's women.

Justin Burke is editor of EurasiaNet, a Web site supported by the Open Society Institute in New York and devoted to news about Central Asia. He has traveled extensively in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

For more information, visit EurasiaNet:http://www.eurasianet.org/

For more information, visit the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA: http://www.unfpa.org



WEnews Brief

U.N. Seeks Millions to Save Pregnant Afghan Women

(WOMENSENEWS)--The United Nations Population Fund on Friday launched an emergency campaign to save the lives of Afghan women. The effort will seek $4.5 million in donations to aid the thousands of pregnant women who are among the Afghan civilians fleeing their homes and massing on the country's borders, in anticipation of United States-led air strikes.

The lack of shelter, food and medical care, and unsanitary conditions pose a serious risk to the refugee women and their infant children, a fund press release said. Even before the current crisis, poor health conditions and malnutrition made pregnancy and childbirth exceptionally dangerous for Afghan women.

The U.N. agency is preparing to pre-position emergency relief supplies in the countries bordering Afghanistan. These are intended both for the large anticipated influx of refugees--to Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan--and for distribution inside Afghanistan, if possible.

"Without swift action on the part of donors and relief agencies, a terribly high number of Afghan women and girls are likely to die from easily treatable pregnancy complications," said Thoraya Obaid, the fund's executive director. She added that the agency's highest priority is to ensure that women have access to a safe delivery environment and are protected against sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy and violence.

Relief efforts have all but stopped in Afghanistan and the United Nations estimates that, when winter sets in, up to 7.5 million Afghans could require outside aid to survive. In response, U.N relief agencies on Thursday jointly appealed to donors to provide $584 million for humanitarian assistance, both within Afghanistan and in neighboring countries.

The population agency's support would include clean delivery supplies; sanitary napkins and clean undergarments to protect essential hygiene; support for border area hospitals receiving referrals with pregnancy and childbirth complications and providing counseling for victims of trauma. Longer-term assistance after the emergency phase will include training for local health care providers and basic health education for women and young people.