Student Umedjon Sharifov uses blow-up dolls in his voluntary work for a Tajikistani non-governmental organization around the Central Asian country's third-largest city of Kulob and he shows videos against domestic violence to men and women - writes Peter Kenny.
The 21-year-old student in the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the State University of Kulob, in the south of the country near Afghanistan, was brought up with two sisters, who are now married and have their own families, in a single-parent family. Their father died when he was two years old.
"I study English, Russian and now Chinese and sometimes it's been a struggle, but I especially love my volunteer work in the evenings at the Najoti Kudakon NGO," says Sharifov, who uses the blow-up doll for his work with the NGO in first aid training. "I'm the leader of a group helping young people with first aid and natural disaster preparedness. I also assist the director Kurbongul Kosimova and her staff showing this video depicting domestic violence and explaining about women's rights."
Kosimova explains in an interview, "One of the main aspects of conflict in our community is between men and women." She says it occurs at many levels and cites the high suicide rate of women due to depression.
When women get married, they become virtually house servants for their husband's family, some women said. One woman was even required to give money to her father-in-law to look after his bee-keeping equipment.
"But when the daughter-in-law visited one of our self-help group seminar's, she learned she could question her treatment and she challenged him," said Kosimova. "It took some time, but he eventually accepted the changes and put her on a better footing.
"Another example was a flax mill where there are mostly women workers. One female worker in a self-help group wanted to get a gynaecologist to come to help the women," explained Kosimova. "At first it wasn't accepted, but later the men did accept it. It seems to be the case often. In the beginning, the men did not want to work with women, but eventually they realise they have to work with each other."
Said Shoira Yusupova, a Tajik who works as an advocacy officer for ACT Central Asia, a partner of the Ecumenical Consortium for Central Asia which supports the self help groups: "Tajikistan is called a democracy. But really the system has a lot of hindrances to the development of women. The education system does not work to put women on the same footing as men. And there is always violence inside the family. For the authorities, a picture of a woman driving a bus is what they see as equality."
UNIFEM, the United Nations fund for women, reports, "Women in Tajikistan were perhaps the most adversely affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the region of Central Asia. Following independence in 1992, the country experienced five years of brutal civil war and an extended period of unrest. During this time, gender-based violence, trafficking and economic insecurity characterised daily life for women in Tajikistan, although data concerning violence during and after the war remains inconsistent and unreliable."
Between 50 000 and 100 000 people from a population that now stands at 7 million died in the civil war. UNIFEM says that despite a peace agreement signed in 1997, "the climate of fear, intimidation and violence continued … leaving many young women to be the sole breadwinners and caretakers of their families. There are an estimated 55 000 orphans and 25 000 widows as a direct result of the war. Many more women lost their husbands to labour migration. Widows and female heads of households face severe economic difficulties."
The fighting in the war was most intense in the Viloyati Khatlon region, which incorporates the main opposition stronghold. and Kulob, the home area of President Emomali Rahmon.
Today women head 18 percent of all households in Tajikistan and that percentage is even higher in Khatlon. UNIFEM notes, "The collapse of the state social safety net [after the end of the Soviet Union] has exacerbated the number of women and families living in poverty, while the loss of quotas guaranteeing equal representation in political and governance bodies has increasingly kept them out of decision-making positions."
NGO head Kosimova says the church-backed self-help groups, while they have sometimes faced scepticism, especially from men at the beginning, are key vehicles for moving society forward. "When men see that the microcredits and capacity building help them as well they begin to change. And having young men like Umed here to help us in this gives us hope."
Umedjon Sharifov laughs. "I'm interested with self help because I want to participate in the development of my country. I want to help the people. This is my happiness and fulfilment."
This is the seventh in a series looking at what some of the church-backed self-help groups in this region of central Asia are doing, and how they are affecting people's lives in an area that is both static and rapidly changing for the citizens who battle to cope there.
DanChurchAid paid for Peter Kenny's transport and living costs during this assignment for ENI.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]