Women’s position is worsening in the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and the north Caucasus – in spite of these nations’ commitment to international conventions on women’s rights.
In each republic, conservatives have been at the forefront of the national revival that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They want a return to traditional values and consider the emancipation of women an undesirable Western preoccupation.
Polygamy is on the rise across the region. This is legal in Afghanistan but banned in many post-Soviet states. It is currently fashionable among wealthy men – with the poor social and economic status of many women pushing them towards the humiliating position of co-wife. This is especially true of post-conflict areas such as Tajikistan, where a five-year civil war left hundreds of thousands of women widowed. Post-Soviet legislation can be insensitive to the many property problems caused by multiple marriages with no legal provision to protect the rights of co-wives and their children.
Unmarried women face a different set of problems. Many are viewed as the property of their family and are discriminated against by older women. This in turn encourages forced and underage marriages. The custom of bride kidnapping still ruins the lives of both women and men in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
The most alarming development in recent years has been the rise in prostitution and trafficking of girls and young women – though the scale of the problem has been difficult to gauge given the lack of statistics and the poor co-operation between governments.
Domestic violence is another major issue in the region, and can be so severe that young wives in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan see no way out other than suicide – often through the horrific method of self-immolation. The post-Soviet decline in health provision has also hit women hardest, with high levels of female morbidity and a high maternal mortality rate.
For all the rhetoric on gender equality spouted in each republic on International Women’s Day every 8 March, the pattern of excluding women from political and economic power continues. Some governments even provide financial support to NGOs working in the gender equality field – but only to consolidate their power by winning the female vote. In Tajikistan – the only former Soviet republic to allow an Islamic opposition – the authorities sought to secure the female vote in the November 2004 election by banning women from attending mosques so as to limit their access to Islamic political thought.