'Death would be better'

A bill that would make domestic violence a criminal offence in Tajikistan will go before Parliament later this year. Women’s groups, including the Association for Gender Development and Preventing Violence Towards Women, drafted the law in November 2006 in an effort to protect thousands of victims.

Panorama, a local NGO, says that 70 per cent of married women in Tajikistan are tormented by their mother-in-law or husband. The police insist that they will not interfere in ‘family matters’ but, if adopted, this law will set out a clear prosecution procedure whilst freeing up state funds for victim support centres.

The legal age for marriage was set at 17 at the end of Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, but girls unlucky enough to be married before then were packed off to their in-laws as young as 13. Most women are completely reliant on their husband and his family for financial support and those who don’t have close friends or relatives willing to help are often driven to suicide.

‘Death is better than this daily humiliation,’ says Saima, a 31-year-old mother of four from Rudaki whose husband and in-laws beat her so severely that she set fire to herself in the bathroom last September, burning half of her body. Her husband has a seasonal job on a farm, and there is not enough money to go around outside the harvest period. In frustration, he beats Saima for not providing the children with sufficient food and clothing. Since the beginning of her 14-year marriage, Saima has drunk a pail of vinegar, cut herself with broken bottles and tried to drown in the river. Family members have always found her in time, then beaten her harder.

Saima’s bedroom reeks of acrid bandages and burned skin. Her husband calls her a ‘disfigured bitch’, refusing to let anyone but the doctor in to see her. He will not pay for her medical bills and repeatedly threatens her with divorce and destitution if she presses charges. There is no escape. ‘My parents told me to put up with it and that God will decide my fate. It would have been better if I had died,’ she says.

Ninety per cent of the population is Muslim and suicide is strictly forbidden. Nearly all deaths are registered as accidental and anyone who fails in their attempt risks being shunned by society.

Around 36 women took their own lives in the first half of 2006 as a direct result of systematic abuse. Self-immolation is becoming increasingly common because most homes have ready supplies of kerosene for lamp fuel and it is considered a less sinful form of death.

Even if domestic violence does become a criminal offence, it will take a radical change in society’s attitude before the cycle of abuse is broken. Mothers who were beaten in their youth often terrorize their son’s wife in the belief that a hardy Tajik is a good Tajik.

Darigha, a 26-year-old mother of three, whose mother-in-law will not allow her to speak in the house, smiles when she says: ‘I take comfort in knowing that I have a son and one day I can make life hell for his wife.’

Sorrel Neuss
Additional reporting by IWPR (Institute of War and Peace Reporting) staff in Tajikistan

The names in this article have been changed

New Internationalist issue 409 magazine cover This article is from the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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