Tajik women rally after divorce-by-text

Rose remembers the message texted from her husband in Russia as if it happened yesterday. ‘Talaq [divorce], talaq, talaq,’ she says bitterly. ‘That was it. My life was over.’

It sounds dramatic, but for Rose – a rural Tajik woman with five children – the divorce was a humiliating and shocking blow that she has yet to come to terms with. ‘No visit, no phone call, no letter. Nothing,’ she says. ‘Just a text.’

Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan is experiencing a strange new disintegration of its own. Divorce-by-text, issued by men who have travelled to Russia to seek work, has become so popular that the government has issued a fatwa against the practice. It has said it will consider imposing jail sentences for men who pronounce the talaq – the declaration of divorce – by electronic methods.

Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet Republics and almost half its GDP is earned by migrants working abroad. In 2010 alone, 800,000 Tajik men left their homes and families to look for work in Russia. As a result, divorce rates have sky-rocketed. For Tajik women, abandonment and divorce is a deeply shameful thing – they are often shunned and denied property rights and child support.

Bibifaiz is 30 and has four children. She and her husband used to farm a small parcel of land on a mountain slope, but erosion and irregular rainfall meant yields were poor. Two years ago, her husband left for Russia. With food prices soaring, Bibifaiz started finding it more and more difficult to feed her family as a single mother.

In February last year, Bibifaiz joined an all-woman dekhan (collective) – a community initiative led by Oxfam which has helped women to secure ownership certificates for local land and to set up village committees to share advice. In a country where cotton-farming dictates the economy and where local farmers are increasingly landless, the project is proving life-changing for the women involved.

‘Before this, we were renting the mountain land and losing lots of money when our crops failed,’ Bibifaiz says. ‘Now, things have changed. The land is irrigated. We are farming organically and our yields – carrots, beans, potatoes, onion, maize and wheat – are already high.’

Bibifaiz says she can now support her family with the food she grows on the farm. The surplus food is sold for a profit and shared amongst the women.

‘We also support each other emotionally,’ she says. ‘Most of us have been divorced, have husbands in Russia, or are widows. Working together – on the farm and in our committees – we share advice and solve problems. If we hear of a woman who has been thrown off her land after her husband has divorced her, we intervene, support her, and tell her of her rights. Family is sacred and can’t be destroyed by a mobile phone.’

Male cleansers for hire

Healthy conversation: a group of men discuss the taboo of widow cleansing and (left)former cleanser Esban Ochanga.

Photo: Frederic Courbet

The men sitting in the shade of a large thorn tree on the outskirts of Kano-Angola village, 10 miles inland from the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya’s Nyanza province, are in buoyant spirits today. There is bravado, there are lewd jokes, but there are also long periods of silence.

One man in particular commands attention. As soon as he begins to talk, the rest of the group listen deferentially. Esban Ochanga is tall and slender with a far-away look in his eyes. He has called the men together to talk about the practice of widow cleansing, whereby Luo women, after the death of their spouse, are pressurized into having unprotected sex; ostensibly to allow their husband’s spirit to roam free in the afterlife. It is a tradition rarely spoken about in public. ‘I knew my brother had died and they told me it was AIDS, but I thought a Luo could not die because of that virus,’ says Ochanga. ‘So I cleansed his widow and I contracted HIV. That is what killed my first wife.’

With the spiralling rates of HIV, men have become reluctant to inherit or cleanse widows. About 15 per cent of the population in Nyanza have HIV; 63 per cent live below the poverty line. In Kano-Angola, two-thirds of people who have tested for HIV have turned out positive.

Increasingly, ‘male cleansers for hire’ – who go from village to village to perform the service – are being brought in. Ochanga tells the group that a cleanser operating in Kano-Angola is even having sex with recently deceased women, at the behest of their families. None of the men look surprised. ‘The commercial part of widow cleansing, I also did,’ admits Ochanga to the group. ‘It was for the money and it seemed easy.’

Though most of the men gathered are HIV positive, Ochanga is the only one to have come out openly to his wives and community, not only about his status but also about his work as a cleanser. Working as a volunteer peer educator with the Movement of Men Against AIDS in Kenya, a charity which encourages men to play a more prominent role in Africa’s response to HIV, Ochanga and other members of the community are supporting people to have HIV tests and to use condoms. Ochanga says he takes antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and practises safer sex with all his wives. Two are HIV positive, the other is negative.

Mother-to-child HIV transmission rates are dropping and Ochanga says that – as a result of discussion groups like this – attitudes are beginning to change. ‘How much were you paid to cleanse?’ asks a man in his thirties, laughing nervously. ‘The price of a cow. Just one night and you’ve got a cow,’ replies Ochanga, shrugging his shoulders. ‘My grandfather did it, my father did it, so I was not afraid of doing it. But the sons of this village will cease to do it.’

Angela Robson