A few years ago, conversations around gender-based violence in Uzbekistan were unwritten taboo. In fact, many people may have even gone as far as denying its existence. However, today we’re starting to see a shift in these entrenched attitudes, linked to renewed efforts towards gender equality.
But despite the progress that’s been made, for many women, their day to day experience remains largely unchanged. Women are still battling against deep seated beliefs about their roles in the home, at work and in society at large. While legislative action represents a positive move towards greater gender parity, it’s clear that there’s still more work to be done.
History of Gender Equality in Uzbekistan
To comprehend how far Uzbekistan has come in last few years, we need to understand its history. Uzbekistan was a member of the U.S.S.R. from 1924 until its collapse in 1991. Soviet ideologies were supposed to strengthen women’s roles in society. After Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, conservative and religious beliefs grew stronger. Therefore, little progress was made in the way of gender equality over the coming years.
However, since the beginning of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s presidency in 2016, the government has addressed gender inequality in the country and gender-based violence.
Due to previous restrictions on freedom of speech in the country, the topic of gender-based violence has only recently been added to public discourse. This change was largely due to an increase of women and young people who spoke out about inequalities, paired with political will.
One of the primary barriers of achieving gender equality in the country is the harmful attitudes prevailing in Uzbek society. Many people believe that women are possessions of the family unit. Women often don’t have a choice who to marry or what to study and often must ask permission to work outside of the home.
When women get married, they are often responsible for taking care of all the housework in their own residence as well as their 'in-laws’. These attitudes prevent women from freely determining the course of their lives, thus preventing them from fully attaining their Human Rights.
Uzbekistan’s government has played a central role in the recent advancements. Far removed from the inaction of a few years ago, the current administration is actively promoting women's rights as well as tackling inequalities within the country.
The nation’s President, Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, delivered an encouraging Constitution Day speech last year. He talked about the role of women in identifying and solving social problems and their capacity to enhance management effectiveness.
He went on to stress that Uzbekistan needs to actively pursue a policy of increasing the role and status of women in society and address the gender-imbalance in appointments to senior public positions.
Indeed, senior governmental positions have for a long time been predominantly the remit of men. However, Uzbekistan’s government appointed its first female Head of Senate, Tanyila Narbaeva, last year and in addition created a new committee on gender equality within the Senate.
It’s not just governmental leaders that are shining a light on the nation’s gender issues: Spiritual leaders are playing a part too. Recently, UNDP organized a conference titled ‘16 Days to End Violence’ aimed at raising awareness about gender-based violence.
Chief Imam of Tashkent city, Nuriddin Holiqnazarov, was quoted in his address saying “In our religion, women’s honor is protected. Insulting, humiliating, raping and harassing women is prohibited and condemned in both the Qur’an and hadith books”.
Previously, there were no laws on gender-based violence or prevention of violence in families to protect victims. In 2019, two new laws on gender equality have been adopted, to provide equal rights and opportunities for women and men, as well as protection of women from harassment and violence.
These laws include a definition of types of discrimination and violence aimed at tackling gender-based violence. However, these need improvement in order to be implemented the way they were intended. More laws, partitional mechanisms and remedial actions are also needed to fully encompass gender-based violence in Uzbekistan.
Shelters for Victims of Violence
In addition to legislation, another important development is the establishment of nearly 200 shelters for victims of Gender Based Violence. The shelters are widespread throughout the country, but the number of supported victims and the quality of delivered aid is unknown.
One of the largest problems identified by a deputy of one of the shelters was the lack of funding. The government has provided spaces to set up shelters but no funding for food, furniture, heating, clothing or water. Nor did they offer salaries to those who work in the shelters, resulting in unreliable and uneducated staff.
There is also a demand to develop the social service sector in the country to be able to refer victims of violence to the shelters. The shelters need reforms, capacity building and efficiency developments as well as stable economic support in order to develop sustainably.
The cost of legal aid has also been a serious barrier to attaining legal support and justice for victims of gender-based violence. In many cases, a lack of finances meant that abuse could continue undetected. In response, the Government has approved the provision of free legal counsel in court cases that deal with gender-based violence.
In addition to finance, inaccessibility of services in rural areas has also prevented victims from getting the justice they need. To combat this, Mrs. Elmira Basitkhanova, former Head of the Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan, established mobile legal clinics for women who live in rural areas, in line with the United Nations principle to ‘leave no one behind’.
Central to improving gender equality is the collection and appraisal of gender-data. Proper data allows decision-makers to take the most effective course of action. Currently, there is little information available to assess the progress on prevention and protection of gender-based violence.
However, the government, together with the United Nations, has recently started various data gathering efforts to properly monitor and evaluate gender-issues. The hope is that this data will play a central role in guiding gender policy over the coming years.
Uzbekistan is a country that is facing many challenges related to gender inequalities and gender-based violence. Central to tackling these issues is the further development of shelters, the urgent need for more laws and improvement on existing laws.
The collection of gender-segregated data is important too so that the situation in Uzbekistan for women can be assessed and properly monitored.
Battling against years of entrenched social and cultural norms, it’s unlikely that change will come quickly. While some developments mentioned have not yet delivered as much change as many hoped, it’s the rate and trajectory of change is encouraging.
There’s no denying the scale of the work still to be done, but the very existence of new legislation and gender-related initiatives point towards a much brighter future for Uzbekistan and its people.
Author: Maja Lofstrom/ United Nations Development Programme in Uzbekistan.