This report is submitted as the result of efforts by many people with connections to and experience in Turkmenistan who, for reasons that the report indicates, cannot be identified. They include Turkmen citizens currently outside the country as well as people who have been in the country recently for varying periods of time. This group approached the International Women’s Rights Action Watch in late March, 2006, to request assistance in providing this information for the Turkmenistan review in the 35th Session of CEDAW.
IWRAW is pleased to assist the CEDAW Committee in its deliberations in the hope that it will benefit the women of Turkmenistan.
A decline in Turkmenistan’s human rights record in recent years has provoked strong calls for transparency and accountability from intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations around the world. President Saparmurat Niyazov governs the country by decree, having assumed the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Known to the world primarily for his cult of personality, Niyazov employs censorship, show trials, imprisonment, and frequent replacement of key government officials to ensure the security of his rule.
In this climate it comes as little surprise that women suffer violations of their human rights. The extent of sex discrimination is difficult to assess with precision because official statistics are lacking. However, outside sources, including reports of intergovernmental organizations, NGO publications, news articles, and personal narratives, point to pervasive violations of women’s human rights.
Massive government cuts in the health care and education sectors have left thousands of women jobless. As unemployment nears 70 percent and 31 percent of the population continues to live below the poverty level, women struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Interviewees for this report had not heard of a welfare system, and the president’s cuts to the pension system have placed an additional burden on elderly women. Prostitution is reported to be on the rise, and deteriorating social, economic and political conditions make women increasingly susceptible to trafficking.
Since the government reduced compulsory education from 11 to nine years, women have even less opportunity for personal advancement. President Niyazov’s pseudo-spiritual guide on the virtues of being Turkmen (Ruhnama) has replaced most textbooks in the country and has led to a reduction in the coverage of subject-specific content. As access to higher education increasingly depends on a student’s ability to bribe university officials, families are more likely to invest in sending their sons to universities than their daughters.
Women’s health in Turkmenistan, and particularly that of rural women, is considered to be the worst of all the former Soviet republics. There is little health education in schools, and a recent report noted an unofficial ban on diagnosing certain infectious diseases. In recent years, President Niyazov called for the closure of hospitals outside the capital and replaced thousands of nurses with young military conscripts. Although it is unclear whether and how these presidential orders have been executed, their implementation would further limit access of the millions of women in Turkmenistan to preventive, curative, and reproductive health care.
The government does not maintain statistics on violence against women, but it is reported to be prevalent throughout the country. Victims of domestic violence and rape often do not go to the authorities. None of the interviewees for this report knew of programs to inform victims of violence against women of their rights, offer them safety or shelter, assist them in court, or help them cope with trauma.
There is little information regarding the ability of women to access the judicial system. There are no statistics regarding the nature of cases brought in various courts, making it impossible to know how issues of concern to women, such as violence against women, are treated by the judicial system in practice. The number of women judges throughout the country is unknown, and the government has not provided information on training for judges on issues concerning gender equality before the law.
Domestic law guarantees women the right to participate in political life. However, in practice, the right to participate in political life in Turkmenistan and the actual participation of some women in government has a limited impact on decision-making processes because President Niyazov is in effective control of all branches of government. The activities of unregistered nongovernmental organizations have been severely curtailed in recent years, leaving few NGOs able to function independently of the government. The Union of Women-Gurbansultan-Eje, the only women’s “NGO” highlighted in the government report, has strong ties to the government.
It is imperative that the international community maintain pressure on the government of Turkmenistan to meet its international treaty obligations, including those under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The CEDAW Committee’s review is a welcomed opportunity for the promotion of women’s human rights in Turkmenistan. The International Women’s Rights Action Watch hopes that this process will result in stronger, more open lines of communication with the Turkmen government on women’s human rights.
INTRODUCTION: HUMAN RIGHTS IN TURKMENISTAN
Turkmenistan ranks as one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world, matching North Korea, Burma, and Sudan in its failing scores for political freedoms and civil rights. The southernmost republic of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan is characterized today by a presidential personality cult, disregard for the rule of law, and widespread human rights violations. The past decade has seen a sharp decline in civil and political rights, but criticism inside the country is voiced in faint whispers for fear of harsh government retaliation.
President Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as “Beyik Turkmenbashy” (“Great Father of the Turkmen People”), has ruled Turkmenistan since 1985. After serving as the leader of Turkmenistan’s Communist Party, he was appointed president in 1990 in an unopposed election. In 1992, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Niyazov was elected president of Turkmenistan with a reported 99.5 percent of the popular vote. As head of the Democratic Party of “Neutral and Independent” Turkmenistan, the country’s only tolerated political party, Niyazov has employed censorship, show trials, imprisonment, and frequent replacement of key government officials to ensure the security of his rule. In 1999, despite a constitutional provision of a five-year presidential term, the Turkmenistan’s People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty) elected Niyazov president for life. In addition to his brutal tactics of political repression, Niyazov is known for his bizarre decrees, such as those changing the names of the days of the week and forbidding long hair on men and gold teeth.
Turkmenistan has three official branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judicial. Separation of powers, although guaranteed in the Constitution of Turkmenistan, does not exist. Niyazov has assumed the powers delegated to each branch of government. There is no independent constitutional court to ensure separation of powers, guard the primacy of international law over domestic law, or review the constitutionality of laws. In August 2003, the 2,500-member People’s Council became Turkmenistan’s highest legislative body, with Niyazov presiding over it. The first task of the new People’s Council was the founding of an institute devoted to studying Niyazov and his Ruhnama, a pseudo-spiritual guidebook that dictates every aspect of Turkmen life and that has replaced most textbooks in schools and universities.
Despite his strong ties to Russia and the Communist Party, Niyazov has managed to maintain some popularity in Turkmenistan by promoting a strong Turkmen national identity. He created numerous Turkmen holidays (e.g. “Melon Day, “Turkmen Horse Day”), glorified Turkmen life in the Ruhnama, and declared the 21st century Turkmenistan’s “Golden Century.” Niyazov has also placed himself at the core of the Turkmen national identity by depicting himself as the heroic figurehead of the Turkmen people. Literally portraying himself as a gift to the Turkmen people from God, Niyazov has even suggested that he is a prophet. Today, his portrait graces every wall, book, entranceway, and newspaper in Turkmenistan.
In keeping with Niyazov’s goal of fostering Turkmen nationalism, discrimination against Turkmenistan’s ethnic, racial, and religious minorities has become official government policy. Today, state officials must undergo genealogy checks to ensure that they are “racially pure.” In recent years, Niyazov eliminated Russian as a national language of Turkmenistan. Ethnic minorities are often fired from their jobs because they cannot speak Turkmen, and most of the country’s Russian schools have been closed. President Niyazov also decreased mandatory education from 11 years to 9 years, a portion of which many children spend picking cotton for the government with little remuneration. With extremely limited opportunities for higher education and employment, in addition to widespread discrimination, many of the country’s ethnic minorities are looking for ways to emigrate.
Under this leadership, the government censors foreign media and routinely monitors telephone, mail, and internet communications. Freedom of assembly is heavily restricted, and all public meetings and demonstrations require permission in advance from local authorities. Relocating one’s home from one city to another requires prior government approval, and traveling to certain parts of the country involves navigating police checkpoints and paying bribes. Foreigners face significant challenges in entering the country, as visas are difficult to obtain and non-citizens are forced to register with the police within a few days of their arrival in the country. Visitors must also deregister before they leave the country or they may never be allowed to enter again.
Some of the more recent human rights violations in Turkmenistan can be attributed to an alleged attempt on Niyazov’s life in November 2002. International organizations such as the OSCE have suggested that Niyazov staged the incident as a pretext for a crackdown on political opposition. Soon after the alleged assassination attempt, Turkmen authorities detained nearly 700 people – many of them ethnic minorities – including women, children, and elderly persons. Those “tried” in court were labeled “enemies of the people,” and all were found guilty. Many have been subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and torture, and there have been reports of involuntary psychiatric confinement. Some of those fortunate enough to be handed less than life sentences have been sent to northern Turkmenistan for “rehabilitation through labor.”
In April 2003, in an apparent crackdown on potential “enemies of the state,” Niyazov and Russian President Putin agreed to revoke a 1993 agreement recognizing Russian-Turkmen dual nationality. Those Turkmen/Russian citizens who chose to keep their Russian passports lost ownership of their homes and property and were forced to obtain visas to stay in Turkmenistan. Those choosing to keep their Turkmen passports risked not being able to visit relatives outside of the country and losing their jobs.
Today, despite repeated criticism from the United Nations, the European Union, OSCE, and NGOs throughout the world, the human rights situation in Turkmenistan has only worsened. A 2003 law made it nearly impossible for nongovernmental organizations to function. As a result, the only currently registered NGOs in the country are those that either serve as an extension of the government or those whose mandates are entirely non-political. Although the government repealed a 2003 law cracking down on religious minorities, they continue to be harassed. In 2004, the Turkmen government closed the last independent news outlet. To this day, two Turkmen journalists associated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty continue to be persecuted by the government. No longer imprisoned, the journalists are forced to live under house arrest, denied access to health care, and face constant threats to their personal safety and the safety of their families.
With the threat of harsh retaliation looming heavily over the heads of the population, criticism of the government is rarely voiced within Turkmenistan. In February 2003, the People’s Council defined treason as:
“…efforts to sow within people doubt about the domestic and foreign policy
conducted by the first President for Life of Turkmenistan the Great Saparmurat
Turkmenbashi, the abuse of…official positions, and also attempts to cause
conflict between the people and the state.”
The Turkmen government has effectively quashed all dissent within the country. Today, with widespread unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and approximately 31 percent of the population living below the poverty level, the suffering of the people of Turkmenistan continues largely in silence.
Definition of Discrimination
There is no definition of discrimination under Turkmen law. Turkmenistan’s Constitution does not address discrimination directly, but Article 18 states, “Men and women in Turkmenistan have equal civil rights. Violation of equality on account of sex entails accountability according to the law.” There are no statements of law or policy that specifically interpret “equal civil rights” or “equality on account of sex.” The only examples the government offers of laws that address discrimination against women are certain provisions in the Criminal Code and the Marriage and Family Code that mandate special treatment of pregnant women and women with young children. Such protective laws do not substitute for legal provisions to address discrimination against women.
Without a clear definition of discrimination, assessment of equality (as provided in the Constitution) is legally and practically impossible. Equality cannot be achieved without a demonstrated understanding of the discrimination that must be eliminated. The legislative branch cannot develop laws to address discriminatory treatment, the judicial branch cannot address “accountability according to the law” for violations of equality principles, and the executive branch cannot enforce the Constitutional provision of “equal civil rights.” The State Party report makes no mention of efforts to amend its laws to include a legal definition of discrimination.
MEASURES TO ELIMINATE DISCRIMINATION
Official Recognition of Discrimination against Women
The government maintains that there is no de jure or de facto discrimination against women. Paragraph 45 of the State Party report asserts, “In independent Turkmenistan, no laws, resolutions, or practices discriminating against women have existed or do now exist.” In paragraph 31, the government states that it “condemns discrimination against women in all its forms, and it has consistently and unwaveringly conducted a policy of prohibiting any distinction, exclusion, or limitation on the basis of gender, which is directed at weakening or reducing the recognition, use, and realization by women, on an equal basis with men, of human rights and basic freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other area.” This parroting of the definition in Article 1 of the CEDAW Convention is not a substitute for its embodiment in law and policy.
The government further asserts, “The gender policy of the state assures equal rights for women, their equal access to education and social activity, and equal opportunities with men for practical activity and participation in the management of social affairs and the state. The customs of the Turkmen people do not permit the oppression of women or their unequal status in the family or society.” The report also states, “There are no state statistics of discriminatory manifestations against women in Turkmenistan.” However, the government does not cite any state-sponsored studies of discrimination against women. Nor does it cite any cases or proceedings in court that have addressed the issue. The subject of violence against women is conspicuously absent from the report, and the government makes no mention of statistics on domestic violence, rape, or sexual abuse.
Status of Law and Governance Mechanisms
Assessment of the legal and governance systems should be made in view of the extent to which presidential decree overrides constitutional and legislative provisions. The government asserts that state powers are exercised by legislative, executive, and judicial branches and that the functions and powers of the central and local governmental bodies are limited. In reality, President Niyazov has assumed the powers of all branches of government. Any decree he makes with regard to the executive, legislative, or judicial branches may be enforced as law, without Constitutional or other forms of review. For example, the government report states that Turkmen law guarantees pensions for all citizens who have worked for more than 25 years. However, in 2006, President Niyazov, by decree and without legislative action or judicial review, cut pensions nationwide by one quarter.
The State Party report does not identify any government mechanisms that address discrimination against women. The one civil society entity that the government cites as devoted to promoting women’s rights in Turkmenistan is the Women’s Union of Turkmenistan. The full name of this organization, the Women’s Union of Turkmenistan-Gurbansultan-Eje reflects the organization’s inherent bias. “Gurbansultan-Eje” is the name of President Niyazov’s mother. This strongly suggests that the Women’s Union, like many other organizations claimed to be nongovernmental, is tied to the government and is unlikely to offer independent assessment or advocacy on behalf of women.
Public Education on Discrimination against Women
The government maintains that it has launched a “large-scale informational campaign” to create conditions for equality between men and women” and that it addresses “gender origins in the life of society” in seminars and conferences on the rights of women. It also asserts that “international acts on the rights of women have been published in the state language and are being widely distributed.” The government does not, however, provide specific information about such conferences and seminars or identify the participants. The report also fails to provide detailed information regarding the “large-scale informational campaign” to educate people about gender equality. Of the women interviewed for this report, none were aware of public conferences or seminars on women’s rights, and none had ever seen government publications on international acts concerning the rights of women. Without specific evidence of such efforts, it is impossible to assess the government’s commitment to addressing discrimination against women.
Practical Obstacles to the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
Vast practical obstacles prevent women in Turkmenistan from enjoying rights. Exercise of free speech is met with severe repercussions, ranging from harassment from the police to imprisonment, torture, or exile. No safe public forum exists for asserting rights. Moreover, there is little to no education to inform people of their rights under domestic or international law. Freedom of assembly is also severely restricted, making it very difficult for women – or any group of people – to engage in the typical activities of civil society. In addition, the government restricts movement both within Turkmenistan, which inhibits the ability of women to bring issues of discrimination to the attention of the government or international community. Travel within the country often requires special documentation and navigating police checkpoints, and citizens were required to obtain exit visas in order to travel abroad until 2004.
Guarantee of Basic Human Rights and
Accuracy of statistics
Statistics provided by the Turkmen government must be viewed with a degree of skepticism as they frequently lack credibility. For example, the government reports a 2003 population of 6,298,000 persons. This number is well above estimates from international organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF, which report a population of well under five million. Indeed, even the Embassy of Turkmenistan in the United States currently reports a population figure of only five million.
To further illustrate the unreliability of government statistics: the government report states that, in 2004, Turkmenistan yielded “the largest wheat crop in the country’s history.” Less than one year later, as officials lauded a record grain harvest, independent media reported widespread bread shortages and surges in the cost of flour. Therefore, any numbers cited in the government report without independent verification should be closely scrutinized.
SEX ROLES AND STEREOTYPING
Like many former Soviet republics, Turkmenistan has seen the resurgence of traditional gender stereotypes since gaining independence in 1991. The economic and social upheaval that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union forced people in Turkmenistan and elsewhere to restructure social and familial roles. For example, whereas many parents encouraged their daughters to pursue higher education degrees and professional opportunities during the Soviet period, when education was free, most parents in Turkmenistan today cannot afford to pay the bribes required for admission to universities. The country’s poor economic conditions force parents to make difficult choices about whom to send to school, and they generally give preference to sons over daughters.
President Niyazov bears considerable responsibility for translating such stereotypes into official policy. The President’s proclamations have the potential to carry the force of law, and his opinions on issues ranging from school uniforms to the staffing of rural health clinics can become national policy without any engagement of the political process or judicial review. Niyazov’s spiritual guidebook, the Ruhnama, a treatise on the virtues of the Turkmen people, is now required reading for all Turkmen citizens. It has become a mandatory daily fixture in education, the media, and politics, and therefore may be viewed as an expression of government policy. In many elementary and secondary schools, professional institutes, and universities, it has replaced textbooks on traditional subjects. School children memorize its verses, and entry into universities and government-level jobs often requires extensive knowledge of it contents. The month of September is named after the book, and the date of its publication, September 19, (2001) is now a national holiday. Niyazov has declared that people who read Ruhnama aloud three times are guaranteed a place in heaven.
The Ruhnama depicts women as mothers and homemakers and men as leaders and workers. In a section entitled “the rules of good manners,” Niyazov quotes the Prophet Noah:
“Do not be mean with emerald stones for your daughters and wives… If one upsets his wife or daughter, he is not a [Turkmen]…Give them valuable pieces so that they may wear them on their breast, neck, and back. However, never harm their faces; the face itself is more valuable than thousands of emerald pieces. The decoration and beauty of the home are the daughters and the wives.”
While a Turkmen man “should lead his family efficiently and direct them in goodness,” a Turkmen woman should work to enhance her husband’s position in society. The Ruhnama asserts that by keeping the house “clean and tidy,” and by being hospitable to visitors while the husband is absent, a Turkmen woman’s fame will “spread like her husbands.” “If a woman is not competent in her own home, this problem influences her husband.” Moreover, the Ruhnama suggests that Turkmen women should treat their husbands as gods:
“Oguz Khan said to the girl to whom he was engaged: ‘I will accept you as my wife and love you wholeheartedly if you accept that Allah is one.’… The girl replied, ‘I do not know anything about the real god, but I will carry out your orders and words’…. I consent to all your words and orders.’”
The portrayal of women’s roles in the Ruhnama reflects the gender stereotypes that hamper women’s advancement in Turkmenistan. Women are the primary caregivers in the home, and they are expected to manage the affairs of the home. Girls are raised to be mothers, first and foremost. Women who work outside of he home are still expected to do all the chores of a good wife or mother. The enormous task of caring for the family, which often includes hauling water and caring for animals in addition to daily cooking, cleaning, and childrearing, makes the prospect of adding work outside the home unappealing. Pursuit of higher education after marriage is extremely rare.
Gender stereotypes also impact women’s ability to independently pursue personal advancement. Particularly in rural areas, women and girls are often forbidden to travel without a chaperone, and those who appear to be too independent, talk too loudly, or laugh too much may be labeled “bad” girls. As one interviewee explained, men can go anywhere, anytime, but a woman needs permission or else she is thought to be a prostitute.
Turkmenistan’s media, like the Ruhnama, consistently portray women in stereotypical roles. The state controls all media in the country. A typical program on Turkmen television features traditional singing and dancing in praise of the president. These programs almost exclusively feature ethnic Turkmen, and the girls and women appearing in them always dress in traditional Turkmen garb. Turkmen television almost never shows Turkmen women in roles that contradict traditional Turkmen virtues, and there are no programs that challenge the government’s policies relating to women’s human rights.
TRAFFICKING AND PROSTITUTION
No official data exist regarding the extent of trafficking in and out of Turkmenistan. Accordingly, the government of Turkmenistan maintains that trafficking in persons (TIP) is not a problem and devotes little attention and few resources to the issue. However, current deteriorating social, economic and political conditions in the country contribute to trafficking conditions and make women increasingly susceptible.
No legislative measures are currently in place to help prevent TIP from occurring or to protect victims of trafficking. There is no distinct offense of trafficking in the Criminal Code; therefore there is no definition of the offense. While some existing provisions of the Criminal Code could be used for prosecution, including Kidnapping for Forced Marriage (Article 127); Involving Someone in Prostitution (Article 139); Organization of Prostitution Dens (Article 140); Illegal Border Crossing (Article 214); and Document Fraud (Article 218), none of these are an adequate substitute for a specific anti-trafficking law.
In 2005 President Niyazov acknowledged the need to develop anti-TIP legislation, but there has been little follow-through. In fact, the government refused to cooperate with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in a project to ascertain the extent of trafficking throughout Central Asia, including Turkmenistan. IOM’s report includes of the study states that
“In the case of Turkmenistan, gathering any firm data and conducting interviews, with the exception of basic information from five individuals who had been part of NGOs, proved impossible. The author experienced this unease directly whilst in Turkmenistan, where many of those attending the roundtable declined to be interviewed face to face, and those who did agree spoke in whispers. No amount of interviewing skill or sophisticated methodology can overcome a pervasive sense of fear for expressing a point of view.”
Various accounts attest to the existence of trafficking. In 2004-2005, the IOM identified three women who were trafficked to Turkey and forced into prostitution. An article published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told the story of one woman who was trafficked to the United Arab Emirates from Turkmenistan and returned to Ashgabat:
“Because getting out of Turkmenistan is difficult,” she said, “I allowed myself to be smuggled out of here via Iran, but I was told I would have a good job working for an Arab family in Dubai.” After an arduous road journey across Iran and a Gulf crossing by boat, she found herself working in a Russian syndicate-run brothel in Dubai. “It was horrific. I worked all night, every night, for six days, and was beaten if I refused to perform,” she added tearfully. “I know I was stupid,” she added, “but there’s nothing, nothing, nothing for us here.”
One woman interviewed for this report told of a woman who was arrested in Ashgabat for luring young women with the promise of employment abroad and then forcing them into prostitution. The same interviewee spoke of increasing numbers of women in the capital posting their profiles on “mail-order bride” agency websites. Although international marriage broker agencies are not necessarily tied to trafficking, women who register on such sites may be targeted by traffickers.
Accurate information about trafficking is extremely hard to collect and verify and has led to contradictory reports. The U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005 reported that there were six known cases of trafficking in persons and one successful prosecution on charges of sexual exploitation, slavery, and encouraging deceitful border crossing. However, according to the Turkmenistan Trafficking in Persons Report 2004-2005 (also a U.S. Department of State report), “Post has collected fewer than 10 anecdotal reports suggesting that women from Turkmenistan travel to Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates for short periods of time to engage in prostitution. There is little evidence that such women are trafficked. . .” The report also states that to the Post’s knowledge, the Government of Turkmenistan has not prosecuted any case against TIP. Nonetheless, the TIP report does highlight that current conditions in the country would facilitate trafficking if it were to become a problem, including a high prevalence of bribery in the government, lack of social welfare programs, absence of trafficking prevention programs, weak civil society, inadequately monitored borders, and failure of the government to actively investigate cases of trafficking.
Political and Public Life
Women and Politics
Domestic law guarantees women the right to participate in political life. The Law on General Suffrage, the Law on Election of Gengeshes (municipal councils), and the Law on Election of National Representatives (Halk Vekillery) guarantee all citizens the right to vote and to participate in elections regardless of sex. According to the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, there were eight women members of parliament, and women served in the People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty) and other government positions in 2004.
In practice, the right to participate in political life in Turkmenistan and the actual participation of some women in government has little impact on decision-making processes. President Niyazov is in effective control of all branches of government. In theory, anyone – man or woman – can run for office, but candidates are hand selected by the government and must be members of Niyazov’s Democratic Party, the only political party that is tolerated. One interviewee stated simply that politics “is a circus.” Another said that although women don’t generally participate in politics, some women may be appointed to government positions and that when this happens, they can’t refuse. In this situation, it is difficult to assess the extent of women’s meaningful participation in government.
Women do have the right to vote in elections to the same extent as men, but many choose not to because elections are typically predetermined. For example, the government holds elections every five years for president, but history indicates that Niyazov will likely continue to remain in power beyond the term limit provided for in the Constitution. The government does not permit foreign observers to monitor elections, so the extent to which elections are free or fair is unknown.
The government’s policy of fierce retribution against supporters of opposition movements makes genuine engagement in the political process extremely difficult. As the United States Government’s 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices states, in 2004 “authorities fired or threatened to fire supporters of opposition movements, removed them from professional societies, and threatened them with the loss of their homes. In addition some citizens who met with foreigners were subject to official intimidation.” The genuine participation of women in all levels of government is crucial to the protection and promotion of women’s human rights. Until Turkmenistan creates the conditions for transparent, democratic government processes, women will not be ensured the right to truly participate in political life.
Turkmenistan’s record on fostering civil society stands in stark contrast to the government’s assertion in Paragraph 31 of its report that non-governmental organizations play an important and active role in determining the economic, social, and cultural policies of the state. In October 2003, a new law “On Public Associations” amended the Turkmen Criminal Code to criminalize all unregistered activities in the country. Those found guilty of taking part in public activities without prior approval from government authorities could be fined, subjected to “corrective labor,” or imprisoned. The government enforced this new law by investigating NGO activities and harassing and interrogating the groups’ leaders and members. As a result, the vast majority of NGOs in Turkmenistan were forced to cease their activities because they could not register. Some decided to function covertly, while others made the difficult decision to partner with government entities in order to continue their work.
The Turkmen government decriminalized the activities of unregistered nongovernmental organizations in 2004. However, the consequences of the 2003 law are still felt today. The 2005 U.S. Country Report on Human Rights Practices noted:
“Of 89 registered NGOs, international organizations considered 7 of the NGOs to be independent; the last registration completed occurred in January. While some groups reported good cooperation with the Ministry of Justice in the registration process, other NGOs reported difficulties registering, such as frequently having their applications returned on technical grounds. Some NGOs found alternative ways to carry out activities, such as registering as businesses or subsidiaries of other registered groups. Other groups considered themselves temporarily closed.”
As noted previously, the only organization that the government identifies in its report as an NGO devoted to women is the Union of Women – Gurbansultan-Eje. That organization, like the other “important social associations” highlighted in the report, has strong ties to the government and does not act as an independent entity.
Turkmenistan’s education system has been in a downward spiral for several years. Whereas Soviet students had access to strong institutions of higher education, only children of the wealthiest families in Turkmenistan have access to higher education today. Children now attend school for significantly less periods of time than they did under the Soviet system, and the quality of education has declined exponentially. President Niyazov has created a huge disincentive to study abroad by decreeing that the state will not recognize any foreign diplomas.
The impact of girls’ education on society cannot be overstated. According to the United Nations Population Fund, girls’ education contributes to economic growth, positively impacts maternal, child, and reproductive health, and improves families’ economic prospects. By decreasing educational opportunities for girls, the Turkmen government is creating a society less able to contribute to the political, social, cultural, and economic development of the state.
Access to Education
In the past decade, the Turkmen government has reduced compulsory education from 11 years to nine years. Students now begin school at age seven and usually finish at 15 years. The government’s closure of most of the country’s Russian schools has further resulted in a decline in the quality of education. Upon completion of secondary education, students are now required to complete a two year practicum before being considered for entry to institutions of higher education. In a country beset by high unemployment and other economic problems, it is extremely difficult for young people to find jobs or the practical experience necessary for admission to a university.
Educational curricula have also suffered in the past several years. The Ruhnama has become the primary instructional focus, and it has pervaded all subjects. One teacher said that at her school, the first lesson every Monday is about the Ruhnama and Turkmenbashy. The teacher explained that teachers of all subjects, including Math and Science, are required to teach about Ruhnama through their disciplines. According to the interviewee, this has resulted in a significant reduction in the coverage subject-specific content.
One’s knowledge of Ruhnama has become paramount to succeeding in academics and employment. Children, teachers, public servants, and regular citizens are required to pass exams on the content of the book. According to one Turkmen teacher, teachers are required to answer questions about Ruhnama when they are being interviewed for a promotion. Additionally, she said that teachers are expected to give students higher grades if they integrate the Ruhnama into their assignments. In the rare instances where schools have libraries, they have been severely censored, and non-Turkmen language materials have been removed. One interviewee told of eyewitness accounts of destruction of books.
In Turkmenistan, teachers are primarily female. Teachers routinely do not receive their salary payments in a timely manner. One teacher said that last year she went six months without receiving her salary. However, she said that was longer than the typical salary delay. Teachers are frequently required to go for three months without receiving a paycheck, and a one to two month delay is now so normal that “people don’t say anything.” As one interviewee explained, this then encourages corruption and detracts from teaching obligations because of the pressing need to generate additional income.
Equal Opportunities in Obtaining Scholarships
Paragraph 87 of the government report discusses equal opportunities for obtaining scholarships for higher education. However, entrance to universities is based not only on passing oral exams, but also on bribes to university officials. This disproportionately affects rural and poor populations, and particularly girls. Several interviewees noted that families are more likely to invest in sending their sons to institutions of higher education than their daughters, who will most likely marry and live with their in-laws.
Equal Opportunities for Continuing Education
Once a woman is married, it is extremely unlikely that she will be able to pursue higher education because she is expected to stay home and care for her husband and in-laws. Single mothers particularly need increased access to and sponsorship of higher education. Due to the country’s poor economic situation and widespread drug use, many women find themselves as the sole providers for the family. Without support from the government, they have little or no opportunity to pursue post-secondary education.
Education on Family Health and Reproduction
Reproductive health education is essentially lacking in primary and secondary schools and is addressed only ad hoc if at all. Little health material is available in the Turkmen language. For girls, the lack of general and reproductive health education has resulted in a low level of knowledge of basic health information and the perpetuation of myths about women’s health. Many girls and young women know little about women’s health. Information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases is not taught in school, and access to information for young women about these subjects elsewhere is limited. As a result, young women are ill-prepared to make informed decisions regarding their personal health or family life.
Unemployment is a pervasive problem in Turkmenistan. The government does not keep figures on unemployment, maintaining that every citizen is guaranteed employment. However, independent groups and the interviewees for this report agree that unemployment rates are extremely high. The U.S. government estimates that up to 70% of Turkmenistan’s population is unemployed. The country’s labor exchanges cannot meet the needs of the overwhelming number of people in search of work.
Turkmenistan’s unemployment crisis is attributable, at least in part, to massive government job cuts in recent years. As one regional expert explained, “[T]he government sector is overwhelmingly the [main] employer in the country, and by withdrawing employment opportunities the government is essentially ensuring that people are left with no source of income whatsoever.” In 2002, by presidential decree, Niyazov ended secondary education at the ninth grade. This eliminated the jobs of many teachers, who are primarily women. Niyazov’s recent closures of Russian schools further contributed to increases in unemployment. In 2004, Niyazov eliminated 15,000 jobs in the health care sector, replacing nurses throughout the country with untrained military conscripts. Approximately one year later, Niyazov decreed that all hospitals outside of the capital should be closed. As in the education sector, women bore the brunt of the president’s job cuts in the health care sector.
As President Niyazov diverts Turkmenistan’s enormous oil and gas revenue away from education, health care, and the social welfare system, women are taking drastic measures to support themselves and their families. Prostitution has been on the rise in recent years, and there are reports of parents forcing their daughters and husbands forcing their wives to sell their bodies on the street. One interviewee spoke of an increase in the number of women who act as drug “mules,” crossing the border into Afghanistan and returning with heroin. Some women are resorting to the “mail-order” bride industry. Even women with university diplomas now post their profiles on international marriage broker websites. As one interviewee noted, some women are willing to take the risk of entering into a relationship with a stranger in another country because they see no other options for economic stability in Turkmenistan.
Discrimination in the Workplace
Although no disaggregated data exist on sex-based employment discrimination, there is reason to believe that women face unique challenges in the workplace. In Turkmenistan, employment is typically not based on merit. Jobs are often given to those who can afford to pay the most substantial bribes, and the prevalence of traditional gender stereotypes suggests that families are more likely to assist a male family member in getting a job than a female family member. Interviewees for this report noted that the fear of losing female employees to pregnancy or familial duties may cause some employers to hire men over women. Additionally, Turkmenistan does not have laws specifically prohibiting sexual harassment. Some interviewees reported that it is common.
Without comprehensive data and information available, assessment of workplace sex discrimination is difficult. Qualitative accounts, however, indicate that women are often treated poorly in the workplace compared to men. Many of the interviewees readily recalled stories of poor treatment by their employers, many of whom were the government. One interviewee reported witnessing male superiors’ abusive behavior towards female employees, including disrespectful interactions and requiring extra, unpaid work. Yet another interviewee recalled a time when what was supposed to be a celebration of women placed an enormous burden on them. On International Women’s Day (March 8) several years ago, President Niyazov decreed that all girl students in the country would receive a gift of fabric or shoes. However, he did not provide the funds to carry out his promise. Instead, in some areas, school administrators took money from the salaries of the teachers – typically women – to pay for the Women’s Day gifts to the students. On another occasion, Niyazov instructed schools to pay women teachers for one or two months of their maternity leaves. When one woman came to school to collect her salary, the director withheld it, claiming that she needed the money to pay the substitute teacher who was hired to cover her classes. The teacher was too intimidated to report her problem to local officials or the Ministry of Education.
Official health data and statistics are often either nonexistent or unreliable. However, outside sources, including NGO publications and news articles, report clear signs of a health crisis in Turkmenistan. Compared regionally, data show that women’s health in Turkmenistan, and particularly that of rural women, is considered to be the worst of all the former Soviet Republics.
While the health system has been in decline since the mid-1990s, progress has been made in some areas, including greater access to a variety of contraceptive technologies. Health policies are based on ad hoc presidential decrees, which can gain or lose favor without warning. Thus, the key features of the Turkmen health system are instability and insecurity.
Autonomy in Health Care Decision Making
Many women in Turkmenistan lack the fundamental right to make their own health care decisions. Demographic Health Survey (DHS) data from 2000 note that fewer than half of married women (40%) decide issues of health care on their own. Among the remainder of married women, 41% of health care decisions are made jointly with their husbands, 3% are made jointly with another, 9% are made by their husband alone, and 7% are made by someone else alone. The circumstances of unmarried women illustrate even less autonomy in health care decision making: only 32% make their own decisions, 21% make decisions jointly with others, and for 47% of unmarried women, health care decisions are made entirely by another.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in coordination with the Turkmen government and the World Health Organization (WHO), has made progress in both increasing access to contraceptives and providing a wider variety of contraceptive options. The UNFPA provides contraceptives to recently established reproductive health centers and trains medical personnel. Although laudable progress has been made, technical and logistical concerns have been raised.
Although the IUD (intrauterine device) is the most common form of contraception and is used by 20% of women of reproductive age, midwives and family physicians are not trained in IUD insertion. Such training was also not a considered priority of the Ministry of Health. Access to IUDs in rural areas is further hindered by lack of access. IUDs must be inserted by a specialist, who visits rural areas only once every two weeks, which may not coincide with the point of a woman’s cycle at which it must be inserted. The alternative is for women to travel to a hospital for insertion, which may not be possible due to women’s responsibilities in the home and availability of transport.
The alternative of hospital-based IUD insertion may no longer be available as President Niyazov in February 2005 ordered the closure of all hospitals outside of the capital. Niyazov declared the policy to be a way to assure quality care due to a shortage of good doctors. Although it is unclear whether and how this presidential order will be executed, its implementation would further limit access of the millions of women in Turkmenistan to reproductive health and curative care.
Although the UNFPA program has increased women’s access to contraception, overall knowledge of reproductive health remains low in the population, especially among young people in certain parts of the country.
Contraception is generally framed as a woman’s issue. Focus on female-centered fertility technology absolves men from responsibility and forces women to bear any possible costs and all physical consequences of all contraceptive options. Condoms, the only fertility technology designed for men, are reportedly only available through commercial stores and not from free health clinics. Additionally, the effectiveness of the condoms for sale is questionable since some were found to have been kept in direct sunlight or were past their expiration date. More attention must to be given to the role of men in contraceptive use and family planning.
Pregnancy and Birth
The government asserts in its report that improvement and preservation of motherhood and childhood have a central place in the state health program. To this end, the report notes that state-of-the-art Centers for Reproductive Health have been opened throughout the country, including remote areas. The report states several times that these Centers are stocked with “the latest medical equipment” and “expensive modern equipment … to provide effective treatment of premature babies,” and even include laparoscopes. Yet a recent news report now documents women’s fear of giving birth in hospitals because of the unsanitary conditions in buildings that have not had major repairs since their construction during the Soviet era. Infants born in state maternity hospitals also frequently become infected by meningitis, hepatitis B and C, and salmonella. Doctors and nurses are forced to purchase supplies like gloves, gauze, and disinfectant at their own expense. Some women are choosing to give birth at home due to a lack of specialized physicians.
The enactment of the State Health Program of the President in July 1995 created a shift from specialized and hospital-based medicine to prevention and primary care practices instituted by generalist family physicians. A UNFPA report published in 2000 notes resistance to this shift among specialized obstetrician/gynecologists in Turkmenistan. According to the report, these specialists, as well as the family doctors, are concerned about the policy because family physicians are not trained in gynecological examination and in general lack experience in this field. The report notes that most family doctors were pediatricians and therapists with “little knowledge even of the physiology of the menstrual cycle.” There is specific concern about rural family doctors who have had limited exposure to additional training since their graduation from medical school.
The recommendation of a WHO advisor on reproductive health includes additional reproductive health training for Ob/Gyn specialists, family doctors, and midwives. However, he notes several barriers to providing the necessary training, including the elaborate and time-consuming process to obtain the Ministerial approval for training courses. Additionally, Ministry officials fear staffing shortages when professionals attend trainings, although the 1995 decision to cut thousands of medical worker jobs (see below) is based on the claim that too many doctors and other medical workers were burdening the health care system.
Only two official cases of HIV exist in Turkmenistan, and the government denies there have been any additional infections in recent years. Although UNAIDS continues to estimate the number of HIV cases to be low (below 200 people), HIV incidence is rising faster in Eastern Europe and Central Asia than in most other regions of the world. An anonymous Ministry of Health source contradicted official numbers and stated that there were more than 300 confirmed cases of HIV in Ashgabat alone, with the actual number of cases potentially being much higher. Unemployment, intravenous drug use, and reported increases in sex work all raise the risk of a major HIV epidemic within Turkmenistan’s borders. Poverty and the largely unguarded border with Afghanistan, a major source of heroine, contribute to the growing population of intravenous drug users. One official estimated about 64,000 intravenous drug users in the country. Also driven by harsh economic conditions, there are reports that sex work is increasing among women and that it is leaving a “sexual health crisis” in its wake.
Women are at risk for HIV through sex work and intravenous drug use, but also as wives and partners of men who use sex workers or use injected drugs. Another factor that increases women’s risk is their lack of knowledge of HIV/AIDS. Although 73% of women of reproductive age had heard of HIV, only half believed they could cut risk through behavior change. Additionally, only 31% of women knew that condoms can also reduce risk of infection. A WHO advisor noted the need for HIV prevention and education services.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are a known risk factor for and facilitator of HIV. Since Turkmenistan’s independence, STDs have increased at an alarming rate. These various risk factors combined threaten a major HIV epidemic in Turkmenistan.
Other Infectious Diseases
The Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation has reported that the Ministry of Health and Medical Industry placed an unofficial ban on diagnosing certain infectious diseases in 2004. Secret instructions were issued to prevent the mention of such widely prevalent diseases as tuberculosis, measles, dysentery, cholera, and hepatitis. Such a ban would serve to further endanger health as the most recent mortality statistics reported to WHO in 1998 list infectious disease to be one of the major causes of death in Turkmenistan. If the report of the ban is true, obtaining care for sick patients would be close to impossible. As family caregivers, women would likely take on the additional responsibility of caring for the “undiagnosed” sick and at the same time face an elevated risk of infection.
Health Data & Statistics
As noted, official state-produced health statistics are widely considered unreliable and should be interpreted with caution. The data provided here include official state-provided data, statistics reported by the Turkmenistan government to supra-national organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), NGO produced estimates, and journalistic sources.
According to 2003 World Health Organization figures, the life expectancy for women in Turkmenistan was the lowest in the WHO-defined European region at 65 years. The life expectancy of women living in rural areas was reported to be 10 years lower than that of their counterparts in Ashgabat. This difference has been interpreted as being due in part to lower survival rate of female infants in rural areas.
In the 1990s, after independence from the Soviet Union, many of the former Soviet republics experienced a decline in overall life expectancy driven by increases in male mortality. A decline in life expectancy also occurred Turkmenistan, but it was driven by a sharp decline in female life expectancy between 1993 and 1994. The reason for the drop is not well understood, but it is believed to be tied to the low status of women in society, a situation that still exists today.
Data reported to WHO show an increase in maternal mortality from 40.74 per 100,000 live births in 1981 to 44.03 per 100,000 live births in 1996, which was the latest year data were reported. Data provided by the Turkmen Statistical Office in recent years have shown a decline in maternal mortality, with the most recent data showing the figure at 12.5 per 100,000 live births in 2003 with considerable regional variation. However there have been considerable differences in estimates for this indicator across reports. With the unreliability of officially provided data, there is the possibility that there has been deterioration in maternal mortality, rather than improvement, or at the very least, considerable variation between the capital and rural areas.
Health Care System and “Reform”
In addition to the president’s reported call to close all hospitals outside of the capital and the elimination of specialist doctors, other governmental moves aimed at reforming the health care system have created a situation in which the already fragile system is further destabilized, particularly for women.
Beginning in 1995, 20,000 professional health positions were eliminated, composing approximately 18% of the health sector. The 2000 DHS notes that 10,000 more jobs were in the process of being cut. The BBC reported an additional dismissal of 15,000 medical workers in 2004 and described the aim of the cuts to be reduction of state expenditure on heath care. The medical workers were reportedly to be replaced by untrained military conscripts. The medical worker cuts are particularly harmful to women because positions that are specifically targeted for elimination are nurses, midwives, school health visitors, and orderlies. Many of these positions were filled by women who primarily catered to other women and to children.
Recent reductions in state benefits have had a devastating impact on Turkmenistan’s population. Current government policies on social welfare stand in stark contrast to the economic policies of the Soviet system. Today, Turkmenistan has a high rate of unemployment and provides inadequate public assistance. Scenes of elderly women hawking goods at the bazaar – a rare sight during the Soviet era – are now commonplace as much of the country’s elderly population struggles to survive without state support.
The Turkmen government states in its report, “The internal policies of the country are aimed at providing the people with a dignified standard of living” and that “the president and government of the country have assured the social support for the population.” The same paragraph goes on to assert that “virtually every year salaries, student stipends, pensions, and public assistance have increased.”
Turkmenistan’s pension system provides neither adequate protection for the country’s elderly population or a dignified standard of living. In order to receive any state pension benefits, women must have worked for at least 20 years, and men must have worked for at least 25 years. The retirement age is 57 years for women and 62 years for men. According to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy in Turkmenistan is 65 years for women and 56 years for men. Statistics on pension-related issues are lacking, so it is difficult to assess whether women face discrimination in state pension benefits. However, the requirement that women work for 20 years in order to obtain pension benefits, in light of the fact that women are more likely to work in the home, suggests that they may face particular difficulties in accessing state economic benefits.
In late 2005, President Niyazov announced massive cuts to Turkmenistan’s state benefits to the elderly. The government did not give an explanation for the reductions, but Western diplomats have suggested that a shortage in the state’s pension fund forced the government to dip into currency reserves to pay pensions last year. As a result of the cuts, 100,000 of the country’s 400,000 pensioners have lost this financial support entirely. In addition, other state benefits, such as maternity and sick leave, have been cut by 20 percent. Predictably, these measures have left hundreds of thousands of Turkmenistan’s most vulnerable citizens in dire situations.
Information on access to state welfare benefits is limited. There are no statistics on Turkmenistan’s system of financial support for families in need, and the interviews conducted for this report did not paint a clear picture of the current welfare system. Some interviewees had heard of state support for struggling families, but said that the system did not provide adequate financial assistance. Others did not think that state welfare benefits were available at all.
Information regarding the ability of people in Turkmenistan to access financial credit from state or private financial institutions is extremely limited. In rural areas, most people in need of financial assistance look to family members for help. Financial institutions that may offer loans to individuals are not generally accessible outside of the country’s major cities.
In Paragraph 20, the government cites a “large-scale program of housing construction” as an example of the economic benefits it offers to the people. In reality, the government has begun forcibly evicting people (mostly in Ashgabat) from their homes with little or no notice to clear land for new developments – or for no stated reason. The U.S. government’s 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Turkmenistan noted the following:
“In December authorities demolished a housing complex in the middle of Ashgabat, mostly inhabited by ethnic Russian retirees. Authorities gave less than two days notice of the demolition and no compensation other than a commitment to resettle the occupants in new housing within a year. Residents were told the demolition was in order to build new residential high-rises, but trees were planted at the location instead.”
Several of the interviewees for this report explained that government demolition of homes, particularly in the capital, was a common practice. The motivation for this practice is unclear, and there are no statistics on the populations most affected by it.
Paragraph 127 of The Turkmen Report correctly states, “residence in urban and rural locations has their peculiarities, which influence the character of the functional roles of women in their occupations in the sphere of social production.” Rural women and girls face particular challenges to attaining equality. They have less access to higher education and health care, and their status in the family is not equal to that of men.
Marriage and Family Life
It may be true for some rural women that “living together in families of many generations makes the mother’s situation easier and strengthens the family relationships of the younger ones,” as the government notes in paragraph 128. However, young girls often marry through an arranged marriage, and the groom’s family often gives an expensive gift to the parents of the bride. When a bride enters her husband’s home, she is required to take over the housework of the family. Sometimes she must work to repay the expense her husband’s family paid for the gifts to her and her family. The bride is given a very low status in the household, which may not be elevated until she provides her husband with a son, if ever.
Many women in rural areas suffer from the effects of high unemployment. The transfer of land from the state to individuals discussed in Paragraphs 17 and 129 of the government report has come at a high cost to individuals. Many have had to pay bribes for land, forcing families into debt which they cannot repay. Families that are able to purchase land are challenged to obtain a living salary from other avenues, including narcotics or carpet making, and this has had a particularly negative effect on rural women. A University of London study found that, “In the wake of the increased drug use, sex work and suicides are reported to have risen markedly.” Women in rural areas identify drug use as a pervasive problem, and some have told of husbands forcing their wives to become prostitutes in order to fund their drug habits.
The government report appropriately acknowledges the hard work rural women perform for their families. This work may prevent rural women from reaching their full potential. Home based work, such as cooking, cleaning, and gardening/farming, provides them with little pay, and the work is often taught to children so the mother’s time can be spent cooking, working in the fields, or performing other work. Some children, especially girls, are routinely kept out of school to help at home. In addition, children in rural areas are forced to participate in the cotton harvest to a greater extent than children from more urban areas. During cotton season, students are kept out of school and often away from home for days at a time, sleeping in the fields and living without clean water, sanitation, or proper food.
Some girls in rural areas are unable to complete secondary education because they must work at home. As the government report notes in Paragraph 63, “The care of brothers and sisters for younger members of the family is considered a natural and important part of education, creating in turn feelings of respect and worship for women,” but it is usually girls who are assigned the care of younger siblings, keeping the caregivers out of school.
Higher education is becoming increasingly rare for rural women. As farmers struggle with a poor economic situation, most families cannot afford to send their children to a city to pursue higher education. There are no government statistics, however, to track whether rates of higher education for women from rural areas have changed in the past decade. The social pressure to marry early in life also tends to outweigh rural girls’ desires to seek higher education.
Paragraph 62 of the government report states that “International acts on the rights of women have been published in the state language and are being widely disseminated among the people.” The government’s decision to change the written Turkmen language from Cyrillic to Latin has rendered a large number of rural women illiterate because there are few, if any, programs to teach them the new alphabet. As a result, many adult women in rural areas have extremely limited access to information published in Turkmenistan in recent years.
Political Participation and Public Life
Rural women are less likely than men to participate in the political, social, and economic development of the state as a result of their immense family and household responsibilities and geographic isolation.
Access to Health Care
Rural women’s access to health care is more limited than in urban areas. Although most collective farms have at least one small health clinic, the clinics do not have emergency equipment, modern technology, or sufficient quantities of medicine. Essential supplies, such as syringes, antiseptics, first aid equipment and proper vaccine storage containers, are often absent from rural health clinics. Many clinics do not even have running water or toilets. Distances to better-equipped health care facilities are sometimes great, and rural women are may not be able to afford the cost of transportation to regional health centers, medical care, or a stay in a hospital or diagnostic center. In some areas, hospitalized patients’ families have to buy supplies such as syringes and some medicines to bring to the hospital for use. These may be harder to find in rural areas.
When a woman does see a doctor in a rural clinic, she may have to travel to a nearby city to fill a prescription. Rural families sometimes do not allow women to travel alone, even to seek medical assistance, which can prevent women from seeking treatment in a timely fashion. When rural women do travel to areas with improved health facilities, it is often too late for obtaining good treatment results.
Women in rural areas have limited access to information about reproductive health, and they have fewer options for contraception. Because reproductive health centers may be inaccessible for rural women, some give birth at home without the assistance of trained medical personnel. In rural areas, the rate of infant mortality was 79.9 per 1000 live births for 1990–2000, compared to 60.1 per 1000 live births in urban areas.
Equality Before the Law
The Constitution of Turkmenistan guarantees Turkmen citizens “judicial protection of their honor and dignity, and of their personal and political human rights and civil freedoms.” It further stipulates that “Citizens without regard to gender have the right to a judicial procedure to demand compensation for material or psychological damages which have been caused to them by the illegal actions of state bodies, other organizations, their workers, or private persons.” Paragraphs 30 to 40 of the government report state that all citizens, regardless of sex, have equal access to courts and legal recourse for violations of their rights.
In practice, interviewees report that the judicial system in Turkmenistan is characterized by a lack of independence, lack of transparency, and corruption.
The government report maintains that women are treated equally under the law and have equal access to the judicial system, but it does not provide any detailed information to illustrate those assertions. It does not provide examples of the types of cases for which women access the judicial system, the means by which they access it, or the remedies they obtain. There are no statistics regarding the nature of cases brought in various courts, so it is impossible to know how issues of concern to women, such as violence against women, are treated by the judicial system in practice. The government also fails to provide information regarding the number of women judges. Finally, the government has not provided information on training for judges on issues concerning gender equality before the law.
Paragraph 30 of the government report states that “Judges are independent, are subject only to the law, and are governed by their internal conviction. . . Judges of all courts of Turkmenistan are appointed by the President for a term of five years, and they may be discharged from their positions only under conditions that are set out in law.”
The government’s assertion that judges are “governed by their internal conviction” may help explain why women often hesitate to use the judicial system. As discussed under General Comment No.19, a study by the Helsinki Federation for Human Rights found that courts in Turkmenistan generally do not accept domestic violence as ground for divorce. Instead, judges often call for "reconciliation" between the parties. As this study illustrates, a judge’s “internal convictions,” particularly where traditional gender stereotypes are prevalent, may not serve to protect women against discrimination or violence.
An additional concern is the frequent reshuffling of judges. As is the case with most government positions, judges are appointed and dismissed by the president. The constant threat of dismissal may encourage judges to adjudicate cases based on what they perceive as the president’s desired outcome rather than on the basis of the law.
Several of the interviewees said that people in Turkmenistan generally view the judicial system with distrust because bribery often determines the outcome of a case. In addition to the lack of independence and objectivity that works against women, this system is likely to deliver results for those who can pay—men.
Turkmenistan’s Amnesty Holiday (“Gadyr Gijesi”)
Turkmenistan’s annual amnesty holiday, “Night of the Omnipotence,” may provide an additional explanation for the wide distrust of the judicial system. Each year on this holiday the president grants amnesty to the convicted. The government report does not indicate whether this applies to all people convicted of crimes or only to people in certain categories, so it is unclear whether perpetrators of violence against women are granted amnesty. If this is the case, it would be an additional disincentive to women to look to the courts for remedies for violence.
Marriage and Family Life
Turkmenistan’s “Bride Tax”
Paragraph 144 of the government report states that “the laws of Turkmenistan establish equal rights to enter into marriage for men and women.” It also states the following:
“The requirement of the inadmissibility of any direct or indirect limitation of rights,
and the establishment of direct or indirect advantages for entering into marriage are
contained in Article 4 of the Marriage and Family Code of Turkmenistan. Any
limitation of or compulsion regarding entering into marriage is punishable by law.”
In 2003, a presidential decree mandated that all foreign nationals wishing to marry Turkmen women pay a (US) $50,000 fee to the Turkmen government. Although the “bride tax” no longer exists, the status of other requirements for marriages between foreign nationals and women in Turkmenistan is unclear. In 2004, foreign nationals seeking to marry women from Turkmenistan were required to have lived in Turkmenistan for one year and own property there.
Free Entry into Marriage
Paragraph 153 of the government report states that the minimum age of marriage for individuals marrying other nationals is 16. Citizens marrying foreign nationals or persons without citizenship must be 18. (Article 16, Marriage and Family Code of Turkmenistan). The government report does not offer statistics or history on the age at marriage. This information, disaggregated by sex, is critical to an understanding of the status of women and girls. It also would be significant in view of the reduction of mandatory education from 11 to nine years.
Many families in Turkmenistan have traditionally insisted upon a bride price, called the qalin, from potential grooms. Since many Turkmen men live at or near subsistence level, the size of the qalin puts considerable economic stress on their families and limits free choice of marriage partners. Traditional families may also use the qalin to restrict their daughters’ choices of mates by charging undesirable potential grooms a bride price they cannot meet. There is no question that the qalin is a deeply entrenched custom and that change (especially from the top) is very difficult for the government to make. However, in instituting its own “bride price” (with respect to marriage to foreigners), the government has shown tacit support for this custom.
In a country struggling with a poor economy, some families seek to secure their daughters’ futures by forcing them to marry young, regardless of what the daughters may want for themselves. Entering into marriage at a young age can deny women educational opportunities and result in their having children at younger ages. Some families are reluctant to educate their daughters beyond secondary school because they fear that an institute or university education will make them undesirable in the marriage market. These types of situations can result in more women becoming trapped in marriages that they didn’t choose and confined to their homes, dependent upon male family members for financial support. This is of great particular concern given Turkmenistan’s low age of consent for marriage (16 years). At 16 years, a young woman’s “consent” may not be entirely voluntary.
Paragraph 146 of the government report states that “the equal rights of spouses in family relations are stipulated by the Constitution of Turkmenistan.” Despite the fact that polygamy has been outlawed since the Soviet period, many Turkmen men continue to practice the custom, maintaining second “wives” who have no legal status as married women. Although Article 163 of the Criminal Code now criminalizes polygamy, the government has made no effort to enforce the law or condemn the practice in any meaningful way.
Divorce and Spousal Maintenance
The government report states in Paragraph 146 that “the right to receive support from the other spouse, under conditions established by law, is maintained even after the dissolution of marriage” (Turkmen Family Code, Article 28). The government further states that, in cases of divorce, a court determines issues of custody, child support, and alimony. However, the government does not provide any information about the factors judges consider in making their decisions, what the process entails, or even which parties are involved in the process. Nor does the government provide statistics on child custody, alimony, child support, or divorce rates. State measures to enforce such decisions are also unknown.
Determining Family Size
Paragraphs 113-120 of the government report addresses issues of maternal health, networks of “Health Houses,” and reproductive health centers. As to the question of whether or not women are able to decide how many children they will have, the report states, “Spouses, and especially women, in practice resolve questions regarding the number of children in a responsible manner,” Independent sources within Turkmenistan have said that abortion rates have “skyrocketed,” with married women accounting for a large number of illegal abortions. This suggests that women have not been able to avail themselves of the family planning information and contraception that the government claims is available to them. This topic demands serious investigation, particularly as Niyazov has called for an expansion of the Turkmen population.
Property Rights in Marriage
In Paragraph 152, the Turkmen Party Report states that “property acquired by spouses during a marriage is their common property. Spouses have the same rights of ownership, including the disposal of the property.” It also says that “spouses have equal rights to property even in cases where one of them is occupied in maintaining the domestic household and in caring for children, without an independent source of income.” In practice, most families in Turkmenistan pass ownership of a house to male descendents. As a result, women who would otherwise exercise their right to divorce may feel they are unable to do so because they will be left without a home.
General Comment No. 19
Violence against Women
The Turkmen government makes no mention of domestic violence in its combined initial and second periodic report. Neither the Constitution of Turkmenistan nor the Turkmen Criminal Code directly addresses domestic violence. The government does not maintain statistics on domestic violence, but men and women from various parts of the country report it to be very common. All of the people interviewed for this report indicated that spousal abuse was a pervasive social problem. Every interviewee said that domestic violence is a common behavior, and one man even estimated the prevalence of domestic violence to be close to 100 percent. The interviews also revealed that domestic violence is not openly discussed in society and that women rarely report spousal abuse to the authorities. As one woman explained, “Abuse is normal behavior. [It is] usually not reported unless the children are also beaten.”
Women in abusive situations hesitate to report domestic violence to state authorities for several reasons. First and foremost, domestic violence is treated as a traditional model of male behavior. In some cases, particularly in rural areas, parents even instruct their sons to abuse their new wives (who often live with their in-laws) in order to make them more docile. Some mothers-in-law even justify abuse as necessary because they, too, had to endure it when they were new brides. This creates a vicious cycle that takes an enormous physical and psychological toll on women, and there are no public education campaigns to intervene.
Second, the absence of nationwide public condemnation of domestic violence has contributed to an atmosphere in which women are hesitant to report the abuse. Domestic violence is generally considered to be a private matter, and exposing problems within a family to the public is often viewed as scandalous. Therefore, a lack of sympathy for victims of domestic violence may prevent some women from seeking help.
Women also hesitate to report abuse to state authorities because of general distrust of the law enforcement and judicial systems. The interviewees did report that the police generally will investigate reports of domestic violence and that certain cases may be prosecuted. However, the interviewees also said that the extent to which crimes are investigated and prosecuted often depends on the persistence of the victim and may be influenced by the ability of the person being investigated or prosecuted to pay a bribe. Several interviewees reported that if a man pays a sufficient bribe to the authorities, he may not have to worry about being investigated or prosecuted. Additionally, one study noted that the courts do not accept domestic violence as grounds for divorce and that courts always call for "reconciliation" between the parties.
Even in cases where a person is found guilty and imprisoned for domestic violence, he may be able to decrease his sentence by paying a bribe. The president’s policy of granting amnesty to criminals each year on the holiday of "Night of Omnipotence" (Gadyr Gijesi), discussed in paragraph 46 of the government report, adds to the general distrust of the criminal justice system. On this day, by decree of the President, “amnesty is granted to the convicted.” The report does not indicate whether this applies to all people who have been convicted of a crime or only certain categories, which suggests that convicted perpetrators of violence against women may be granted amnesty as well.
An additional disincentive to report domestic violence is the lack of programs to inform women of their rights, offer them safety or shelter, assist them in court, or help them cope with trauma. Psychological counseling is generally considered to be only for “abnormal” people, and such services are not generally available outside of the capital. None of the people interviewed for this report had ever heard of any shelters for victims of domestic violence or organizations dedicated to preventing violence against women or assisting its victims.
Article 134 of the Criminal Code criminalizes rape, but the government’s treatment of rape is similar to its treatment of domestic violence. There are no nationwide efforts to educate people about the crime of rape, to inform women of their rights, or to even attempt to diminish the stigmatization that victims of rape face. There are no rape crisis centers or counseling programs devoted to helping rape victims.
The Turkmen government does not maintain statistics on rape. Although the prevalence of rape is much more difficult to estimate than domestic violence, the interviewees for this report indicated strongly that when the crime of rape is committed, its victims feel intense shame, fear being ostracized by their families and friends, and have nowhere to turn for help. As one interviewee explained, a rape victim, particularly if she comes from a traditional family, may not tell anyone about the rape because doing so could ruin her chances for marriage or cause her family to ostracize her. The same source told of an acquaintance who committed suicide after her uncle raped her because she had nowhere to turn. Other interviewees said that rape victims are often blamed for not acting or dressing modestly enough.
Reporting Violence against Women to the Authorities
Pervasive corruption and the absence of the rule of law militate against dealing effectively with violence against women. All of the women interviewed for this report knew women who were abused by their husbands or boyfriends. Few of them, however, recounted instances where women sought help from the police or prosecutions from the state. As they explained, this was due to a common understanding that bribes and political status play a significant role in enforcing the law.
Questions about the treatment of rape evoked similar responses. Many of the interviewees knew at least one woman in Turkmenistan who was raped, but none could point to any cases in which a victim reported the rape to authorities. They explained that distrust of authorities and lack of faith in government processes may prevent women from reporting rape. Cultural stigmas, of course, play a significant role in determining whether a woman reports abuse or rape to her family or to the authorities. However, this should not serve as an excuse for the government’s failure to address violence against women. If the government took a strong stance against discrimination and gender-motivated violence and guaranteed a basic level of protection, women might not feel so hesitant to go to the authorities for help.