Tajik women face divorce epidemic

Gulhumor and her youngest daughter Gulhumor (in blue) had to move back in with her parents after her divorce

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Growing numbers of Tajik women are being divorced by husbands working away in Russia, leading to serious social issues, reports the BBC's Rayhan Demytrie from Tajikistan.

"When I moved back here, my youngest daughter was only four. Now she is eight years old," says Gulhumor, 33, as she binds dry twigs to make a broom for sweeping the courtyard of her parents' house.

Her hard life has aged her early.

Gulhumor shares one room with her four daughters. Two of her brothers and their families also live here - they still reproach her for bringing so many "hungry mouths" into the cramped house.

But Gulhumor had nowhere else to go after her husband of 12 years divorced her.

"My husband works in Russia, he would come home for a couple of months and then leave again for a year or two. The money he sent went straight to his parents. He divorced me over the phone," she said.

Start Quote

The psycho-social impact is so severe, girls become withdrawn and depressed - in boys the absence of a father causes aggression”

End Quote Arthur van Diesen Unicef
Quick divorce

Tajikistan is among the few Muslim nations where men can divorce their wives by repeating the word "taloq" - divorce - three times. They can do it face to face, over the phone, or simply by sending an SMS text.

Even though the State Religious Affairs Committee outlawed the practice last year, it is still commonplace.

In Gulhumor's village in the southern Tajik region of Khatlon, many women share similar problems.

Zaynab, 23, was married for just over a month before her husband, also a migrant worker in Russia, divorced her.

She sought help from the local NGO Khamroz, which provided legal help to sue for her dowry that her in-laws did not want to return.

This NGO also helped Gulhumor fight for alimony from her ex-husband.

"In every village there are plenty of women who have been abandoned by their migrant-worker husbands. We are trying to help to chase the men in Russia, but it does not always work," said Gulmira Abdujaborova from Khamroz.

"The main problem for the abandoned wives is the lack of housing. Ex-husbands don't pay alimony, which means women have no money to feed their children. Bringing up their children as a single parent is also not easy."

Tajikistan is a poor country. Jobs options are limited and the ones that exist do not pay well.

Over one million Tajiks - a third of the adult population - have left to find work in Russia. The money they send home accounts for nearly half of the country's GDP.

But more and more men are choosing not to return home.

'Vulnerable' family
Cotton pickers in Tajikistan Women in Tajikistan are paid less than 10 US cents per kilo of cotton picked

Official statistics show that the divorce rate has gone up 14.3% this year alone.

Observers say however that the real number could be higher, as many marriages and divorces are not officially registered. Instead people, particularly in rural parts of the country, marry or get divorced according to Islamic rituals.

For Gulhumor and other women in rural Tajikistan, picking cotton is one of the few ways to earn cash. They are paid 30 diram ($0.06; £0.04) per kilo.

With the help of her children on a good day, Gulhumor can pick 150kg (330lbs) of cotton, earning just over $10.

Child labour is officially illegal in Tajikistan, but a UN Children's Fund study found that children abandoned by their fathers had little choice but to work.

"If the parent disappears and stops providing support, obviously the family becomes very vulnerable," said Arthur van Diesen, deputy representative of Unicef in Tajikistan.

"[There are] all sorts of negative impact on children - they drop out of school, work at the very early age. The psycho-social impact is so severe, girls become withdrawn and depressed. In boys, the absence of a father causes aggression."

Stressed orphans
Girls at Orphanage No. 1 in Dushanbe Some Tajik parents working in Russia have left their children at orphanages

And in some extreme cases, migrant parents leave their children in institutions.

In Orphanage No. 1 in the capital Dushanbe, a group of children aged between two and four sit on benches in the garden. When they see cameras and microphones, they become excited and jump around us.

Some of the children ended up here because their parents have gone to Russia.

"We know from our experience when a parent brings a child and says it's temporary, we know that they are unlikely to be back," said Dr Nazira Muhamadjonova from the Kishti rehabilitation centre at the orphanage.

"There is one boy that we all like very much. His name is Aliakbar, he is blind. His mother is in Russia earning money. When she came to visit him recently, the boy was so stressed. I was shocked to see such a little boy being withdrawn and depressed when his mother left him again."

Back in Gulhumor's house, her eldest daughter Tamanno is spinning the wheel of her most valued asset - her sewing machine.

She uses it to make clothes for her sisters. She is 14 and very shy.

When asked what her dream was, she says it is to have a house where her mother can live happily.

Labour migration is helping to keep Tajikistan's economy afloat, but the social cost is high, and the most vulnerable are paying the price.

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