Ζενωθνΰ Ολώρ...
  N 4, 2002

Social customs or human rights?

Boris Panteleyev
Research officer of NII of the Office of Public Prosecutor of RF,
Councilor of Justice

    In summer of 2002 the international conference "Gender and the youth", organized with participation of Institute "Open society" - Soros Fund (Uzbekistan), was held in Bukhara. Women and men conferees from various regions of Uzbekistan and from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Ukraine attended the conference. With all variety of national cultures and life conditions of the former USSR republics the tendencies of modern public development of these now independent states have much in common. In particular, considering questions of the social status of women the conferees revealed the main tension lines: revision of the present standards and lowering in protection of women's rights, offensive on the part of religious dogmas and feminization of poverty.

I visit the Republic of Uzbekistan not for the first time. In the year of 2001 in conformity of gender program ABA CEELI* we delivered lectures for judges and prosecutors in Kokand and in Tashkent, prevention of home violence as the main subject. My former experience of work as prosecutor and judge in the Republic of Tatarstan allowed me to speak common language with officers of law-enforcement institutions of Uzbekistan: I was interested to estimate the juridical system of Uzbekistan and, using this experience, to put forward some proposals on improvement of the Russian legislation.

What is my first impression of today's Uzbekistan? The streets are full with modern cars of local assemblage; bazaars attract attention by noisy eastern abundance. You ca feel that the Uzbekistan society is in development. But upon attentive consideration it appears that the vector of this movement is not always directed towards progress. It is more obvious upon analysis of the modern real social status of woman in the Uzbek society. According to statistics women total more than half of the society (51%); every second woman is at reproduction age.

The conferees in Bukhara talked about many subjects, furiously and with interest, sometimes too passionately. Many speakers revealed a huge gap between official standards of women rights and everyday life reality, especially in distant regions of the country. Sometimes women do not see any way out from the vicious circle of humiliation and violence and choose a terrible lot of self-immolation.

Time and again the question of necessity of improvement of legislation and passing special law against home violence was raised. In this connection I recall a Chinese tale: one monk guided a group of people in mountains and suddenly stopped. The travelers asked him: "What is the matter?" and he answered: "We walk too fast, our soul cannot be in time to follow us". Don't we trust too much in law, which we really badly need, but which cannot be ahead of perception of the problem by the society?

According to the Constitution the state power in the Republic of Uzbekistan, as in any civilized state, carries out its activity in interests of the people and, consequently, performs as a guarantor of human rights and freedoms and follows generally accepted norms of international law. It stipulates that in Uzbekistan women can enjoy full rights in participation of political, economic, social, cultural and other spheres of public life. The basic law includes a number of provisions stipulating protection of equality of women. Article 18 forbids any forms of discrimination in favor or against religion or nationality. Article 17 provides the voting right and the right to be elected in the bodies of government or public administration of any level.

In accordance with law the state patronizes family, motherhood and childhood. Constitution attaches great importance to family relations and duties. Appropriate articles, stipulating protection of principal rights and freedoms of women, are included in Civil Code, Labor Code, Legislation on protection of labor and motherhood of Uzbekistan and Criminal Code. Moreover, rights of women are fixed in more than 70 legislative acts of Uzbekistan. Above mentioned laws and codes do not include anything contrary to UN Convention on liquidation of any forms of discrimination towards women, which the Republic of Uzbekistan signed in 1995. (I should note, however, that above said fact, confirming adherence of Uzbekistan government to the idea of equal rights for women, is not adequately reflected in the national legislation, which lacks even term "discrimination towards women". Special law on equal possibilities for men and women also does not exist yet.)

Many problems are complicated because of legal illiteracy of Uzbek women, especially in the questions of reproductive health and reproductive rights. It is confirmed by the results of investigation, made by the World Health Protection Organization in Central Asia. The data proves that only 10% of women at reproduction age have idea of their reproduction rights. In real life Uzbek woman until today is not master of her own destiny since she cannot even decide on her own whether to have children or not and how many of them.

At the same time, Article 16 of Convention on liquidation of any forms of discrimination towards women quite definitely determines that "on the basis of equality of men and women state-participants should provide equal rights for them both to solve freely and on own responsibility the number of children and periods between their birth and to have access to information and education, as well as to the means, which provide realization of this right."

Right of citizens to receive true information on factors, affecting the health, which is fixed in Article 15 of the law of Republic of Uzbekistan "On protection of health of the citizens", also can be considered as a formal guarantee of providing woman's right on reproductive health. However, the detailed study of the law proves that, unfortunately, it lacks real mechanism of realization of appropriate rights and guarantees.

According to admission of lawmakers this normative act is only a declaration of citizens' right on health protection, though the principal law should directly influence real life processes and stimulate their progressive reorganization.

Dilfuza Goulyamova, member of committee of Ombudsmen Ollie Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan, believes that both earlier and nowadays legal regulations in this field mostly consist of departmental normative acts: orders, instructions, methodical recommendations, which are issued for service use and are almost inaccessible for the population. It is difficult to draw a conclusion, which is to blame, though representatives of power admit defects in enlightenment of Uzbek women.

It is very indicative that only about 10 out of 67 ratified international legal documents are translated in official language. In particular, Beijing Declaration and Platform of Actions (September 1995) are not translated. We cannot insist that it was done on purpose, but even unintentional retardation hampers development of the society and sometimes is repaid with tragic destinies of concrete people.

Despite formally equal rights, women of Uzbekistan even more than 10 years ago experience burden of restrictions, introduced by the society, in particular, religious prejudice, traditional social regulations and negative gender stereotypes.

Some experts insist that it is stimulated by orientation of "undeclared policy" of the Government of Uzbekistan, voluntarily or not assisting the restoration of feudal patriarchal regulations and attitude towards women. Under the guise of old Uzbek traditions quite inhuman forms of attitude towards women are imposed on the society. For example, today greeting bows of a bride to all wedding guests become fashionable. Practically it means that during three days of the wedding a bride, a 14-15 year old girl, instead of enjoying company of her bridegroom, has to stay at the entrance of his house and to bow down to the ground to everybody, who enters the house. The old people watch very attentively whether the bride is amiable enough and, in case of unqualified fulfillment of the ritual, make nasty insulting remarks. It is quite clear what will be the consequences of this long "activity", especially if the woman is already pregnant.

The old tradition of embroidering "susanet" - bride bed cover, which preparation takes three years, - also comes into fashion. Every day, beginning from the age of 9, a girl should cover a huge white bed sheet with thread tracery, thus expressing her obedience and demonstrating her readiness for marriage. When the susanet is ready and the girl is already 12 years old it is considered that she is ready for family life.

It is considered a good form for an Uzbek man to have at least two wives. The second wife is called "kundash", she is aware of the other family. She has rights to demand only equal approach to her, but she cannot change the situation in the whole.

Any Uzbek woman, if she tries to meet the requirements, made by public morals, should fulfil duties, hardly compatible with each other. First, she has to be the principal worker in housekeeping and fulfil the heaviest works almost all day round: at 4 in the morning the yard should be thoroughly watered, cattle and livestock fed up, food for all the family prepared. Husband relatives watch it closely. Second, following an old proverb "Family without children is a graveyard", wife should persistently bring children, it is advisable boys. Lack of children or birth of two daughters one after another are considered a good reason for divorce or for a parallel marriage.

Most obviously discrimination becomes apparent in spreading of violence towards women. The report of Human Rights Watch, published in New York on July 10, 2001, in particular insists that Uzbekistan authorities do not keep statistics of petitions about home violence. "Due to absence of information on the number of petitions, handed in to the police and to local administration, - the document notes, - it is difficult to estimate the scope of problem even approximately". Further the report draws attention to the following illustrations as in the mirror reflecting painful picture of real social status of women in Uzbekistan. Results of questioning of a wide range of scientists-sociologists, officials, victims, activists of woman's NGO give proves to consider that violence towards woman in family is everyday practice. For example, according to investigation of one of the state institutes, made by the end of ninetieth, more than 60 % of women considered home violence a normal situation.

"From conversations with representatives of local authorities we have an impression that preparation of the youth for family life is based on idea that a woman is guilty in any family conflict", - is noted by the authors of the report.

The authors make the following principal remarks: traditional notions, that the main things for woman are obedience and submission, stimulate formulating of accusation approach towards woman and create atmosphere of impunity for the guilty in case of violence in family. Mass media pays a considerable attention to family life, popularizing positive examples, but concealing rather often facts of self-immolation of women in protest against unbearable life conditions.

Taking into account considerable control of mass media on the part of the state, there is no doubts that information on the questions of family and women is given under influence of certain policy. As Human Rights Watch report states "Mass media of Uzbekistan in general avoid any "negative" information, that's why it is no wonder that the problem of family violence is not pictured fairly".

According to the result of the analysis, made by representatives of organization "Defenders of rights of Minnesota" in 2001, this phenomena is a concealed one. As American researchers note the legislation of Uzbekistan does not stipulate any legal norms, forbidding home violence. Defenders of rights clarified that the structure of family worsens the secondary status of woman. People support the opinion: "Man is a head of family and woman's status practically is reduced to slavery".

Despite absence in Uzbekistan of the state or any other system of monitoring of dynamics of violence towards women, certain selective data of statistics prove spreading out of this type of violence there. For example, according to information from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan in 1995 2540 families were registered as "bad relations families" and in 1998 this number amounted to 3128 ones. In the year of 2000, as UN Committee on liquidation of all forms of discrimination towards women reported, only 520 cases of rape were registered in Uzbekistan. Even taking into account the high latency of this type of crime, this figure should be considered unreal low. The cases of this category are not registered for fear of the victims to be blamed by conservative society.

The results of public opinion questioning testify that violence towards women is widespread in Uzbekistan. The investigation, made by NGO "Izhtimoy fikr" in the year of 2000 using the method of occasional national selection (1575 responders comprising 54.0% of women and 46.0% of men), included, in particular, the question: "Are there any cases of physical violence towards women in the life of society and where do you come across these cases?" According to opinion of 43.3% of responders these facts are rather often. Answering the second part of the question, the responders mention public places (18.7%), family (9.5%) and work (7.9%) as spheres of life where violence towards women is more often.

It is quite indicative that a considerable number of responders do not deny facts of violence towards women, but consider them to be rare. 32.6% of responders answered that one could come across violence towards women in the streets, in public transport or in public places, but rather seldom. 30.2% of them marked that one could meet the similar facts at work. More than every forth (28.4%) did not deny family violence. Every fifth (20.7%) admitted that rare cases of violence towards women could be met with at makhalla (community in the place of living).

As the main reason for violence towards women people mention traditional stereotypes, egotism of men, their wish of domination over women. The majority of responders (74.5%) fairly consider that violence towards women on the part of her father or husband is brutal violation of human rights.

At the same time, sizable part of responders (almost every fifth or 18.7%) do not consider violence towards women as violation of human rights. It is quite indicative that every second one sticks to opinion that woman should be afraid of her husband otherwise there is no order in family: "If husband does not beat his wife she will be unfaithful to him and a girl can become a prostitute". This opinion is shared by 46% of responders.

Moreover, there are followers of the idea that "wife is a property of husband and he has right to do with her whatever he wants". These responders are not numerous (4.2%) but they testify the presence of ground for gender violence.

Thus, the real reasons for wide spreading of violence and discrimination are not due to defects and disadvantages of this or that legal system, but due to elements of repressive, patriarchal thinking in the public conscience.

Comprehension of these phenomena, taking Uzbekistan as an example, in our opinion should be closely connected with realization of tasks on prevention of violence towards Russian women. Ways to solve the problem are also similar for all countries of the former Soviet Union. In this respect we completely agree with Uzbek experts that wide spread in the society of provisions of the Convention on liquidation of all forms of discrimination towards women is of great significance.

Also we consider as very convincing the idea that questions of equality between men and women will find concrete solutions only when they become important and pressing affair for men-politicians and state figures.

Conferees in Bukhara came to following conclusions: to solve the set tasks it is necessary, first of all, to adopt a state program of radical improvement of woman's status in Uzbekistan, which should be preceded by working out a concept, defining general stratagem and priorities in gender policy of the state. Effective mechanisms of investigation and punishment for violations of woman's rights and system of continual training for officers of law-enforcement bodies and courts should be created. Besides, it is important to provide material support for a complex of measures, directed at prevention of violence towards women, which should become one of the priorities of above mentioned program.

Surely, it is necessary to obtain democratization of power and administration to draw wide masses of women in public political and administrative activity. But for all that the state should liquidate potential legal basis of discrimination, using continual gender expertise of the present civil, criminal and labor legislation, and should give prompt legal estimation to various discrimination draft laws, such as "About polygamy" etc.

No doubt, it is necessary to use more effectively state and private mass media in realization of constitutional guarantees of equality between men and women.

And at last, I would like to draw attention to the role of non-governmental organizations and mass media in transformation of notions of civil, public and family functions of women in the society, rise of their legal and political culture, which may lead to realization and real use by women of their rights.

*Project CEELI - Central and East Europe Initiative- is carried out by American Bar Association - ABA.