In late December, Turkmenistan is due to submit a regular report to the United Nations on how it is meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW. Experts on women’s rights say the reality is a long way from the appearance of equality the country presents.
As well as ratifying CEDAW in 1996, Turkmenistan has a constitution and legislation that guarantee equal rights for both men and women and prohibits discrimination. Women occupy many jobs in healthcare, education and other state institutions, and hold a fifth of the seats in parliament. There are also a number of women’s organisations, although none is independent of the authorities.
In 2008, the UN working group that conducts periodic reviews of CEDAW implementation expressed concern that Turkmenistan failed to grasp the need to act against violence against women, noting that national legislations contained no preventive or protective measures.
Commentators in the country say little has changed in the last two years, and that women’s roles are circumscribed by patriarchal tradition.
"For all the laws, we always respect and obey men," a middle-aged female civil servant admitted. "That’s what my parents taught me."
Tadjigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Human Rights Foundation based in Bulgaria, says such attitudes are common – girls are brought up to be obedient to their elders, to their father and brother, and later on their husbands and their brothers.
"This is still the common, accepted practice," she said. "A modern Turkmen woman may be less inhibited, and may sometimes answer back, but only verbally; in fact has no rights even with regard to her own children. The father’s side of the family still more rights to the child than she does."
A foreign tourist who visited the capital Ashgabat recently visiting was surprised to see women doing manual labour with men overseeing them.
"Women wearing headscarves and orange uniforms were planting trees, while men in suits were supervising them, and shouting at them to get them to clear away rubbish, which the women carried away on large sacks over their shoulders, bent by the weight of it," he said.
Women are exploited at work even more outside urban centres. According to a commentator in the centrally-located Ahal region, women work in the cotton fields, run the household, milk the cows, prepare meals, and take care of the children.
“Women are exploited as much as they were before,” he said. "In the villages, a Turkmen woman has no right to sit at the same table as guests. She cannot even serve the meal – her children do that. If you look into her room to thank her for the meal, you will see that she and her children only have bread, green tea and sugar, while her husband eats meat and vegetables."
No figures for the incidence of domestic violence are made public in Turkmenistan, but local observers say it is common. According to one, "Domestic violence occurs in many Turkmen families on a daily basis. Assaults on women, coercive sex and slave labour are fairly widespread. Men force their wives to work at home, for example weaving carpets for sale to maintain the family."
A local activist recalled two cases where women went to the police – in one, the husband was beat the wife every day, while in the other case, the father-in-law raped the woman repeatedly.
"The police would not accept complaints from the women, considering it a family matter,” the activist said.
Women’s rights defenders would like to see a network of crisis centres, hotlines and projects, similar to the hotline project which the OSCE sponsored in Ashgabat to provide free counselling to victims of domestic violence.
The official position is that there are no problems with women’s rights. A local government officer said, “Westerners may believe the rights of our women are not protected, but we don’t see it like that. This is how it’s always been in the east."
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.