Page last updated at 01:54 GMT, Monday, 8 March 2010

Kyrgyz women hope for equality

Unregistered marriages, bride kidnappings and an outdated registration system that denies internal migrants access to basic services - these are all problems familiar to many women in Kyrgyzstan.

On International Women's Day, five women, helped by the British Red Cross and the Kyrgyzstan Red Crescent, share their stories of hardship and hopes for equality.

Kalia (not her real name), 20, Osh region
Kalia, Photo: Claudia Janke/British Red Cross
Kalia looks after her son with no financial support from her husband (Claudia Janke/British Red Cross)

It is common practice in rural Kyrgyzstan for young couples to be married with a traditional "Nike" ceremony - a religious ritual carried out by the local mullah with no legal standing.

But this is one of the major factors contributing to the increasing vulnerability of young women in Kyrgyzstan, as the numbers of such unregistered marriages have dramatically increased since the fall of the Soviet Union when such marriages were illegal.

Kalia's marriage lasted only two months. "He beat me black and blue, not caring that I was pregnant", she says.

She was 200km (124 miles) away from her home in her husband's village with no-one to turn to. She was afraid for her unborn child's life and decided to call her parents to rescue her. Kalia gave birth at her family home. Her baby, Nurgeldy, is now eight months old.

She now lives with her elderly parents and five sisters and brothers. The only income the family has is the parents' pensions. They heat their house with coal when they can afford it.

Kalia receives no financial support from her husband because they are not registered as married and her son does not even have a birth certificate as his father refuses to give him his name.

When asked about the future, Kalia says: "When my son grows up, I will educate him to treat women as equals. When my sisters get married I hope they will be happier than me.

"Maybe I will get married again - who knows what the future holds?"

"For the moment I don't have time to think about these things. I have to work hard to survive here, but at least no-one is constantly observing me or beating me for no reason."

Salamat, 30, Osh region

(Claudia Janke/British Red Cross)

Salamat is raising her three-year-old daughter Baktygul alone because she left her husband following intense physical abuse.

She lost her second baby because of the beatings - it was born prematurely with a dented skull.

Salamat explains the reality of her marriage: "Everything started off badly. My husband was unemployed, like many other villagers, and his family survived by subsistence farming.

"My new mother-in-law ruled the family with an iron fist - she was a tyrannical woman. She was never satisfied with the work I did and often encouraged my husband to beat me.

"I had to work day and night in the family field, even when I had my newborn daughter in my arms. He would never help me."

Salamat now lives with her mother, brother and another sister, who also left her husband. They survive through subsistence farming, trading produce with other villagers.

The only income for a family of 10 is their 57-year-old mother's pension, which is 1000 soms per month ($21, £14). Most of this money goes towards the electricity bills and buying clothes and shoes for the children. The adults try not to spend anything themselves.

Salamat is not hopeful about the future: "I will not marry again because I have a child. All my friends are married and they avoid me. I don't have any free time anyway. Whenever I get a free minute, I want to sleep."

Syrga, internal migrant, Bishkek
Syrga, Photo: Claudia Janke/British Red Cross
As a migrant, Syrga cannot access basic social services (Claudia Janke/British Red Cross)

Syrga migrated to Bishkek with her husband and four children from a village high in the Tian Shan mountains. She settled in the newly created migrant village of Nijnyaya Ala-Archa on the fringes of the capital.

As a migrant, she suffers under an outdated registration system - a remnant of Soviet times - which blocks access to vital services for migrants who are not able to register for benefits in the capital.

Syrga and her children cannot access basic social services, like schools and a doctor, without paying exorbitant fees they can not afford.

The system affects about 220,000 internal migrants living in Bishkek who have to rely on others for the most basic things.

Syrga's neighbour Gulmira, for example, had to deliver her baby on her living room floor, because the medical services would not come to her assistance.

Faced with these daily struggles, Syrga, who has taken part in Red Cross educational projects, has decided to take action and mobilise her community.

"I want to motivate other women in the community to get together, take these training courses and learn about their rights. But I have to work to earn money to make it through the winter and give my children food, so it is not easy to find the time."

Gulmira, 35, Suzak region
Gulmira,Photo: Claudia Janke/British Red Cross
Gulmira worries about the increasing number of bride kidnappings (Claudia Janke/British Red Cross)

Gulmira was forced into a marriage at the age of 20. Her husband, who was also forced to marry, was in love with someone else.

Gulmira's dreams of studying at university and eventually working with children were shattered in the space of days.

"I was forced to get engaged and soon afterwards a small religious ceremony was held. The marriage was not officially registered. Suddenly I was married. I didn't even know my husband."

Gulmira worked hard to support the family while her husband studied. Shortly after moving to Bishkek, her husband began to drink and attack her violently. Because of his attacks, Gulmira's first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.

Gulmira managed to save her second pregnancy and gave birth to a daughter, Madina.

Shortly afterwards, the marriage ended. Gulmira returned to her village, where she lives with her parents and her daughter, now 15. Her husband remarried. He gives no financial support to Gulmira and Madina.

"I can't force him to help us financially because there is no legal proof that we were married. If our marriage had been registered at least I could have got alimony and social benefits but I have nothing."

She has been given a job teaching Russian in a kindergarten with the support of Red Crescent.

"One of my dreams has finally come true. I am so happy to work with children because when you are busy with them for the whole day you forget about your problems, about men, about everything."

Gulmira watches her daughter closely, as bride kidnappings - to avoid expensive wedding ceremonies or to satisfy undesirable husbands' marriage needs - are increasingly common in rural Kyrgyzstan.

"Now I teach my daughter not to repeat my mistakes. I am teaching her that we have equal rights with men."

Jamilya, community activist, Osh region
Jamilya, Photo: Claudia Janke/British Red Cross
Jamilya has high ambitions for the women of Kyrgyzstan (Claudia Janke/British Red Cross)

Jamilya knows her community inside out. "Women in every village have the same problems: unregistered marriages, bride kidnappings and domestic violence," she explains.

"The Soviet values have been destroyed but no other values have been created in their place. There is a gap in education and morality of people of a certain age and this is the gap that the Red Crescent has to fill through awareness-raising and educational training."

Jamilya has started a sewing workshop to teach vulnerable women a skill that can provide a vital income for their families. Such savings make a huge difference to mothers with many children.

Jamilya's 10-strong group has taken over an abandoned building and turned it into a bright and cheerful work space. They are not able work in the winter however, with temperatures dropping well below freezing and no means of heating the room.

Jamilya's ambitions are high, both for the sewing group and for the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan: "Our goal with the group is to grow the business so that we can eventually sell our items in Bishkek and maybe even abroad.

"At the same time, we are fighting to get the law changed, so that registered marriages are obligatory before any religious ceremony is held. This will protect our women and therefore our whole community."

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