By Rachel Ellison
High unemployment and low wages have driven many of Tajikistan's men to seek work abroad. For those who remain, mainly women, life is even tougher as Rachel Ellison found out on a trip for the World Service Trust to help train local female journalists.
We had travelled thousands of miles from London and the women journalists who greeted us were clearly intrigued by our presence in their country.
"Intrigued": Eight of Rachel Ellison's journalism students
Focusing on women's issues turned out to be an effective way of tapping into what is really going on in this corner of Central Asia.
Unofficial figures put unemployment in Tajikistan at 60% in some regions.
As a result, a million men out of a population of seven million people have left the country to find work in neighbouring Russia.
Some send money home, others never return, marrying again and starting new families with Russian women.
In rural areas, women and their elderly relatives can be seen farming the land. There are just no men of working age around.
One of our journalism trainees, Bichalicha, was often late for our seminar.
I stopped her on the stairs to ask if there was a problem.
We met doctors and teachers selling fruit and vegetables in the bazaar because their state salaries are so low
"My husband is away and I have two jobs as well as the children to look after," she replied, catching her breath.
"My husband hasn't sent any money from Russia. I don't even know when I'll next see him."
You would never know that this beautiful, educated woman, in her traditional voluminous velvet, ankle-length dress of green and gold, was struggling to hold it all together.
Bichalicha smiled warmly and added: "I just try to keep going for the children's sake."
I did not dare ask what she would do if her husband did not return.
Bichalicha is lucky to find any employment.
After independence, Russian-backed factories and aluminium treatment plants ground to a halt.
Those with professional qualifications are not faring well either.
We met doctors and teachers selling fruit and vegetables in the bazaar because their state salaries are so low.
Of the husbands who do return from Russia, plenty bring a suitcase packed full of roubles, but an increasing number of men are also carrying HIV
One of them told me: "I make $40 a month as a doctor but I can't feed my family from that. I'm forced to leave a job I love and trained hard for."
It is not as if Tajikistan can afford to let go of its high quality graduates, especially doctors.
Of the husbands who do return from Russia, plenty bring a suitcase packed full of roubles, but an increasing number of men are also carrying HIV.
Most Tajik women have little idea about HIV/Aids.
Even religious Muslim women are sometimes so desperate for money, they turn to drug trafficking and even prostitution.
Our journalism students told us story after story of women who do not know their rights and cannot enforce them even if they do. And how the shortage of men in Tajikistan means more women are marrying as second wives.
That is fine under Islamic law, but they have no protection under Tajik civil law.
Domestic violence in Tajikistan is rife.
Tajikistan is a conduit for Afghan heroin on its way to Europe via Moscow
Suicide and self-immolation rates are increasing.
"It's because women are so isolated"', explained Sachnosa, one of our students.
"If they're beaten up at home, there's nobody they can talk to. No wonder women despair, become depressed and in some cases try to take their own lives."
Our translator Tonya agreed: "There's no respect for women in Tajikistan. My sister and I were having a picnic with our children one weekend and we were attacked by a gang.
"People just stood and watched. My sister was in hospital for two months afterwards".
From Tonya's description of the men, it is likely they were on drugs.
Tajikistan is a conduit for Afghan heroin on its way to Europe via Moscow.
While some Tajiks live hand to mouth, others are making a fortune from the drugs trade.
They drive Mercedes Benz cars and live in improbably large houses decorated in Disneyland colours with electric blue roof tiles and apricot Grecian columns.
Income is not the only thing dividing Tajik society.
The clash between the old Soviet mentality and the newly emerging Islam-based Tajik culture can be just as stark.
After four weeks on the road I felt saturated with the intensity and sadness of the injustices suffered by women in Tajikistan
Every so often, a young woman's body is found drowned in the river.
"The last time it happened in my town," said Mohiston, "the girl was pregnant. I've seen it before. The boy's family won't approve the marriage or he changes his mind.
"For a woman in our society, having a baby out of wedlock brings shame on your family, your future is finished."
The former boyfriend's reputation is virtually unaffected.
After four weeks on the road I felt saturated with the intensity and sadness of the injustices suffered by women in Tajikistan.
We left our students to grapple with new concepts such as accuracy, impartiality and balance in their reporting.
While they left us with a sense that we had given them a glimpse of a world beyond their own.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 July, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.