Turkmenistan remains unsafe for women

Turkmen women in traditional clothing. Photo by Veni Markovski on Flickr. CC-BY-2.0.

Turkmenistan is the safest country for women in Central Asia, according to the Women, Peace and Security Index recently published by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Norwegian PRIO Centre for Gender, Peace and Security. Although the findings are based on data from reputable international sources, this conclusion is clearly at odds with the picture painted by reports from independent media and human rights groups and the findings of international experts.

For instance, according to survey results, one in six women in Turkmenistan has experienced domestic violence (DV) in their lifetime — and over 40 percent have experienced varying degrees of social control. Fifty-nine percent of women in Turkmenistan believe that a man has the right to beat his wife.

In addition to domestic abuse, women in Turkmenistan face state-promoted patriarchal attitudes, gender-based discrimination and wide-ranging restrictions on their fundamental rights. Far from improving since President Serdar Berdymukhamedov took office last year, the situation has only worsened for women in Turkmenistan.

Women, peace and security in the country of dictators

Turkmenistan is a Central Asian country with a population of around six million people. It is relatively unknown to most people, as it is one of the most isolated countries in the world. The country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and has since then been ruled by three different dictators surrounded by extensive personality cults. The latest two presidents are father and son, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov passed the presidency to his son Serdar Berdymukhamedov in 2022 after ruling over the country since 2006.

The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Index scores and ranks 177 countries worldwide in terms of women’s inclusion, justice, and security, measuring performance in 13 areas, using data from UN agencies, the World Bank, the Gallup World Poll and other sources. Turkmenistan is ranked 58th. Kazakhstan is ranked 70th, Tajikistan, 90th, Uzbekistan, 94th, and Kyrgyzstan, 95th.

According to the WPS, Turkmenistan is the worst country in Central Asia and Central and Eastern Europe in relation to women’s access to justice. Turkmenistan also performs worst in its group on financial inclusion of women. But the country scored better in other areas: it was ranked highest in its group for women’s perception of community safety, measuring the percentage of women who stated that they feel safe walking alone at night in the area where they live. With regards to the intimate partner violence, measured as the percentage of women who had experienced recent physical or sexual violence committed by a partner, Turkmenistan scored second worst in Central Asia, with 7.2 percent, compared to 6 percent for Kazakhstan.

Violations of women’s rights

While Turkmenistan ended up with the highest overall WPS score among the Central Asian countries, the situation for women there remains bleak. As the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) documented in a recent report, the Turkmenistani authorities have not only failed to counteract discriminatory gender stereotypes and negative practices but have actively promoted them. Hopes of improvements following the transfer of presidential powers from the father were dashed by the launch of a new campaign policing women’s appearance in the name of safeguarding national traditions and values.

For example, according to information obtained by TIHR and other independent sources, female employees of state agencies and students were ordered to wear national-style dresses and not to use heavy make-up, dye their hair or use beauty services, under threat of repercussions. There are also reports of arbitrary detentions of women accused of using beauty services and even of police raids on beauty salons.

Women also face gender-based discrimination in accessing state services, and encounter serious obstacles in obtaining or renewing their driver’s licenses. Some of these particular concerns were highlighted on November 6, when Turkmenistan's human rights record was assessed during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. The UPR is a state peer review process coordinated by the UN Human Rights Council. During that review, Turkmenistan got a series of recommendations on improving women's rights.

At the same time, the protracted economic crisis in the country has badly affected women across the country, meaning that they have to spend hours queuing for rationed food products. This has occasionally resulted in spontaneous protests, which the authorities quickly suppress. The public sector workforce in Turkmenistan is predominantly female, and therefore women are disproportionately affected by repressive state practices towards public sector employees, such as forced mobilization for the annual cotton harvest or state-organized mass propaganda events.

Widespread domestic violence

One in every six women experienced violence from their current or former partner, according to the first-ever national survey of domestic violence in 2020. The study was conducted by the Turkmenistani authorities and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The violence was shown to be worse in the Lebap (northeast) and Dashoguz (north) regions. Over 13 percent of women reported experiencing economic violence from their partner, which included restrictions on access to money.

The survey showed that controlling behavior by husbands/partners toward women is a widespread problem. Over 40 percent of women reported experiencing some form of social control. Twenty-two percent reported experiencing restrictions on when they can leave the house, and almost 21 percent stated they are not allowed to work or study outside their home. The survey demonstrated that this controlling behavior goes hand in hand with domestic violence, with almost one in five respondents saying that they thought it was justified for husbands to beat their wives if they leave the home without their husband’s permission.

Moreover, underreporting of domestic violence is a serious problem, as women survivors face social pressure not to “dishonor the family” by reporting their abuse. Less than 12 percent of the women survivors of domestic violence interviewed had turned to the police or other institutions for help, with such fears and societal pressure being cited as major reasons for remaining silent. Women are likely to underreport abuse, meaning that domestic violence may be more widespread than the survey shows.

In January and February 2024, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination (CEDAW) will review Turkmenistan’s women’s rights record. In the list of questions addressed to the authorities ahead of this review, the committee asked them to explain “the imposition of dress and appearance codes and other discriminatory practices” in an atmosphere “further enforced by the active policing and control of women’s behaviour”. They will also inquire about measures taken “to dismantle the patriarchal attitudes that are at the root of gender-based violence against women” and to criminalize domestic violence, a step which the country has not yet taken.

As for Turkmenistan being safe for women to walk alone at night — it should be noted that Turkmenistan was flanked in the WPS by countries such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and China, which have a similarly extensive state security apparatus. While heavy policing might help women feel safer on the streets in Turkmenistan, that same apparatus is also used to suppress women’s rights to a point where, as the famous YouTuber Ilya Varlamov says, they live almost “without rights.”

Here is a YouTube video about women's rights violations in Turkmenistan.

While the current patriarchal patterns and rights violations persist, there is no space to meaningfully discuss Turkmenistan being safe for women.

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