By Valentina Kasymbekova in Dushanbe (WP No. 4, 30-Jun-05)
For the past decade, the number of girls attending school in Tajikistan has been steadily decreasing, with civil war, poverty, and a return to traditional Islamic values causing the gender divide in education to widen into a chasm.
According to figures from the Tajik education ministry, in the 2004-2005 school year there were four, eight and 20 per cent more boys than girls at primary, middle and senior schools respectively. By the time pupils reached university level, young women made up just under a quarter of the undergraduate population.
This is a far cry from the Soviet era, during which the education of women was seen as a priority. Beginning in the Thirties, women abandoned traditional dress and customs and joined the workforce in record numbers. Before long, they were prominent in all spheres, including science, business, education and administration.
Nazar Turdyev, an 80-year-old teacher from the Vakhsh region of southern Tajikistan, told IWPR that in the Sixties there was a strict requirement that all children attend school, and that teachers were forced to ensure, under threat of punishment, that girls turned up.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 signalled a return to patriarchal customs and traditions, to the extent that during the 1992-97 civil war that followed Tajikistan's independence there were several documented cases of women being murdered for refusing to adhere to the laws of Islam. Women were once more relegated to childbearing and homemaking.
Davron Karimov, a Dushanbe resident from a mountain village in eastern Tajikistan, sums up current male attitudes towards women.
"My wife graduated from secondary school in the Soviet era, and since then she has never picked up a book, and has worked in the home. We have 11 children, six of them girls. Why waste money on their study if they are just going to get married?
"Two to three years' schooling are enough to be able to read and write, there is a lot of work in the home and their younger brothers need to be looked after. Education won't give them anything in life. Educated wives demand a lot from their husbands."
The civil war did enormous damage to the education sector. It is estimated that one-fifth of the country's schools were destroyed, while hundreds of teachers went abroad and tens of thousands more switched profession. According to the education ministry, schools need at least 10,000 more teachers to do an adequate job.
But even if they did, substantial numbers of children would still not be going to school because parents are so poor that they require their sons and daughters to work -- the latter often forced to go without the most basic education.
Dushanbe resident Rakhima Kadyrova worked as a nurse during the Soviet era, and together with her husband she was able to provide for her five children. Widowed in the civil war, she was left in poverty, with a salary of only two US dollars a month. She had four school-age children, and the expenses for just one child came to around five dollars a month. So her elder daughters stopped going to school, while her sons continue to study.
"I try to give my two sons an education in economics so that they can work in a bank or at a rich firm that pays well. But why should my daughters study - their husbands will probably insist on them being housewives," she said.
Rakhima's decision has not gone down well with one of her daughters, Munira. "I'm 17-years-old and I want to study and become a lawyer," she said. "Now I am being forced to marry. Why does my mother decide my fate?"
According to UNICEF, far more girls stay away from school in Dushanbe than in rural areas. In an attempt to combat this, many teachers file complaints against parents of absent daughters with the prosecutor general's office. At one district court in the capital, more than 20 such cases were examined in 2004, while seven have been submitted during the first three months of 2005.
In general, parents take children out of school at around the age of 12, sending them off to work to support the family, especially if they're girls, said one judge.
Even those girls fortunate to get a basic education and then go off to university will not reap the benefits. Female undergraduates tend to study subjects like health and education, but the best-paid jobs are in law and finance.
The obstacles and prejudices women face exist despite Tajikistan being one of the first members of the Commonwealth of Independent States to ratify international declarations safeguarding women's rights. Indeed, its constitution and national laws guarantee all its citizens, regardless of gender, equal rights to education.
Universities are bound by the state to accept women from rural areas without them having to take entrance exams. In addition, female students receive bigger grants than their male counterparts and are entitled to free meals and accommodation.
Nearly two thousand women took advantage of these benefits between 1997 and 2000 -- not enough though to make a significant difference in female representation in higher education.
One of the problems is that while the benefits offered to women seem good on paper, in reality they're not quite what they're cracked up to be.
Malokhat Boeva, a former student from Kulyab, said that she was put in a cold dormitory and her grant wasn't enough to meet her basic living costs. In her first winter at college, her widowed mother could not afford to buy her warm clothes.
Malokhat eventually abandoned her studies and got a job. She says she cannot even dream of going back to university because higher education is only possible if you have money.
International officials are urging the Tajik authorities to arrest the decline in the number of females passing through the education system.
Bibikhojal Rakhimova, UNICEF representative for the northern Sogd region, told IWPR, " An ignorant mother means ignorant children in the future, which will lead to a degradation of society and a decline in its moral principles."
Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR correspondent in Dushanbe.