Amy Merone from Southport reports from Tajikistan, where she is working with Christian Aid
November 12, 2010, by Jade Wright
ARRIVING in Tajikistan was like arriving into the unknown.
Nestled between Kyrgyzstan, China, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, it is a country that few people have even heard of.
Its people are living a precarious existence; a changing climate, lack of food, gender violence and poor governance makes Tajikistan one of the poorest countries in the world.
Once part of the Soviet Union Tajikistan is a country struggling to cope.
A five-year civil war that ended in 1997 killed more than 60,000 people and displaced half a million more, many seeking refuge in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Tajikistan does not look like a classically poor country at first glance. The Soviet era has left behind a superficial sense of a functioning society, but the tree lined streets of the capital, Dushanbe, mask a reality of deteriorating standards of healthcare and education and mass migration to Russia in search of work.
More than half of Tajikistan’s population live below the poverty line and a harsh and changing climate is bringing even greater threats. to this forgotten country.
Odinakhon lives in a village in the remote mountainous northern region of Tajikistan. It is a 12-hour drive from Dushanbe to Khudjand, the nearest city to her village, over the spectacular mountain range that makes Tajikistan one of the most beautiful places on earth. Yet behind its beauty, a harsh and changing climate makes this a difficult and unrelenting place to exist.
Odinakhon is supported by a local organisation; ASDP Nau, which is funded by Christian Aid.
It is a harsh existence here, with temperatures falling to -25°C, closing the roads and leaving communities trapped in their villages until springtime.
With little employment, more than one million men have left the country in search of work. It means that women like Odinakhon are left to care for their children alone.
ASDP Nau works within these communities to enable women and men to cultivate the land around them, adapt to a changing climate and generate an income to support their families and the wider community.
Women’s development centres that ASDP Nau has set up in villages across the region, provide women with skills in weaving, knitting, sewing and fruit preserving. The centres not only give the women the opportunity to produce wares during the winter months, which can then be sold at market for a profit when the roads reopen, but also provide a valuable opportunity for the women to meet together and discuss some of the social problems they experience in Tajik society.
Violence against women is of particular concern in Tajikistan. Amnesty International claims one-third to one-half of women in the country have regularly experienced physical, psychological or sexual violence by their husbands or in-laws.
Odinakhon has been part of a women’s development centre since it opened in 2003. There are 30 women in her group; working and selling their wares together.
Inspiringly, the women ensure that the needs of the community are met before dividing the income that they make between them. They provide social support and food to the most vulnerable in their community, elderly people without children, or women whose husbands are no longer alive.
“We hardly survived before,” says Odinakhon. “Now we solve our problems together and save money together. We would like to expand the centre in order to educate our children.”
Gulchehra is a volunteer in her local community in Muminabad region. She has been trained by a Christian Aid partner organisation to provide legal advice. Through her work, Gulchehra has supported communities to gain access to clean water and land to cultivate, while also providing desperately needed support to women who have been divorced by their husbands and left with nowhere to live and little means of surviving. “When I see people with problems I really feel like I should help them,” Gulchehra says. “People trust in us and we try our best.”
The work of organisations like ASDP Nau and Rights and Prosperity is desperately needed in a country as vulnerable as Tajikistan. The Soviet rule of almost 65 years has left the country unable to cope on its own.
It was a sobering visit to make. I left Tajikistan with a sense of sadness within me. It is a country that is breathtakingly beautiful and Tajiks are the most hospitable people that I have met in the world. Yet I couldn’t help but feel this is a country that has been deeply neglected by much of the world.
A friend living in Tajikistan told me: “Go home and tell everybody how wonderful this country is, but how much support is needed.” And he is right. Tajikistan is a wonderful country, but it is also a country whose house is built upon the sand and the need for our support is great.