Tajikistan: Teenage Girls Dropping Out of School

Increasing numbers of girls are missing out on an education as “tradition” dictates they don’t need it.

By Anora Sarkorova and Aslibegim Manzarshoeva in Dushanbe (RCA No. 481, 02-Feb-07)

Economic problems and the eroding value of education for women have left increasing numbers of girls in Tajikistan illiterate with no employment opportunities outside the home.

"Tajik society with its traditional beliefs risks a massive decline in intellectual development in the near future,” warns political analyst Manuchehra Jumakhonova.

“The Tajik government and international non-government groups need to think about this problem seriously, from both the economic and social perspectives."

According to Tajik education ministry figures, the number of girls aged 16 to 17 attending the final two school years has dropped by 12 per cent since 1991, and the figure for the preceding four years has also fallen.

Education minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov, however, argues that overall, 98 per cent of girls do go to school.

Although the government makes efforts to improve the status of women, it stops short of intervening in the way families deal with their daughters.

In the Soviet period, girls were required to attend school, and women were encouraged to go on to higher education and work outside the home. However, since 1991, poverty, high unemployment, and the return of older social values have increased the pressure on women to marry as early as possible, especially in rural communities.

Traditionally, a girl’s father looks after her until she gets married, when the responsibility passes to her husband. Once she has left the family home, her parents may be very reluctant to take her back if she has problems with her husband.

One reason for keeping girls out of school is that educated women are seen by some as unattractive marriage material – they are less likely to assume the submissive role they are expected to assume towards the husband’s entire family.

When Sarvinoz, now 19, from the village of Nimich in the Rasht valley in Tajikistan’s eastern mountains, got married three years ago her new family was pleased that she had never been to school.

However, her lack of education is now something of a disadvantage, since her husband has left her for another woman, and her only chance of gaining financial security is to remarry.

“I don't know what will happen now. I can only marry a widower or someone who has been married before," she said. “My parents told me I didn't need to study, and that the most important thing for a girl is to marry well and at the right time. All I can do is tidy the house and cook. I can’t even sew.”

Although most parents who take their daughters out of school plead poverty, and this is undoubtedly a factor, the fact that sons from similar backgrounds are allowed to continue on to higher education shows the differing expectations attached to each sex.

The influence of Islam has strengthened since the end of Soviet rule, and many local clerics perpetuate the traditional view that women’s place is in the home.

At a mosque on the outskirts of the capital Dushanbe, a cleric leading Friday prayers calls on worshippers to stop their daughters going to school, warning that they will be depraved by teachers who force them to remove headscarves and wear European-style clothing. In Tajikistan, women commonly wear traditional costume including a headscarf, which is not necessarily a symbol of particularly strong faith.

Zamon Alifbekov, an advisor to the education minister, told IWPR that in fact schools allow pupils to wear whatever they want, including head coverings. “We don't force anyone to wear any [particular] thing,” he said.

Negmatullo Suhbatov, rector of the Islamic University in Dushanbe, was dismissive of clerics who try to bar women from education.

“Semi-literate mullahs who only know the Arabic alphabet and have studied a few [of the religion’s] tenets say that women shouldn’t have an education and should merely serve their husbands,”he said. “Contrary to the popular view, Islam in fact accords a high position to women.”

He concluded, “The Islamic scholars say teach a man and you educate one person, but teach a woman and you educate a nation.”

But regardless of how people view women’s moral right to education, some parents see it as a pointless and unnecessary luxury since they believe their daughters will go straight from their home to the husband’s and will never have to seek formal employment.

The Rasht valley, where Sarvinoz lives, is an underdeveloped part of the country, and suffered badly in the 1992-97 civil war as a stronghold of the opposition Islamic forces. This is the kind of place where girls are commonly discouraged from going to school – much more so than in urban areas, and even some other rural areas such as Badakhshan where educated women enjoy higher status.

Last year teachers in the Rasht valley started compiling lists to determine exactly how many children were dropping out of school, and why. There are far fewer girls than boys, especially in the higher years.

In the valley, schoolteacher Nigina has come up with a scheme to encourage parents to let girls attend school. She goes from house to house promising they will be taught sewing, among other things. “We tell them there are sewing machines in school, and then they aren’t opposed to it,” she said.

Since the expectation in rural areas is that women will be married by the age of 20, many decide not to complete a university course in case that reduces their chances.

“All the girls my age got married when they were 17 or 18, but I was 20 and still studying,” said Zamira Nazirova, now 22. “I was ashamed when people would come round asking when I’d finally get married.

“I decided to get married first, and then continue my studies. The way it turned out, my husband preferred me to stay and study at home - but not go anywhere”.

The Tajik government tries to encourage women to go on to higher education, and for example has a scheme where nearly 500 female students were enrolled in universities this academic year, even though they lacked the qualifications required for entrance.

But going to university involves the high cost of living in a city, and job prospects afterwards are particularly uncertain for women.

Mavluda, 19, comes from Vahdat, 30 kilometres from Dushanbe, and would like to attend university - but cannot afford the fees or living costs.

“If you don’t have money they won't accept you anywhere," she said.

Her parents are now looking out for a likely husband.

The rapid fall in female educational attainment in Tajikistan is affecting the labour market, especially the professions. Kimatgul Aliberdieva, a gender expert in Dushanbe, warned, "We should be raising the alarm now, because in 20 or 30 years’ time there won’t be any women left at all in the professions - law, engineering and teaching – where men dominate even now."

Anora Sarkorova is a BBC correspondent and Asilbegim Manzarshoeva an IWPR contributor, both in Dushanbe.

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