Women's rights activists in Tajikistan are exasperated at the failure to pass a law on domestic violence after many years of lobbying.
While the criminal code outlaws physical assault and injury in general, experts say the absence of specific protections and penalties for violence in the home undermines efforts to support victims.
Sections of the administration appear reluctant to take resolute action, perhaps because the family domain is traditionally seen as a very private sphere in Tajikistan, and not something the state should be meddling in.
The bill was drafted by the government's Committee for Women's and Family Affairs as long ago as 2003. Five years later, a coordinating council was set up to assist its progress, drawing in all the groups involved in it.
A member of this working group, Guljahon Bobosadikova, who heads the Association of Women with Higher Education, said all government ministries approved the bill in 2008, apart from the justice ministry, so that it never made it into parliament.
The justice ministry objected on two counts – first, that there was no funding for resources like crisis centres and shelters envisaged in the law, and second, that there was some duplication with existing laws.
Jonibek Kholikzoda, who heads the ministry's office for new legislation, told IWPR that if these issues were resolved, there would be no further objections.
He said the government-run women's affairs committee had never responded to a report his ministry sent concerning problems with the draft law.
Bobosadikova said she had raised the issue of the blocked bill at the highest level, and that in response, President Imomali Rahmon instructed the state secretary for legal affairs earlier this year to sort out any problems.
But nine months later, nothing has happened, she said.
Raising public awareness of domestic violence and improving protection for victims is part of Tajikistan's national strategy for the period until 2015.
Like other rights activists, Bobosadikova feels that although government officials understand the need for reform, they are dragging their feet because they suspect a law concerning domestic life will go down badly with the public.
The deputy head of the Committee for Women's and Family Affairs, Hilolbi Qurbonova, admitted to IWPR that her agency was not pressing hard for the law to go through. “It does not suit our mentality,” she said.
A Dushanbe-based sociologist, who asked not to be named, explained that the roles and rights assigned to men and women in Tajik families were often highly conservative.
“The man is the head of the family – he takes care of its members, he takes the decisions and he believes that he has the right to use physical force to punish members of the household,” she said.
Women are expected to put up with their position and not to air their problems outside the home, and they are too ashamed to seek redress if they become victims of assault, she added.
In this environment, the sociologist said, a domestic violence law is especially necessary to spell out the nature of such offences and the fact that they are actually crimes.
Muqaddas, a mother of four daughters, told IWPR about the culture of silence around domestic abuse. Her husband has become increasingly violent in recent years, shouting at her, beating her and forcing her to have sex.
The neighbours are well aware there is trouble in the household, but hold their tongues and would never intervene.
Divorce is frowned on in this traditionalist society, but Muqaddas fears a separation as she would be left with nowhere to live.
Her legal situation is weak – like many women in Tajikistan these days, she went through the Muslim wedding rite without registering the marriage with the state authorities, so is not technically married in the eyes of the law. Her husband has also taken a second wife using the same rite.
The number of women subject to assault in the home is hard to assess. Tajikistan's interior minister has recorded over 460 family-related offences so far this year. The total includes assault and murder, but there is no separate breakdown for cases that would count as domestic violence.
Women's rights groups also keep a count, but their data capture only those who actively seek help. A coalition of non-government groups called From Legal to Real Equality says that of nearly 3,900 women who visited crisis centres last year, 14 per cent reported they were subjected to physical violence.
The head of the interior ministry's legal department, Lola Otabaeva, said the lack of clear definitions in the law created problems for gathering crime statistics.
“As the term ‘domestic violence' is not separated out from ‘family crimes', we still lack official statistics about the issue… and this prevents us making an objective assessment of the scale of the problem,” she said.
Otabaeva said the interior ministry, which controls the police force, was supportive of a bill making domestic violence a separate crime.
The police are already involved in an innovative pilot project to create special units to assist victims of domestic violence.
Specialist units attached to police stations will have staffs of whom at least one will be a female officer who underwent training how to handle domestic violence cases in June. They will investigate and document incidents, serve as first point of contact for victims of violence, and liaise with crisis centres and legal advice services provided by NGOs and the government's committee for women.
Under the OSCE-funded project, two units in the capital Dushanbe and one each in the large towns of Qurghonteppa and Kulob in the south and Khujand in the north have been rolled out since September.
Lola Safaralieva, an inspector in one of the new units in Dushanbe, said it is hard to do the job properly in the absence of without legislation that classes domestic violence as an offence and allows perpetrators to be prosecuted.
“Yesterday I had an appointment with a young pregnant woman whose mother-in-law is forcing her to have an abortion. What can one do in a situation like this, if there is no law?” Safaralieva asked.
Alla Kuvvatova, head of an NGO association working for female equality and the prevention of domestic violence against women, believes the problems are not insurmountable.
“There are lots of ways – it's just a matter of trying,” she said.
The justice ministry's questions about duplication could be dealt with by comparing the bill with other legislation and then amending it.
Although Kuvvatova pointed out that not all draft legislation is required to be economically viable before it is passed, she said the objections in this case could be resolved with funding from foreign donors, for example.
She noted that the OSCE is already supporting women's resource centres in 11 districts of Tajikistan. In other cases, local government could provide some support. In Khujand, a women's shelter was housed in premises provided by the local authorities.
Kuvvatova said her coalition plans to conduct campaign to raise public awareness about domestic violence and how to defend potential victims.