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Women Power

Written by on Friday, 23 December 2005
Politics and Society, Tajikistan
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A successful World Bank project provides an uplifting story for a country stricken by poverty. Truly a remarkable account; here are some excerpts:

Bibi Soro, as she is known, lives in the Buston Mahalla, an impoverished neighborhood on the dusty outskirts of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. As a woman in a conservative Islamic society, Soro grew up in strict Islamic tradition. Soro’s remote and isolated community had long looked at outsiders with suspicion, and in the country’s bitter civil war, Buston’s residents fought on the side of the militant Islamic opposition, holding out till the very last against central government control.

The loss of the war further alienated the disgruntled community. Homes were destroyed and families lost breadwinners -husbands, sons and brothers. Many of those who survived went to work in Russia, leaving the women behind with little means of support. Extended families sometimes housed 44 members under one roof, and food was often scarce. With the opposition’s forces still in operation, the community was like a tinder-box where stray sparks could at anytime reignite passions, leading to a renewed flare-up of violence.

… in 2002, the World Bank allocated a grant from the Post Conflict Fund to a U.S non-governmental organization, Counterpart International, for a Women’s Empowerment Pilot Project. Doing so meant reversing the centuries-old social order in this troubled neighborhood.

And, a year since the project began, succeed they have. After first reassuring male relatives and community leaders that the project didn’t aim to convert the women to Christianity, the project has brought a marked change in the women. Through workshops and training, the women have developed a new sense of confidence. Those who were unable to look their trainers in the eye now openly express their opinions and discuss business proposals with men on equal terms.

Where men once failed, the women tackle long-standing community problems.

A bold women’s initiative has brought much-needed water to the neighborhood, tackling one of the community’s most enduring problems which the men were unable to solve for many years.

A center has been established where the women can meet and discuss broad community issues without depending on men. The center has trained women in healthcare, and now channels much-needed medicines to the new clinic, and provides computer training to the local school.

And in a revolutionary move, the women have chosen their own leaders, a democratic tradition completely new to the community. These women leaders have traveled to other parts of the country as well as to projects in Kyrgyzstan to broaden their horizons and exchange experiences, putting an end to the community’s long isolation.

“The Women’s Empowerment project has been successful beyond my imagination,” says Andrea Burniske, Counterpart International’s former local director. “By assuming leadership roles, these women have been able to address all the community’s priority problems. This has raised their stature within the community, and they feel proud of their achievements. Women members of Bonuvoni Navovar have acquired skills and knowledge that have changed their lives forever.”

As true vanguards of change in conservative Tajikistan, Bibi Soro and her colleagues plan to build on their pioneering successes by launching similar activities to empower women in other poor regions of the country. And this time, they have the support of the men. The old, unequal, social order is indeed beginning to turn in this remote region of Central Asia.

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