According to a survey, 72 percent of Tajik women have contemplated suicide, and 24 percent of them have attempted suicide after finding out about having contracted human immunodeficiency virus. Although the disease is not transmitted through casual contact, due to illiteracy [on the matter], Tajik society prefer to avoid the carriers of the virus, and some even terrorize them.
Shamigul Aminova, Dushanbe
“Aren’t you dead yet?” that is how Mastura’s ex-husband likes to start a conversation with her.
When it turned out that she had contracted the virus, she was immediately kicked out of the house along with her two children. Thehusbanddidnotevenresist.
Mastura thinks she contracted the virus at the hospital, where she was repeatedly transfused blood or in the maternity hospital during the injections, because she had never been with anybody besides her husband, and she did not do drugs.
But Mastura had troubles even before that: the relatives of her husband, with whom she lived in the same house, constantly beat and mocked her, blaming her for all problems. And as expected from every humble young bride, she did not contradict them and endured it all.
One time, they even beat pregnant Mastura while she was baking bread.
“I remember that I lit the fire in the stove and waited for it to heat up. At this time, my in-laws came to me with threats and beat me, and then one of them punched my head. I do not recall what happened next,” says Mastura, who has asked to change her name. “In a state of shock, I woke up in the hospital with burns on my legs and one arm. I immediately thought of my son. I thought they killed him or did something terrible to him.”
When the doctors suggested performing a plastic surgery to hide her burn marks, her blood was tested positive for HIV.
Although during divorce proceedings the court has determined alimony and decided to put her with her two children back to the husband’s house, she could not live there because her ex-husband’s relatives would not let her back, and Mastura was forced to move back in with her poor mother.
With no vocational education, Mastura cannot find a job, on the one hand because of her breastfeeding infants, on the other hand, because of her HIV status.
“At that time I considered myself almost dead. I only kept going for the sake of my children,” she admits.
PAIN, SHAME AND DEPRESSION
Mastura’s story is not an outstanding case, but rather a pervasive trend.
In Tajikistan, a woman traditionally takes a secondary place in the patriarchal society and is subjected to violence and abuse.
Discrimination doubles against women living with HIV, as the population is convinced that all these women are promiscuous sex workers and drug addicts, and they should be avoided so as not to catch the virus. This is stated in the alternative report of Tajik NGOs on elimination of all forms of violence against women.
“All women participating in the survey responded that once they found out about their status, they were in shock, pain, shame and depression,” the report says. “More than 72 percent thought about committing suicide, and 24 percent have made such an attempt.”
In such a situation, few friends and relatives dare to support these women. Most often, they only aggravate the situation, kicking [the women] of the house and verbally abusing them. Most of them do not have any qualifications for employment and are economically dependent on their families until they are deprived of support.
“Often, during the period of marriage, a woman is not legally registered in her husband’s house, and after his death she gets kicked out on the street with her children, the excuse being her HIV status,” according to experts of NGOs in Tajikistan in their alternative report.
It is noted that the commonly occurring factors, such as prostitution and drug addiction are gradually supplanted by infection in married couples. The passing of the virus from one partner to another is most often done by men who are in labor migration and, unlike women, have sexual relations with multiple partners.
“The girls are married off without inquiring about the young men’s health, and there are many cases of women contracting the virus from their husbands. Despite knowing the dangers of infection, the family members of the infected man do not warn their son and daughter-in-law about it. There is stigmatization of HIV-infected people, so a woman living with HIV is most vulnerable to violence in the family” according to Maryam Davlatova, an expert on gender issues.
INSUFFICIENT MEASURES BY THE STATE
Although there are a number of laws that prohibit discrimination against people living with HIV, as well as prevention of violence against women, these laws are not put into practice, as human rights activists complain.
Article 12 of the Law “On Combating Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome” consists of several articles that guarantee protection against discrimination. In particular, it states that HIV-positive people have the same rights as other citizens; they have the right to keep their status secret, except when there is a potential risk to another person, as well as in confidentially reviewing of the various documents concerning the status, e.g. for compensation, etc.
Several laws guarantee protection of women with HIV from violence and abuse by family. Last year, the State program on the prevention of domestic violence for 2014-2023 was adopted; Article 21 of the Law “On prevention of domestic violence” issues a protective order against the abuser, and Article 93 of the Administrative Code of the Republic of Tajikistan imposes fines on violators of the law, if they do not comply with the requirements of law enforcement agencies.
However, the director of the crisis center “Bovari” Committee on Women under the Government of RT, Ms. Gulnora Boltaeva pointed out the problem of enforcing this law.
“It is not an easy task to put this law into practice and to create favorable conditions so that implementation of this law changed the lives of women in Tajikistan for the better” said Boltaeva.
1971 WOMAN – POTENTIAL VICTIM OF DISCRIMINATION
At the same time, the existing legislation is not harsh enough against people who physically and psychologically abuse women with HIV, as the current law does not have effective mechanisms, such as evicting the abusers from home or incarcerating them. [Punishment] is limited to issuing an order, which is essentially a piece of paper that does not protect from anything, and the administrative penalty is not too difficult to pay and get rid of the problems.
“Here the problem does not lie in the laws per se, though their actual implementation is also an important mechanism to protect these women; the problem is in public awareness about HIV, and about respect for women and other citizens.” stated Boltayeva.
“Lack of awareness about HIV transmission is a serious problem. This in turn creates further problems such as stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive women in the family,” adds the director of the crisis center “Bovari” Ms. Gulnora Boltaeva.
At the moment, the country lacks a coordinated scheme to eliminate discrimination against women living with HIV, or to prevent violence against them. There are one-off or local campaigns, limited to certain medical institutions and non-governmental organizations.
But in schools and universities, according to the national media, objective information is not available about HIV transmission and the inadmissibility of discrimination against women on this basis, and advocacy against various stereotypes and misconceptions among the public is not conducted. This is deduced by the results of a public opinion poll conducted in the streets of Dushanbe.
“I have little information about people living with HIV” says 58-year-old teacher Rohila. “It is a disease of drug addicts, homosexuals, and immoral women. It would be better to stay away from them because it is a terrible disease, and I heard that many people die from it.”
“I’d be afraid to share eating utensils with such people. I sense danger when I sit with them at the table,” says another resident of Dushanbe, 22-year-old Ehson.
Nevertheless, some of the respondents treat the carriers of HIV without prejudice.
“I used to think that the virus only infects promiscuous women and drug addicts. Unfortunately, recently my close friend, who is a normal and respectable married young woman discovered that she had HIV. Husband left her, but later came back because of their children, as he realized that his wife is unable to raise them” shared 50-year-old Maya Hakimova. “At this point they live together, but they do not have an intimate relationship. She is resigned to her fate, and I have begun to think differently, as no one is safe from this disease.”
“I do not know, they are still people, they have the need to eat, to dress, to live somewhere. We must help them, treat them as normal people. Their disease is not transmitted during interaction, and in this regard they do not pose a threat to people,” said Tolib.
So far, however, only few people have such an attitude toward HIV carriers, not to mention women with HIV.
According to the State AIDS Center, there are 6,558 people officially registered with HIV in Tajikistan, of whom 1,971 (nearly 30 percent) are women. Each of them is or could be a potential victim of double discrimination. And that is only the official figures.