This submission summarizes Human Rights Watch’s concerns regarding the government of Tajikistan’s compliance with its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Human Rights Watch believes the upcoming review by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“the Committee”) provides a crucial opportunity to highlight the Tajik government’s record on domestic violence and to formulate recommendations for specific steps the authorities should take to address urgent concerns in this area.
This submission is based on Human Rights Watch research into the Tajik government’s response to domestic violence. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with survivors of domestic violence, service providers, police, women’s rights activists, government agencies, doctors, psychologists, and international donors and experts in July and August 2015, July and September 2016, and follow-up interviews in August and September 2018. It and its recommendations focus primarily on violence against women by male partners and their relatives, often by mothers-in-law.
Violence against women remains pervasive today in Tajik society. Survivors of domestic violence told Human Rights Watch harrowing stories of the worst kinds of abuse, including sadistic violence committed by perpetrators, all across the country across every socioeconomic category. Officials often neglect survivors’ needs for protection, services, and justice and marital rape is not recognized as a crime under Tajikistan’s criminal law. Yet there are some signs of progress. Civil society groups are providing life-saving assistance. According to service providers and civil society activists, the adoption of the Family Violence Law in 2013 made for some breakthroughs in public awareness about the problem, and the law could be transformative if it is fully implemented across the country. The government has also worked, with support from donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to establish Gender-Sensitive Police Units in police stations and Victim Support Rooms in hospitals, designed to make these institutions more accessible to and supportive of victims of family violence.
The government is in the process of developing a strategy for handling gender-based violence, which should focus greater government attention on protecting women. In 2014, the government adopted an Action Plan for the implementation of the law through 2023. A hotline has been set up to refer survivors of family and sexual violence to services. A growing network of activists—many of them also survivors of family violence—are bringing help to some of the most remote areas of the country. However, government efforts to prevent and respond to domestic violence remain inadequate and fail to ensure critical protection and support for survivors.
“The morning after my husband beat me I narrowly escaped from the house and went to the Shaartuz [a city in southwestern Tajikistan] city prosecutor’s office covered in blood, with fresh wounds, and asked to file a complaint,” said Zebo, who told Human Rights Watch that she first reported violence to authorities after more than four years of spousal abuse and rape. “But when I got to the prosecutor’s office and started to describe what had happened the officer interrupted, ‘Aren’t you yourself to blame?’ and immediately called my husband to tell him I was there. He then said, ‘Everything will work out fine. Go straight home.’’’
The night before, her husband had beat her continuously for three hours until her face and his hands were entirely covered in blood. In a drunken rage, he threatened to strangle the couple’s two-year-old son. When Zebo asked neighbors for help, they answered, “How can we take you in? This is a family affair.” Zebo and her three children were left on the street.
Zebo walked out of that prosecutor’s office and straight into the local city court. “I found a judge and told him how my husband had bashed my head against a wall repeatedly,” she said. “He listened and then immediately called my husband, saying to me, ‘Why did you leave the house looking like this? Your husband’s a good man. Just go home.’”
“These officials saw I was covered in bruises and blood, but did nothing,” she said. “They sent me home and promised to send an officer to visit me there. When the officer finally came he said, ‘This is a domestic problem,’ and just told my husband not to do it again.”
Zebo has 3 children. Her husband was abusive from the beginning of the marriage, even during pregnancy. Like many families in Tajikistan, Zebo’s marriage was unregistered with the state, performed only through a religious ceremony (nikoh). Zebo’s husband started to beat her more intensively after their first son was born. “He said he got pleasure from this,” she said. “He would beat me all the time and say he was doing this so that I would end up in heaven.” Once when the couple was driving, and Zebo was pregnant, she said her husband pushed her out of the moving car, accusing her of cheating on him. He would often come home drunk and rape Zebo.
Zebo’s story is sadly representative of the experience of many women in Tajikistan. The precise number of women who experience violence at the hands of a partner is unknown, as the government does not systematically monitor the issue. But experts, including sociologists, government officials, lawyers, and service providers Human Rights Watch spoke to in various regions of Tajikistan found that domestic violence has occurred in more than two-thirds of households.
Survivors and advocates told Human Rights Watch that police often refuse to pursue investigations, issue protective orders, or arrest people who commit domestic violence, even in cases where the violence is severe, including attempted murder, serious physical harm, and repeated rape. Sometimes police tell victims it’s a “family matter” and send them away, or refuse to respond without a medical report, even when victims present with visible wounds. In rural areas, where there is little government presence and where police might have to travel long distances to conduct investigations, survivors and service providers said police often tell victims it is their responsibility to bring the perpetrator to the police station.
When police do get involved in family violence cases they typically fail to maintain confidentiality for victims. They often mandate mediation for the couples involved, in contrast with international best practices, which recommend arrest and prosecution. Even in the limited number of police stations trained in gender-sensitive techniques, police often insist on mediation and signing of an agreement between the victim and perpetrator, even when there is clear evidence that a serious crime has been committed, when the victim reports that abuse is continuing between mediation sessions, and even when the victim tells the police she wants the attacker to be prosecuted and imprisoned.
Survivors of violence face difficulty securing protection orders. Police often fail to tell survivors about protection orders or refer them to court to seek one in cases where they would have been appropriate. Survivors who do seek protection orders often encounter delays and costly fees in the courts.
There is a dire lack of services for people requiring assistance after suffering domestic violence. Tajikistan has a total of three shelters for victims of domestic violence for a population of over 8 million people. Long-term shelters for survivors and access to state-subsidized and affordable housing is badly needed.
Most counseling focuses on reconciling the survivor with her abusive partner, often sending the victims back into situations where they face continued risk of violence. Even in crisis centers, the focus is often on mediation of family disputes with the goal of reconciliation, not ensuring accountability for cases of serious, ongoing violence. Qualified psychosocial counselors are all but nonexistent, and despite a network of women’s crisis centers throughout the country operating with international support, meaningful legal assistance for survivors, including a capacity to represent survivors in criminal, divorce, child custody, and maintenance proceedings, or property division following divorce, is almost entirely absent.
Poor police response acts as a deterrent to reporting. “I didn’t bother going to the police to complain about the violence,” one survivor of domestic violence told Human Rights Watch, “because after the first time I went he began to beat me even harder.”
Other barriers can also keep women from seeking help or halt them in the process. Many women have little or no income of their own and depend on their partners to support them and their children. Women often fear sending an abusive partner to prison, as it would mean the loss of his income. Fathers often fail to support their children financially after a separation, and courts rarely enforce maintenance orders. The government offers no financial assistance to survivors of domestic violence, even those with dependent children. Many women stay in abusive relationships, or even try to get abusive husbands who have abandoned them to return, simply because the alternative is that their children go hungry. Others stay because they fear losing custody of their children, as they have little ability to seek and enforce custody agreements through the courts.
Harmful practices including polygamy, unregistered, forced, and early marriages continue unchecked, although the Tajik government has taken steps to ensure couples officially register their marriages with the state. A man’s marriage to a second wife often precipitates abuse of the first. Patriarchal practices reinforce discriminatory gender norms.
Critical Gaps in the Family Violence Law
In 2013, following a ten-year effort by civil society groups, Tajikistan passed a new law, the Law on the Prevention of Violence in the Family (hereinafter Family Violence Law), which, while making key advances in the protection of women, left serious critical areas unaddressed. Most notably the Family Violence Law does not recognize domestic violence as a crime, providing only for administrative liability. It also does not define the term “family” and women in polygamous, early and unregistered marriages as well as women who were previously married, are not protected under the law.
Focusing primarily on prevention, the Family Violence Law recognizes the rights of victims to legal, medical, and psycho-social assistance and individual remedies, including registering a case of violence and obtaining protection orders. The adoption of the Family Violence Law was a positive step in the effort to prevent and combat domestic violence in Tajikistan.
But numerous areas of ongoing concern remain, including women’s lack of awareness of their rights under the Law, which particularly affects women living in rural and mountainous areas of the country. Moreover, predominant patriarchal attitudes in Tajik society contribute to the persistence of violence against women and underreporting to law enforcement bodies.
Victims seeking prosecution and punishment of the abuser must bring claims under the Tajik Criminal Code.
The law aimed to make it easier for victims of family violence to get protection orders and services. Yet five years in, the Family Violence Law has not been meaningfully implemented. The government has issued implementing regulations, and some international organizations such as the OSCE have provided crucial support for the expansion of services, but pervasive patriarchal norms and societal stereotypes, a lack of awareness among victims about their rights and the remedies available to them under the law, and critical gaps in protection mean that domestic violence remains widespread and pervasive. Ambiguity remains about the coordination among government agencies in implementing the law and its various aspects. The Law does not require for the systematic collection of information and data by government agencies of the types of violence against women nor access to long-term shelters for women facing violence.
Limited Definition of Family
The Family Violence Law does not define the term “family,” nor does any other provision in Tajik law define the term. This leaves open the question of what relationships are covered under the Law, consequently leaving women in unregistered marriages who face violence vulnerable to abuse. Tajik authorities should ensure that a comprehensive definition of “family” is included in the law, in accordance with earlier draft versions of the law that explicitly include the following intimate partner relationships: marriages officially registered with the civil registry; religious marriages performed by nikoh ceremony that are not officially registered with the civil registry; co-habiting partners or couples without registered marriages; and polygamous marriages. The law should also explicitly protect women who experience violence at the hands of their in-laws as well as other family members, including former in-laws who commit or threaten violence after divorce.
Failure to Criminalize Domestic Violence
The Family Violence Law fails to explicitly recognize domestic violence as a crime under the law. Moreover, no other Tajik law, including Tajikistan’s Criminal Code, criminalizes it as a separate, specific crime.
The Family Violence Law instead places an emphasis on prevention, providing merely for administrative punishment, such as fines and administrative custody of the perpetrator. Exhibiting a bias for reconciliation, the Law provides only for “disciplinary conversations” with perpetrators and victims of violence to identify the causes and circumstances of the violence and explain social and legal consequences of future violence.
Opponents to criminalizing domestic violence argue that it is unnecessary because the Tajik Criminal Code offers sufficient protection to victims. Relevant provisions of the Criminal Code, for example, include intentional infliction of major bodily harm, minor bodily harm, or bodily harm to a lesser degree. While these crimes would cover some instances of violence perpetrated in the domestic context, a conviction requires evidence that a victim sustained physical injuries. Therefore, the Criminal Code provides no accountability in cases in which the physical injury is no longer detectable or for instances of psychological or economic violence.
Survivors of domestic violence report that following violence their husbands, mothers-in-law, and other relatives often actively prevent them from leaving the house until such time as their wounds are no longer visible. “He often beat me up, but I never told my own parents because my in-laws would not allow it. When I had bruises on my face my mother-in-law would make me stay home. She would say ‘He must beat you up a lot because he really loves you,” said a domestic violence survivor in 2016.
Another major shortcoming of the Family Violence Law and Criminal Code is its failure to criminalize spousal rape. Spousal rape is rarely reported in Tajikistan due to social stigma, yet interviewees and advocates told Human Rights Watch that perpetrators of sexual violence are overwhelmingly a woman’s current or former partner.
Criminalization of domestic violence is crucial to overcoming patriarchal norms and recognizing the seriousness of intra-familial violence, including beatings, rapes, humiliation, deprivation of food and property, and other acts of physical, mental, sexual, and economic violence, which disproportionately affect women. The CEDAW Committee has reiterated that all violence against women, including domestic violence, needs to be criminalized, and has urged Tajikistan to amend its legislation.
Unless the Tajik government amends the Family Violence Law to specifically criminalize domestic violence, victims of abuse will have to pursue criminal prosecutions through other provisions of the Tajik Criminal Code that do not adequately recognize the specific protection risks and needs of survivors of domestic violence.
The government needs to lead the work to end domestic violence in Tajikistan. At present, much of the leadership on this issue comes from civil society activists and service providers outside of government and from international organizations and donors. While these actors have critical roles to play, domestic violence cannot be systemically tackled without full engagement and leadership from the government.
We encourage the Committee to make the following recommendations to the government of Tajikistan:
- amend the Family Violence Law and Criminal Code without delay so as to explicitly criminalize domestic violence, including marital rape;
- take measures to ensure that domestic violence is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law;
- ensure the systematic collection of information and data on violence against women by government agencies, including by types of violence and perpetrator;
- ensure that women subject to or at risk of domestic violence have full access to essential services, including short and longer-term shelters, medical care, psychosocial support, and legal assistance; material support; and to civil remedies, such as divorce and equitable distribution of property;
- draft and adopt regulations on coordinated response to domestic violence, including clear roles and responsibilities of agencies including the Ministry of Health, State Women’s Committee, Ministry of Interior, Prosecutor-General, Ministry of Justice, and a referral system for victims of domestic violence;
- develop and implement mandatory initial and ongoing training for law enforcement and judicial officials on domestic violence response in accordance with international best practice standards on survivor-centered response;
- take measures to raise awareness among the public regarding domestic violence, available services and how and why to access them, and appropriate police and judicial response;
- investigate all complaints of police or judicial misconduct in cases of domestic violence and hold law enforcement and justice officials to account for failure to register and investigate domestic complaints and take necessary measures to protect victims;
- ensure an effective complaints mechanism for victims whose complaints are not treated appropriately by law enforcement or judicial officials; and
- Ensure that perpetrators of domestic violence are brought to justice and held accountable.
 Family Violence Law, Art. 22.
 Family Violence Law, Art. 20(1).
 Tajik. Crim. Code, Arts. 110-112.
 Interview with Nargis N., Khurasan, Khatlon province, July 23, 2015.
 “Breaking Barriers: Challenges to Implementing Laws on Violence Against Women in Afghanistan and Tajikistan with special consideration of displaced women,” P. 69