Several women’s organizations in Uzbekistan report an increasing willingness on the part of the authorities since 2001 to discuss the problem of domestic violence. International organizations and local NGOs have run domestic violence seminars and training programs for prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and mahalla committee representatives. Some local NGOs and government women’s organizations agree that there is now a recognition that domestic violence “exists and must be dealt with.”125 However, “violence remains in place”126 and government policies and practices continue to fail to protect—and sometimes even increase the risks of harm to—victims of domestic violence.
Mahalla committees actively participate in fulfilling government policy relating to the family, even when the policies fail to protect victims of domestic violence. Government policies are directed toward maintaining the family as a cohesive unit, a priority that often runs counter to the rights of victims of domestic violence. Divorce is actively discouraged and prosecutions for violence by one family member against another are rarely pursued. In 1998, which the government decreed “the Year of the Family,” state agencies made special efforts to limit the number of divorces. One leader of a non-governmental organization told Human Rights Watch, “[t]here was an order from above, an oral instruction, that if the number of divorces in any area was too high, then the administrators would be punished.”127 Civil registry offices denied divorces to couples who wished to divorce by mutual agreement, telling them that they could not do so because it was the Year of the Family.128
Although it is no longer the “Year of the Family,” these state policies continue, often to the detriment of women in abusive relationships. Mahalla committee representatives actively prevent women from obtaining relief from or redress for abuse. They coerce women into remaining in abusive marriages, ignore violence against women, and perpetuate impunity for abusive husbands. The mahalla committees carry out government policies that subordinate women’s well-being to a misguided notion of family unity. These actions violate the Uzbek government’s obligation under international law to provide women equal protection under the law.129
Certain aspects of these policies, such as the encouragement of community involvement in cases of family abuse, are positive in that they remove the question of domestic violence from the private sphere of the family and implicitly recognize the social harm caused by this crime. However, the fact that mahalla officials consistently block women’s access to legal remedies, to divorce, or to the criminal justice system, means that the state discriminates against women and violates the guarantee of equal protection under the law. Under international standards, states are obliged to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage, including the right to terminate a marriage. Forcing women to remain in a marriage, and blocking female-initiated divorce while allowing men to proceed with divorce breaches these standards. In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the state, using mahalla committees and other local government authorities, coerced women not only to remain in marriages against their will, but to remain in abusive marriages that threatened the women’s physical and mental health. This state action is in violation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and other international human rights documents to which Uzbekistan is a party.130 The state’s interests in promoting the family unit cannot justify breaching these fundamental human rights and the promotion of the family unit must be carried out in a manner consistent with these rights.
In order to reduce the number of family conflicts, the government instructed local police departments and mahalla officials to maintain a record of each residence to which they had been called. Families remain on this registry for a period of three years, during which time police are supposed to check on them regularly.131 According to the officials interviewed, when victims of domestic violenceappeal to the mahalla committee, the chairman forms a “reconciliation commission,” usually consisting of the chairman, unpaid community elders, and possibly women community activists, or members of the mahalla women’s committee. In some cases, the initial interview with the couple is performed only by the mahalla chair, the deputy chair, always a woman who heads a women’s committee within the mahalla, or a community elder. If the conflict persists, then the entire reconciliation committee becomes engaged. The matter might be referred to the village council, in areas where such bodies exist, if the mahalla committee mediation is unsuccessful, and from there, to the court or to the police.132
There is no legal requirement that the mahalla committee become involved before the police are contacted, although the chairmen interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they routinely decided whether or not to allow residents of their communities to refer such matters to the local police. If victims contacted the local precinct themselves, police would refer the matter to the mahalla committee before proceeding with any action.133
The mahalla committees seek to eliminate the need for legal action in family disputes. Victims of domestic violence may plead for months or even years before a mahalla committee will refer a case to the police or allow the victim to divorce (see below). One village council chairman recounted a casein which a victim of domestic violence had just been to court for a divorce hearing:
In another case, a woman with four children suffered severe beatings from her husband for nine years of their fifteen-year marriage. The beatings to her face had deformed the bone structure of her cheeks and nose. Despite the abuse, the local authorities tried to “reconcile the family.” The deputy mayor of the rural village told Human Rights Watch, “[t]he entire mahalla has been working on this one family’s problems for five years. He constantly beat her—especially her face. We decided that she should file for divorce.”135
Mahalla committee members blame women for the abuse they suffer.136 One village council chairmantold Human Rights Watch:
A mahalla committee elder explained his approach to mediating family conflicts by emphasizing religious obligations:
Mahalla committee representatives opt primarily for dispensing advice or using persuasion to address the problem of domestic violence, rather than taking punitive action. One rural district governor explained the essence of mahalla committee intervention this way: “If the husband is guilty, we will not punish him or fine him. We will just give him advice.”139 Only in cases of persistent family violence might the mahalla committee take punitive action such as advising members of the community not to include the perpetrator as a guest at weddings and other local celebrations. However, such ostracism is more likely to result from other behavior judged to be illegal or anti-social, such as excessive drinking or drug abuse, rather than solely on grounds of abusing a family member.140
Such actions depend largely upon the discretion of the individual mahalla committee chairman. One village council chairman related his approach to dealing with these instances: “A woman comes and says her husband beats her. I call the husband and the woman, it turns out, was guilty for this herself. I yell at him that if he lifts a hand against her, I will beat him. After that, the family calms down.”141
Such reliance on moral persuasion and the threat of punishment does not adequately protect victims against further violence. “The mahalla women’s committee called him in and talked to him,” “Jurakhon J.”recalls of her husband. “And he was quiet for a week, but then he drank and beat me again.”142
While mahalla committee representatives take pains to persuade women to remain with their husbands, even abusive ones, it appears that they pursue reconciliation less energetically when it is the husband or his family that wishes to initiate a separation. Domestic violence usually comes to the attention of the mahalla committee when the wife flees abuse. Yet some abused women are thrown out by the husband’s family. Though she suffered brutal beatings at the hands of her father-in-law, “Gulchekhra G.” hoped to remain married to her husband. During her first years of marriage, she accompanied her husband’s extended family when they left their homein the countryside to engage in agricultural labor near the capital, Tashkent, but when her infant son fell ill, Gulchekhra G. took him back to her parents’ home in the countryside. Her husband and his parents subsequently returned to their village, but refused to take her back into their home to live with her husband.
In a similar case, “Shahida S.’s” in-laws threw her out of their home as a form of retribution against her family, after one of Shahida S.’s relatives, a man married to her husband’s sister, sent his wife [Shahida’s sister-in-law] back to her natal family. Although Shahida S.’s husband beat her severely as he sent her away, she nonetheless hoped that their marriage could be preserved. Her husband, however, had requested the papers necessary for divorce from the mahalla committee chairman and was immediately granted them.144
There are cases, however, in which mahalla committees attempt to prevent husbands from casting off their abused wives, in accordance with women’s wishes. “Malika M.”reported that her local mahalla committee prevailed upon her abusive husband not to cast her and their three daughters out, in favor of the second wife he wished to bring home.145
Mahalla committees’ reluctance to intervene to “save the family” when the separation is initiated by men indicates gender bias and a tendency to reinforce the power of men within the family. It also underlines the failure of the mahalla committee representatives to take domestic violence seriously. A village council chairman with responsibility for eleven separate mahallas stated bluntly, “We keep marriages together even in cases when the husband beats his wife. This year three men wanted to divorce. I helped them get the papers so that they can go to court for divorce.”147
Only one woman out of twenty interviewed in May and June 2000 told Human Rights Watch that the mahalla committee’s intervention had quelled violent quarrels between her and her spouse. “Aziza A.”described the occasional violence meted out by her husband that had caused her to turn to her local mahalla committee:
In the instances of persistent family violence described by victims to Human Rights Watch, mahalla committee representatives, when faced with resistance on the part of the husband or his family, failed to press effectively to obtain relief or redress for women victims. For example, when “Rano R.”returned to her natal home in November 1997, her father went to their village council chairman to complain that her husband had beaten her. She recounted:
Rano then appealed to the village council repeatedly, in order to retrieve her documents and possessions from her husband, but without success:
Mahalla committee members fail to address the real harm—physical and emotional—being done to the victims of domestic violence, and do not act on the principle that domestic violence is a criminal offense. They interpret “reconciliation” of family conflicts as the cessation of complaints, rather than an end to the violence. Their intervention, therefore, is often directed toward placating the abuser, rather than helping the victim.
Neither the family code nor the Mahalla Law provide for any formal role for mahalla committees in divorce proceedings. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch found that mahalla committees routinely assume the role of gatekeeper, either permitting women to press ahead with divorce suits or blocking those plans by refusing to provide a character reference to the court. One mahalla chairman told Human Rights Watch, “since 1999, courts will not set a divorce case in motion without the agreement of the mahalla.” A prominent NGO leader also confirmed this practice.151 One deputy district governor openly described the policy of denying divorces: “There are three or four families on the list where the husband beats the wife. … We do not let it get to the stage of divorce… Without a character reference you cannot get a divorce.”152 Nearly all of the victims of domestic violence interviewed by Human Rights Watch who were seeking to divorce believed that they would have to obtain permission from their local mahalla committee, as statements by mahalla committee representatives and judges also suggest,153 although there is, in fact, no such legal requirement.
Local government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch frequently expressed pride in the low number of divorces in their communities and of their successful interventions in “reconciling” family conflicts. One village council chairman responsible for governing villages with a total population of 13,000, divided into four mahallas, said that there were ten to fifteen cases of family conflicts (not necessarily involving abuse) in his community each year, but in the previous twelve months, all had been resolved without resorting to the police or to the courts.154
Mahalla committees are, for the most part, anxious to prevent divorces even in cases of persistent physical abuse. The village council chairman mentioned in the paragraph above was one of the few local officials to approach the question of divorce differently. His attitude shifted somewhat, he said, after a 1999 case in which a woman committed suicide after repeatedly appealing to local officials about the persistent beatings and rapes she suffered at the hands of her husband. “That case of the suicide influenced me a good deal. I realized that it is not necessary to force them to live together if he beats her. The cases that come to us—we try to make sure that the families are not torn apart. Those families where it is impossible to save the family, we divorce them.”155
Mahalla committee representatives and other local government officials pressure women to remain in abusive marriages without acknowledging the further harm this may cause. Indeed, even the village council chairman mentioned above urged a woman who had complained for three years that her husband beat her to remain with her husband.156 Municipal and district executive bodies pressure mahalla committee representatives to “resolve” such cases without divorce. One municipal women’s committee official described how her agency reacts to reports of couples intending to divorce:
Lola L. endured twenty-six years of violence in her marriage, which resulted in a punctured lung and chronic illness related to this injury. She had turned to local mahalla committee leaders many times before making her latest appeal to a newly-installed mahalla committee chairwoman, the former director of the local school. “We have a tradition that when you come with a complaint, two or three days go by and they promise to help, and then they start to persuade you to forgive him and to stay,” she recounted. “I came to the previous chairman three times, and after two or three days they start to persuade you to go back.”158
Lola L. was motivated to seek assistance once more because her husband, together with his grown son from a previous marriage, was attempting to force her and the two young children of the marriage from the family home. “If need be I’m even ready to go to court,” “Lola L.” maintained. “I came to her for help to defend me from these attacks… For twenty-six years I’ve waited for him to change but he hasn’t, and now I’ve come to her trusting in God and in the mahalla that they will help me.”159 The mahalla committee chairwoman, however, was noncommittal, suggesting that the problems could be resolved without divorce. “I don’t know about going to court,” she hedged. “Naturally, we’ll try to reconcile the family.”160
One of the levers mahalla committee representatives may deploy in order to pressure women to abandon plans to divorce is to threaten to withhold social welfare payments to which the women may be entitled. “Women are very easy to convince to save their families,” one mahalla committee chairman told Human Rights Watch. “I tell them they will not get any alimony, nor any assistance for their children at all.”161
Mahalla committees and other local government officials also spoke of meeting with judges informally to express their views on divorce cases.162 One mahalla committee representative told Human Rights Watch that if there are children in the family, then they tell the husband and wife to continue to live together. However, if there are no children “we let them divorce if they can’t get back together after three months. We write a document for court saying that we are not against a divorce.”163
In cases when one side, usually the husband, refuses the settlement that the mahalla committee proposes, there is no alternative but to turn to the courts. Mahalla committee representatives initially told “Mukhabat M.,” whose husband beat her over a six-year marriage and then rejected her, that she could remain in the family home where they had lived together with their children. But when her husband objected and threatened violence if the mahalla committee imposed this settlement, the committee instructed her to file for a divorce and to vacate the property until the court ruled in both the divorce case and the issue of alimony.164 After initially refusing to help her visit one of their two children left with her husband, the committee eventually helped to return the child to her. Despite the serious injuries her husband inflicted on Mukhabat M., including partial paralysis and memory loss, mahalla committee representatives officials still hoped to “reconcile” the couple. “We have one chance,” the mahalla committee chairman stated. “If we can make peace between them then the case will be closed…The mahalla committee would then go before the court and say that all is resolved… Why should the children suffer?”165 Mahalla officials, although indicating that children’s interests should be taken into account, fail to recognize that the best interests of the child are not served by witnessing the regular occurrence of violence and abuse in the home.
124 Most of the following section has been taken from “Sacrificing Women to Save the Family? Domestic Violence in Uzbekistan,” Human Rights Watch Report, vol.13, no.4 (D), June 2001. The report is based on detailed interviews with twenty victims of domestic abuse in four rural districts of two provinces, and one urban area. Human Rights Watch also interviewed dozens of women’s rights activists, lawyers, judges, police, doctors, and government officials at the national, province, district, village, and mahalla level. All of the sources for this report agreed to tell their stories only under conditions of complete anonymity, in the case of the victims, for fear of being singled out within their communities, and in the case of officials, for fear of political repercussions. Therefore, all identifying information, including even the province where the interview took place, is withheld, and all of the names of the witnesses in this section of the report are given as pseudonyms.
125 Human Rights Watch interview, Dilovar Kabulova, deputy chairperson, Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, January 31 2002.
126 Human Rights Watch interview with NGO leader, February 3, 2002.
127 Human Rights Watch interview with NGO leader, May 23, 2000.
128 Human Rights Watch interview with Nozigul N., May 17, 2000; Human Rights Watch interview with lawyers’ group, June 1, 2000.
129 Articles 2(1), 3, and 26 of the ICCPR specifically prohibit sex discrimination. In 1996 Uzbekistan ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms Discrmination against Women. In Uzbekistan, the state’s failure to hold accountable perpetrators of domestic violence discriminates against women because it denies them their right to equal protection under the law. State responsibility for human rights violations is widely recognized to include not only acts by states and their agents, but a state’s failure to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and prosecute violations by private actors. States are accountable for consistent patterns of discriminatory enforcement of criminal law. A state is therefore in violation of international law when it persistently fails to address abuses committed against women, whomever the perpetrator. This includes violations to the security of the person. In 1992 the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women stated that “gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men” and that “States may also be responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence, and for providing compensation.” Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation 19, Violence against women, (Eleventh session, 1992), Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 84 (1994).
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the U.N General Assembly in December 1993, and also affirms that “States should... exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by private persons.” It sets out a series of judicial, legislative, administrative and educational steps that a state should take to meet their obligation under international law to bring violence against women to an end. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, U.N. Document A/Res/48/104, February 23, 1994, article 4.
130 See in particular article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Uzbekistan ratified this convention in 1996.
131 Human Rights Watch interview with village council chairman, May 21, 2000.
132 Rural communities may have both a mahalla committee and a village council (kishlak committee). Usually the village council covers several mahalla areas. However, both mahalla committees and village councils are regulated by the Mahalla Law and operate in the same way. Also, in practice both are controlled by the hokimiat structure. Sometimes the mahalla committee will report directly to the hokimiat; sometimes they will report to the village council, which in turn reports to the hokimiat.
133 Human Rights Watch interview with village council chairman, May 21, 2000.
134 Human Rights Watch interview with village council chairman, May 23, 2000.
135 Human Rights Watch interview with deputy mayor and “Jurakhon J.,”the victim, June 3, 2000.
136 Blaming women for their own abuse is not unique to the mahalla. See, Human Rights Watch, “Sacrificing Women to Save the Family,” pp.15- 16.
137 Human Rights Watch interview with village council chairman, May 21, 2000.
138 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla elder, May 23, 2000.
139 Human Rights Watch interview with district hokim, June 3, 2000.
140 Human Rights Watch interview with deputy district hokim, June 3, 2000.
141 Human Rights Watch interview with village council chairman, June 4, 2000.
142 Human Rights Watch interview with Jurakhon J., June 3, 2000.
143 Human Rights Watch interview with Gulchekhra G., May 21, 2000.
144 Human Rights Watch interview with Shahida S., May 21, 2000.
145 Human Rights Watch interview with Malika M., May 23, 2000.
147 Human Rights Watch interview with village council chairman, May 21, 2000.
148 Human Rights Watch interview with Aziza A., May 23, 2000. “Aziza A.” is a pseudonym.
149 Human Rights Watch interview with Rano R., May 20, 2000.
151 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee chairman, May 29, 2000; Human Rights Watch interview with NGO leader, May 23, 2000.
152 Human Rights Watch interview with deputy district mayor for women’s affairs, June 4, 2000.
153 Current and former judges interviewed by Human Rights Watch insisted that preventing divorce was their primary aim when adjudicating divorce cases, explaining that the law, in fact, requires that every attempt be made to keep spouses together. See Human Rights Watch, “Sacrificing Women to Save the Family?”
154 Human Rights Watch interview with village council chairman, May 23, 2000.
157 Human Rights Watch interview with municipal district deputy hokim for women’s affairs, June 1, 2000.
158 Human Rights Watch interview with Lola L., May 24, 2000.
160 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee chairwoman, May 24, 2000.
161 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee chairman, May 22, 2000.
162 Human Rights Watch interview with district hokim, June 3, 2000.
163 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, December 26, 2001
164 Human Rights Watch interview with Mukhabat M., May 21, 2000.
165 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee representative, May 21, 2000.