8 October 2012
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon met with non-governmental organizations to discuss the situation of the rights of women in Turkmenistan, the report of which will be reviewed by the Committee this week along with that of the Comoros. No non-governmental organizations were in attendance to discuss the situation of women’s rights in the Comoros.
Representatives of non-governmental organizations in Turkmenistan said that the country was one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, figuring on the bottom of the lists regarding political freedoms, freedom of the media, freedoms of association, assembly and speech, freedoms of religion or belief and freedom of movement. Although the country report described progress made, neither the numbers nor the listed initiatives were based on reality, an organization said, and any achievements listed by the Turkmen authorities must be treated with great caution. Another speaker highlighted critical areas of concern where women faced discrimination, including employment, denied political freedoms, cultural stereotypes and prejudice, rape and violence against women, sexuality, reproductive healthcare, including the lack of contraceptives which led to high abortion rates, ‘virginity proof’ and an absence of treatment or support for women living with HIV.
Speaking during the discussion were representatives from the Central Asia Human Rights and Sexual Rights Initiative and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
When the Committee reconvenes in public on Wednesday 10 October at 10 a.m., it will begin its consideration of the combined initial to fourth periodic report of the Comoros (CEDAW/C/COM/1-4). The report of Turkmenistan (CEDAW/C/TKM/3-4) will be reviewed on Thursday, 11 October.
Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations on Turkmenistan
A representative of the Central Asia Human Rights and Sexual Rights Initiative spoke about the following critical issues documented and prioritized by its network members operating within Turkmenistan: political freedoms denied to women, cultural stereotypes, violence against women, sexuality, and reproductive health. The oppressive power of cultural stereotypes and prejudice was at the root of the systematic violence and denial of human rights suffered by women and girls in Turkmenistan, she said. Although criminalized, rape was frequent within marriage and was almost never reported due to the victimization, shame and fear faced by survivors. Commonly rape survivors were forced to continue in a relationship with their rapist due to their fear of being rejected by family and society and of being blackmailed. There was no legislation to prohibit sexual assault or harassment. HIV was officially non-existent in Turkmenistan which meant that women living with HIV were invisible and subject to stigma and discrimination. Sex work was illegal, and about 70 per cent of sex workers were injecting drug users who received no support. Homosexuality was criminalized and considered a mental disorder. Men were sent to psychiatric institutions to receive ‘cures’ for homosexuality while lesbian women were forced into marriage. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons were culturally invisible, very stigmatized and rarely able to unite into groups due to fear of forced disclosure which could lead to violence. Women found it hard to find appropriate family planning and sexual health services, with stigma attached to the use of condoms and other barrier methods. Abortion was legal and even though it was not culturally acceptable there was a big demand for them. Abortions were unfortunately mostly used as a contraceptive method due to the low availability of actual contraceptives. Furthermore practices of virginity proof and ‘virginity recovery’ through vaginal reconstructive surgery were socially acceptable.
A representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said that Turkmenistan was one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, figuring on the bottom of the lists regarding political freedoms, freedom of the media, freedoms of association, assembly and speech, freedoms of religion or belief and freedom of movement. Women suffered twofold. Although the country report described progress made, neither the numbers nor the listed initiatives were based on reality, emphasized by the lack of reliable statistics and limited possibility for independent verification of any information in Turkmenistan. There was no functioning civil society in the country and international organizations were not granted access. It followed that any achievements listed by the Turkmen authorities must be treated with great caution. Key areas of concern included gender discrimination in employment and society, as women were expected to stay at home to care for the house, husband and children, and girls were not usually educated. At the same time, the woman was normally the main breadwinner in the family, despite challenges in the field of employment. Another area was the lack of a law prohibiting violence against women or domestic violence in the Criminal Code, as well as the frequent phenomenon of hidden polygamy. The strict treatment of women in prison was another serious concern. Women sentenced to the women’s prison in Dashoguz were subjected to hard and dangerous labour, intense heat or cold from the climate, dismal health facilities and endemic corruption and abuse. The organization made several recommendations that they asked the Committee to take into account when drafting its concluding remarks.
Questions by Committee Experts
An Expert asked about the status of divorced women in Turkmenistan, particularly with regard to her employment upon divorce. It seemed that single girls could not get an employment contract, only married women. She also requested information about the situation of rural women.
How did the organization’s contacts, who were presumably human rights defenders on the ground in Turkmenistan, work with and contact them with new information, particularly on court cases regarding discrimination.
The issue of trafficking in persons was raised by one Expert, who said she was trying to make sense of conflicting information from non-governmental organizations and the State party, and asked for clarification of figures.
Response by Non-Governmental Organizations
Divorced women were considered ‘fallen women’, a speaker said, as society believed that a good woman would stay with her husband and family, and a divorcee was not a good woman and was regarded as a prostitute. It was therefore not considered good for an employer to consider employing a divorced woman due to her very low status in society.
A speaker said there had been no attempt by their contacts on the ground in Turkmenistan to go to courts to report on trial proceedings, as it was simply too dangerous for them. Furthermore there was unlikely to be a fair trial system anyway, so the risk of attending courts to report was not worth it.
The State Department of the United States recently released a report on trafficking in Turkmenistan which carried details including that the crime of trafficking carried a sentence of four to 25 years imprisonment, but the offender could be cleared from any penalty if they voluntarily released their prisoner. The Government had punished trafficking victims for crimes committed by being trafficked, such as visa violations: instead of being helped and supported, victims of trafficking were punished by the Turkman State.
Both organizations offered to provide the Committee with more details and statistics following the meeting.
For use of information media; not an official record