In previous installments, I discussed the broad and occasionally abstract topics of how religion, identity, educationand security intersect in Central Asia—themes the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) is exploring in itsconferences in Central Asia. In this final installment, I will focus on something much more concrete: the unique challenges facing women of faith in Central Asia—challenges that impact the security of people and states around the world.
I will highlight Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which are facing tremendous social obstacles to stable development, and both of which are critical to Central Asia’s long-term security, being the front line of defense against militants and traffickers coming from Afghanistan. The struggles of these two countries bear directly on the security of their powerful neighbors—China and Russia—and by extension the rest of the globe.
Kyrgyzstan gives us an excellent example of how the status of women impacts regional security. If a Westerner has heard anything about Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, they have probably heard about bride kidnapping. Nearly half of Kyrgyz women are abducted and forced into marriage, which is just one example of epidemic domestic abuse in Kyrgyzstan. At IGE’s recent conference in Bishkek, researchers showed that this domestic abuse drives women to join extremist groups. Denied a safe space in the home, they seek that space anywhere they can find it.
But an even bigger concern is how the community is affected when women are marginalized, demoralized and abused. In both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, women of faith play a crucial role in community life—they are the ones responsible for child rearing, the spiritual torchbearers who will pass on the faith to their children—and they create the community’s collective memory and set its moral discourse. When women are unschooled and impoverished, these roles, critical for a stable society, are diminished.
Education—religious and vocational—is vital if women of faith are to fulfill these roles. Religious education, as I argued recently, can guard against extremism and foster a sense of civic responsibility. But these opportunities are lacking. In Kyrgyzstan, women’s madrassas exist, but there aren’t nearly enough to meet society’s needs. In Tajikistan, parents with limited resources will invest first in their sons’ religious education, leaving little for their daughters. Since women are the ones who pass on the faith to their children, this religious illiteracy affects the entire community.
These women also need vocational training, which can strengthen their role in the community. Take Tajikistan, for example, where poverty afflicts women disproportionately. Opinion polls show that the majority of Tajiks believe that women should work outside the home and supplement the family income. But many women lack the skills to do so. These women are left vulnerable, and the community suffers for it.
Protecting women in these countries and empowering them in their communities is not just a human rights issue, but also a security issue that affects Central Asia, China and Russia—and thus the world. How should the international community respond?
Advocacy is not enough. Women are kept down by bottom-up forces. Abuse, poverty and ignorance are the main culprits, and even if we could convince Central Asian governments that this situation is dangerous and unsustainable, they don’t have the capacity to act. Grassroots problems require grassroots solutions.
In this case, community-level development projects can address security and human rights issues. At IGE, we have seen this need in our program on religion, security and citizenship in Central Asia. As a result, our next project, the Silk Road Initiative, will combine this development work with dialogue between government and civil society on religion and security. It will build on the successes of our partners at the Carnegie Endowment, whose projects have provided Internet access and entrepreneurship training for girls and women, as well as IGE’s conferences, which have convened government and grassroots leaders for a dialogue on religion, security and citizenship.
While I believe IGE’s efforts will make a difference, the problems affecting women in Central Asia are endemic. The international community can’t just view the plight of Central Asian women through the lens of human rights, security, or even development. Those concerned with any of these areas need to think about all of them, and develop cross-cutting solutions to match. Those solutions will benefit women’s lives, Central Asia’s prosperity, and our security.
-Cory Bender is Program Officer for Central Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement, a think-and-do tank working at the critical intersection of religion and global affairs, building sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.