by Katie MacDonald
Sitting together on the porch in the village of Chobogh, members of a rural Tajik family asked where I was from, if I liked Tajikistan, the cold weather in Seattle, if I made cow-patties to heat my family’s home there, and why I had my nose pierced. I joked that it was because I wanted to be a Bollywood star, coaxing a few smiles from the somber group. But every five minutes or so, a young mother in the family dropped her head into her hands, which held a baby blanket. The night before, her 18-month-old daughter had died — the result of a cold that went to long without medicine. Her mother was my age, just 21.
Women in rural Tajikistan are often isolated, as societal norms and limited access to education mean they work almost exclusively in the home, lack an active role in family or community decision making and have little opportunity for income generation. Over the past 20 years, this has become increasingly problematic due to extremely high levels of male labor migration to Russia. This leaves many women without steady sources of income or ready money in case of medical or other family emergencies.
Save the Children International (SCI) has been working with Tajik women to help alleviate these problems through the “Women’s Wealth and Influence Program.” The project, funded by the UK Department for International Development, facilitates the formation of nearly 3,000 self-directed women’s groups in villages in Khatlon Province. While the groups act and make decisions independently, they are monitored by SCI trained “coaches,” who encourage the women remain active. The primary goal of the program is to help the women establish a pool of revolving credit from which they can take interest-free loans to support their families. To build up their collective funds, the women’s groups decide upon an amount of “indifferent cash” (a small sum of money or pocket change) to place in the group account each month. A bookkeeper and leader are elected to keep track of the accounts and organize meetings. By participating in the women’s groups, aspects of this financial stress are alleviated and women are given a forum to come together to voice problems and benefit from one another’s knowledge.
Thanks to generous assistance provided by the Ilse D. Cirtatuas Fellowship I assisted the SCI office in implementing the program in rural communities in Khatlon Province. My internship took place in one of SCI Tajikistan’s field offices in the city of Kulob, which is roughly four hours south of the capital, Dushanbe. Despite being the third largest city in Tajikistan, Kulob is small, with a population that is overwhelmingly made up of first- or second-generation residents of nearby villages. It boasts few major sites or the trappings of a modern city, and tourists or foreign workers are rare.
Over the course of two months, I visited dozens of women’s groups throughout southern Tajikistan, observing both the establishment of new groups and participating in the monitoring of previously formed groups. During these visits I was responsible for interviewing women in the groups to collect their thoughts on the program, problems they face and the ways in which they have been able to improve their families’ welfare by taking loans from the group collective savings. Individually, women commonly took out loans to purchase medicine, bring their daughter-in-laws to district hospitals to give birth, get identification cards for their children, pay back bank loans and buy shoes for school. Groups also opted to use the funds for collective goods, such as reinforcing flood walls, cleaning waterways, opening sewing workshops and celebrating holidays and weddings. Overall, I was impressed that the program was self-sustaining, participant run and respectful of social norms.
In many ways, working in these villages encompassed everything that gives me drive. I was able to participate and learn about village culture in southern Tajikistan, touring farm houses, baking bread and breaking bread over endless cups of tea and conversations about family life. I also came to understand the difficulties of women’s lives in these villages. I learned more from speaking one-on-one with these women about the lives of people in this region, needs and development practice, and the beautiful culture of southern Tajikistan than I ever have from my classes.
Gallery: Lives of women in Tajikistan (story continues below)
Returning to the SCI office, I would compile the interviews into “success stories” or “case studies,” which would be shared with program directors. These were used to improve methodology, or many times were shared with other women’s groups to provide them ideas and inspiration.
As one of the only staff members with competency in written English and the only non-Tajik staff, the majority of my work focused on translating the information we gathered from the field into English or other formats to make it more accessible, including organizing and inputting monitoring and evaluation statistics, editing and translating reports. To support the completion of these tasks after I left, I also held English classes twice a week for staff members.
When I began my internship I was living in an apartment attached to the office; however, true to the famed hospitality of the region, after two weeks, I was adopted into a local Kulobi family. Living with them gave me an invaluable opportunity to learn about Kulobi family life. Working alongside their daughter, I learned how to cook local foods and the methods in which they complete daily housework.
While I was staying with them, their oldest daughter was married and I was able to join in the wedding preparations — from packing of her dowry to the ceremony itself, to hosting 300 neighbors and friends for a meal in the family’s five-room apartment and dancing with relatives in the procession as the bride left for her husband’s house. In contrast to this elaborate city wedding, I also attended three weddings in villages along the Panj River in the Shuroobod district, along the border with Afghanistan. Simpler and more traditional, these weddings each had their own set of special ceremonies; for example, prior to entering her new husband’s home the bride is required to prepare bread dough before her in-laws.
I have built wonderful and lasting relationships with all the people I met in Kulob, in particular the family with whom I stayed. I plan to keep these ties alive and come back to Kulob in the coming years to visit, and attend the wedding of their son.
Katie MacDonald is an undergraduate with a double major in Persian and the Middle East track of the Jackson School. She is grateful to the Ilse D. Cirtautas Fellowship for providing funding for her 2013 summer internship with Save the Children International in Tajikistan, and plans to continue her research on women in Tajikistan.