Voices of Tajik Women during Covid

Nazira Kurbonova Women's Economic Empowerment

A rapid lockdown confined Tajik workers in Russia, with limited flights and massive job losses, cutting off the flow of remittances for more than a million families (remittances make up 30% of Tajikistan’s GDP).  Healthcare workers in Tajikistan were in precarious conditions where COVID-19 was not always seen as deadly or even recognized. Small business owners grappled with how to make ends meet between unpaid care work, limited government support and living with disabilities.

These are the stories of four Tajik women, sharing their challenges, their successes and how they persevere, in their own words.

Meet Safargul- Family doctor and midwife

“We work overtime through weekends. Together with other doctors we go to villages, provide verbal consultations, and make sure people are aware of prophylactic measures. I try to spare more time for elderly patients and women, as they are in more risky positions.”

She also explained the distinct, intersectional challenges that women, girls and displaced persons face.

 “A pandemic is a pandemic, but people have to continue with their life. For women and girls, every day risks their health, going long distances to fetch water. The land is all dry and less productive, so farmers are forced to look for other seasonal jobs. Most of them become internally displaced people as this forced them to live on the outskirts of urban areas.

Another concern is the increased domestic violence. When I visit homes, victims seek psychological support. They also complain about too much unpaid care work, financial issues and girls dropping out of school to support their mothers at home. All these, I am sure, will bring a negative impact in the long run, like a vicious cycle…continuing to the next generation. Our district has only one centralized hospital, so women do not know about safe shelters or hotlines to obtain any help and access to legal services.”

Meet Habiba – Carer from a migrant worker family

“We planned to organize a wedding ceremony for Murod [my son] but the pandemic had its own plans for the family. Since March 2020, borders were closed between the countries to prevent the spread of the disease.”

This rapid decision meant that migrants [like Murod] were stuck in Russia, even the ones who managed to obtain tickets got stuck in airports. Habiba explained how most migrant workers do not typically have official work documents, because of the prohibitively high cost to obtain these.

Migrants tend to live in cramped rooms with ten or more people so that they can send home remittances. Already prior to the pandemic, migrants had been taken into temporary detention but the pandemic further exacerbated this situation, accelerated by job losses and workers’ inability to pay for work licenses. Central Asian migrant labourers launched a strike in April because of living conditions in detention, including close proximity to Covid patients.  Every week, Habiba sent 300-400 somonies (about $28-38 USD) to her son hoping that this would allow him to negotiate for the return home and meet his basic needs.

The first charter flights from Russia were on May 24th/25th, bringing back 237 migrants and thirteen coffins of those who had died from COVID. Murod initially had to wait out the pandemic but after his tickets were no longer valid due to continuous flight cancellations and also not being rebooked, he is still currently in Russia.

Meet Gulafruz and Marjon – Dressmaker and Carer

Gulafruz looks after her elderly parents and her sister, while their brother works as a migrant worker in Russia. She is also a skilled dressmaker in her community.

“My customers are at home so I receive fewer orders nowadays. I used to make 40 somonies (about $4) for a dress in a day. During the pandemic, it is hardly 30 somonies in two weeks… The financial assistance provided by the government for me and my sister’s disability is not enough to buy medication and food.”

She has now transitioned into sewing face masks and successfully negotiated with the village shop owner to sell them, with no commission and therefore at no extra cost to her.

Because Tajikistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2016, Marjon initially received rehabilitation but these essential services were put on hold due to Covid measures. Most recently, Gulafruz travelled to the capital to buy medicine for her sister. Unfortunately, during her travels, she was infected with COVID-19 and the additional cost of treatment is yet another economic strain on the family and her, as the main carer and breadwinner.  As of October, a social worker visited through a referral support system and Marjon is now studying to become a nurse but Gulafruz has stopped tailoring as she is sick. The family has been earmarked for government COVID-19 poverty support but is still waiting to access these funds.

Learn more about Oxfam in Tajikistan’s work on women’s economic empowerment in our gender newsletter


Nazira Kurbonova

This post was originally written for the Women’s Economic Empowerment Knowledge Hub. Find out more about the initiative here.