When I was requested to provide a learning session on United Nations conventions on issues of family and marriage for decision-makers in Uzbekistan – parliamentarians, local authorities, representatives of the Women’s Committee, and members of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the last thing I expected was getting proposals of blind dates with “promising” young sons and nephews of Members of Parliament. (Fortunately, this was not the only result of the session.)
Uzbekistan, with a population of over 28 million – half women – has a bicameral parliament, separation of judiciary, legislative and executive powers as well as the national machinery – Women’s Committee – for promotion of women’s interests in political, social and economic life. Despite many achievements, such as universal literacy and access to healthcare, high employment rates, women still represent a minority in decision-making at all levels.
>> Find out how UNDP supports women in decision-making
A lot of the reasons for such a breakdown are universal:
- Triple burden of women (productive, reproductive and community work)
- Lack of good female role models
- Expectations of a traditional role of women in society
- Early marriages
- Glass ceiling
The list goes on. Even those few women who do find themselves in decision-making positions tend to support (or at least do not openly object to ) the environment that made it very hard for them to get them there. They tend to be entrusted mainly with social issues.
“Gender equality” is interpreted as “feminism” – a bad word in Uzbekistan. However, there is tacit acknowledgement among some mid-level civil servants and the majority of NGOs that much needs to be done to promote equality between men and women; and that for some issues, the country has seen regress rather than progress (including equal access to higher education, informal employment, social safety nets, the work of women’s NGOs).
So this discussion with decision-makers about family and marriage, organized by UNDP’s Parliamentary Development Assistance project, was an opportunity to raise issues of equality between men and women.
Incidentally, 2012 is the Year of the Strong Family in Uzbekistan so this provided a good opening. (The event was also a chance for me to visit the Senate of Uzbekistan for the first time.)
After a formal introduction, and a few speeches, we kicked off with group work and tasks which got people to initially talk timidly with neighbors, then to voice strongly their opinion and finally to debate. Some questions we put on the table:
- Should a family’s budget determine the number of children in a family?
- Would an educated woman raise smarter and healthier kids?
- When and how should education about reproductive health be introduced to girls and boys?
- Are there gaps to equality of women and men, wife and husband in Uzbekistan, in practice or in legislature?
- Should all members of the family have their own sources of income?
Many group presentations of participants and individual responses revealed traditional values of the woman as caregiver and mother, and a man as breadwinner.
But I was also pleased to hear young men present a case defending equal education and equal employment of a wife and a husband. Only then can a family be strong and self-sufficient, they claimed. There were a few women who strongly supported the idea of family planning and joint decision-making on the number and spacing of children, saying that this would enable a healthier and more educated future generation. Another participant talked about the importance of participation of husbands in educating children, to raise them in a more balanced and successful way.
What about culture and tradition?
When I finished my short presentation about main conventions and key principles and messages, we got into the inevitable debate of universal values versus local context.
On the one hand, there is a set of universal rights and values that each person is entitled to, agreed participants. On the other hand, many said that we should respect local context as promotion of conventions and United Nations values (often seen as European values) might lead to family crisis – like in the Western world. Specifically they were referring to high divorce rates, late and low number of marriages, decreasing fertility rates, and a high percentage of retired people.
We did not have ready answers, neither did we plan to change minds or to the find the truth in three hours.
So we put these questions back to the audience – as the ultimate goal of the training was to raise issues of family and marriage in the context of gender equality, to get decision-makers to think and to talk.
It was important to have a venue for discussion and for voicing opinions, both for women and men, about the values in their society, the concerns they have, and the areas for development as they see it.
And when we saw the passion with which these issues were discussed and the spark in the eyes of participants, we knew we had achieved our goal. We also knew that there are progressive individuals and groups that will continue the debate onwards.
P.S. Coming back to the proposals, it is funny how matchmaking works in Uzbekistan. If one sees a young promising woman without a ring, s/he starts inquiring about her or with her because most likely they know somebody who is currently looking for a good bride. So that is how I was offered a few good “candidates” to consider for blind dates and then possibly official brokering and proposal. I’ll keep you posted if that is to come.
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