Preventing violence against women and girls is possible, but it needs resource and collaboration

Salima still remembers the constant arguments she used to have with her husband, after he had had too much to drink, a habit he picked up while doing seasonal work in Russia. The money that he would earn in Russia would not last very long, leaving the family struggling with food and household expenses. This only created more tension.

Violence against women and girls is widespread in Tajikistan, with national data showing that half of all women have experienced violence from their husbands or in-laws. Young girls are particularly vulnerable to such violence. In 2016, a survey by International Alert found that 60% of women had experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse in past 12 months. It showed high rates of depression and suicidality, among both men and women.

A woman with a neutral expression in a green and yellow jumper, red scarf and black hat stands beside a tree.
© Aziz Sattori/International Alert

Patriarchal social norms, poverty and alcohol abuse are all to blame for the violence against women and girls in Tajikistan. So efforts to prevent such violence needs to tackle all those issues.

This is what our project Zindagii Shoista (‘Living with Dignity’) set out to do: preventing violence against women and girls, by combining behaviour change and economic empowerment approaches tailored to the Tajik context and involving all family members.

The involvement of the entire family was vital to ending the abuse. In Tajikistan, the family goes beyond the husband and wife unit, and includes the in-laws who often exploit and are violent towards younger daughters-in-law. Reinforcing positive ideas of gender relationships and changing harmful ones required everyone’s buy-in.

Working in four villages, we held a series of workshops for women, their families and communities, which aimed at ending the abuse and changing attitudes towards women. At the same time, we provided training for families to set up their own small businesses, so they could gain economic and social independence.

Through our workshops, families got to discuss issues such as gender relationships, health, family conflict, violence, and improve their communication and relationship skills. Families also learned to appreciate women’s contribution to household economics, and to better manage their finances, for example through budgeting and the use of loans. The workshops helped families set up small businesses such as cattle breeding, beekeeping and furniture hire, among others.

Over the past two years, the project has had tremendous success in the rural communities where we worked: The number of young women experiencing violence from both their husbands and in-laws was reduced by half. People’s mental health improved significantly: Depression rates nearly halved in women and more than halved in men. Similarly, men and women felt significantly less suicidal.

The project has also led to positive changes in the economic situation of the families involved. Women’s earnings increased by four times, and there was a ten-fold increase in the proportion of women with any savings. In addition, levels of food insecurity have decreased. The proportion of women with severe food insecurity reduced from 56% to 19%, and the proportion of men from 33% to 0%.

For Salima, this has meant a healthier family environment, and better financial circumstances after she started her business. Her husband, who also joined the training sessions, has stopped drinking, is more supportive, calm and easier to interact with now.

Salima now hopes that the next generation of her family will also be able to escape the violence she had to endure. “I would love to see this work expanded to involve young boys and girls because they will establish families in the near future and should be prepared to respect and ‘live with dignity’ with one another,” she told us.

Because despite our project’s success, violence against women and girls remains a widespread and critical concern in Tajikistan with long-term damaging consequences for individuals and the wider Tajik society. Our project shows that it is entirely possible to prevent violence against women and girls in Tajikistan, and in doing so have positive impacts on people’s emotional wellbeing, family dynamics and economic security. Yet, to continue, this work requires more resources, determination and collaboration between the government, donors and civil society.

Zindagii Shoista was a project funded through DFID’s What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls – a global project to find out how the violence epidemic can be stopped.

We have produced a workshop series designed for men and women which aims to promote harmony within families and reduce violence, together with our partners Cesvi, Farodis, Zanoni Sharq, Development and Prosperity (ATO). Our new manual can be used by anyone wishing to look at a peacebuilding approach to tackling violence.