In the developed world, we typically associate words like “auto” and “housing” with the word loan. Here in Tajikistan, the two most common associations are “sewing machine” and “livestock”. This reflects the current state of the Tajik domestic economy, which has struggled to keep pace with the rest of her neighbors since the civil war ended in the late 20th century. The road to peace has been long and tedious, but the journey towards sustainable economic development has been even more arduous. With more than 90% of the country covered by mountains, economic opportunities in Tajikistan are extremely limited. Even in the main cities of Dushanbe and Khujand, with a dearth of foreign investments and lack of sizable domestic enterprises, very few jobs are available to the Tajik people. Consequently, many Tajik men end up leaving the country to work in neighboring Russia.
According to the World Bank, about 42% of Tajikistan’s GDP rely on remittances from Tajiks working abroad, of which more than half comes from those working in Russia, propping up the ailing Tajikistan economy. With the men gone, Tajik women bear huge responsibilities at home. Very often, a newly-wed wife is immediately obligated to bear children, take care of the extended household, and at the same time find other means of contribution to the household income. If you want to find a “superwoman”, it is highly likely that you will encounter one in Tajikistan.
During my time here as a Kiva Fellow, I have met many enterprising women who juggle a ton of responsibilities. The most common source of independent income a woman can earn in Tajikistan is through sewing, which is quite profitable despite the amount of effort involved. Women typically take out small loans to purchase sewing machines which they use to produce beautiful Tajik national dresses for sale. Some purchase their own fabrics, while others use the customer’s fabric and charge only a service fee for sewing.
Having a husband who works and lives in Russia also creates additional “problems” for the women of Tajikistan. Often, after spending a significant time out of the country, the Tajik men end up having Russian partners, and some even start new families. This week, I experienced the most neuklyuzhiy, meaning awkward, situation in Tajikistan to date…
We were supposed to visit one of the borrowers last week, but when we got to the branch office, we were told that her husband had come back from Russia for a surprise visit! I thought, “What are the odds! Oh well, it is Tajikistan.” Earlier this week, we were told that she could not meet us as she had an urgent thing to attend to. On Thursday morning, the coordinator told me that we could meet her in the afternoon. Then around lunch, I was told again that her sister was about to give birth, and we could only meet her depending on the outcome. When we finally departed the office to meet her on Thursday evening, I thought we had won the lottery – finally this cat and mouse game was going to come to an end!
She was a petite-sized middle-aged lady, and she had used her Kiva loan to purchase a sewing machine and some appliances for her home. She derives her sole source of income from her sewing activities. When I asked her how much money her husband sends back to support the household on average, she said none. As we chatted, I realized that her husband had indeed returned for a surprise visit, but it was to apologize to her for cheating on her and having a family in Russia. Apparently, her son had gone to Russia to work recently and found out about this. He had then forced his father to return home to apologize to his mother! I stood there dumbfounded. This entire exchange also happened through the help of my co-worker Fariza, who had a we-really-should-end-this-conversation face as she related the story to me.
After exchanging a few more bits of information, we parted ways. Right before saying goodbye, she had even invited me over to her house for plov. I humbly rejected her offer, and rode back in the taxi thinking “wow, that was neuklyuzhiy”.
Such is the fate and hard lives of women in Tajikistan. Consider making a loan to support the women of Tajikistan here!