Four years ago, Farida Hajimova’s husband left Tajikistan to work in Russia. After a time, he stopped calling. Ultimately, he never returned. She was left at home in Dushanbe with two daughters and not a lot of options. Now she says she has no choice but to follow in her ex-husband's footsteps -- not to find him, but to find work herself.
Hajimova is one of an increasing number of Tajik women journeying abroad, mostly to Russia, as labor migrants. Until relatively recently, the overwhelming majority of migrant workers leaving Tajikistan were men. But desperation and poverty are forcing tens of thousands of women to hit the road. Experts voice concern that many female migrants are at risk of being abused and trafficked for sex.
“I have only been able to find part-time work here in Dushanbe,” said 28-year-old Hajimova, who plans to follow two friends who work as cleaning ladies in Moscow. “My oldest daughter will go to school in September and I need to be able to afford to buy her the necessary supplies. The children will stay with their aunt and I will go to Moscow.”
Tajikistan’s dependence on remittances from labor migrants abroad is well-documented. Last year, Tajiks working in Russia sent home $2.96 billion, the equivalent of 45 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the National Bank. That makes Tajikistan the world’s most remittance-dependent country. The International Monetary Fund is projecting a 13-percent increase in remittance flows into Tajikistan this year. Over 1 million Tajiks, or roughly one out of every eight Tajik citizens, are estimated to work abroad as migrant laborers.
The share of Central Asian women going abroad to work is quickly growing. An analyst at the State Migration Service in Dushanbe estimates around 15 percent of Tajik labor migrants are now women. In 2003, his office said females comprised 6 percent of the migrant workforce.
“A mixture of poverty and increasing divorce rates in Tajikistan, which leave many women destitute, have contributed to this rise,” Natalia Bogdanova, Moscow-based rights activist and head of Migrant’s Rights, a non-governmental organization, told EurasiaNet.org.
Like the men, many female Tajiks work abroad illegally. In December, Konstantin Romodanovsky, director of Russia’s Federal Migration Service, estimated that only 14 percent of the roughly 9.1 million foreign nationals working in the country had work permits, Russian media reported.
Without proper legal protections, Tajik migrants in Russia face threats arising from xenophobia, dangerous working conditions and hostile police. In 2011, Tajikistan received at least 818 boxes of “Cargo 200” – Soviet-era slang for coffins – from Russia, the Interior Ministry said in late December. Eighty-nine of the deaths were attributed to hate crimes. Women face additional risks. “Most of the women work in domestic jobs, as cooks and cleaners. Many of them work here illegally,” Bogdanova said. “Many of them have very basic knowledge of Russian, leaving them open to exploitation, unsafe working conditions and blackmail.”
“We see cases in which women are promised jobs here and then forced to work for free, sometimes as prostitutes. …Crimes go unreported,” Bogdanova added, “because most women are not officially registered.”
That is what happened to Dushanbe divorcee Mavluda. “I married at 18, but soon my husband took a second wife and kicked me out of the house. A man approached me in Dushanbe and told me that he could arrange for me to work in Russia and I would earn $1,000 a month,” Mavluda, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals, recalled. When she arrived in Moscow, her new employers seized her passport and she was put to work in a café kitchen for no pay. “I was terrified. They told me that if I told the authorities, they would beat me. I begged them and after six months I got my documents back. I returned home to Tajikistan.”
Thirty-five-year-old Karomat Igamova from Kurgan-Tube, in southern Tajikistan, moved to St. Petersburg in 2009 after her husband divorced her and abandoned their four children. She found work selling fruit in a bazaar. At first she struggled, but “the situation has improved recently,” she told EurasiaNet.org by telephone. “The economy is getting stronger and I am working five days a week now, instead of three. I now send home enough money to support my family,” two daughters and two sons who live with relatives.
Of course, conditions for many migrants remain difficult. “I live in an apartment with six other women,” Igamova said. “There is little privacy or personal space. Our landlord recently threatened to report us to the police unless we paid him a $100 bribe.”
Such tales abound in Dushanbe. But in a country where half the population lives on less than two dollars a day, they are not a deterrent. “Of course I am scared,” said Hajimova, the mother planning her first move to Moscow. “I have heard stories about life in Russia. But there are no opportunities here. What choice do I have? I have to feed my family.