When it comes to earning a living, women in Tajikistan are turning to leeches, meat factories and medicine as they try to compete in today’s male-dominated business climate.
“Leeches get rid of bad blood and make you beautiful,” said Gulnoz Zairova, a young woman who helps run Jasmine, a beauty salon in Dushanbe. In a snappy beige suit, Zairova stood out among the more traditional bright smocks and headscarves when 50 of Tajikistan’s top female entrepreneurs shared tea at the British ambassador’s residence in Dushanbe during a reception in July.
The event was part of Farah (“Brilliance”) 2012, a contest sponsored by the National Association of Businesswomen of Tajikistan for the title of the country’s first female entrepreneur of the year. “Lots of people know one or two women in business,” said Vicky Fletcher, a British volunteer helping organize the competition. “But we want people to know there are quite a few women around Tajikistan doing good, innovative business.”
Over pink-and-white layer cake and tea, Nabot Gomadina spoke about the challenges of running a business in the isolated and largely inaccessible Pamir Mountains of southeastern Tajikistan. “For five to six months the roads are closed,” she said. “And access to money is poor.” So Gomadina started the region’s first micro-loan enterprise. Then, to help women spend the money wisely, she offered business and financing workshops.
“Here, try a Pamiri Snickers,” Gomadina said, pulling a shiny candy bar out of her pocket. Made of dried mulberries instead of chocolate, it’s a cross between biscuit and fruit leather. Gomadina has started supplying the snacks to Dushanbe and Khujand, in Tajikistan’s north, and once she obtains an international certificate, hopes to expand her market into Russia and Europe.
Obtaining the necessary papers is no easy feat in Tajikistan. Just to export or import goods, more than 10 permits from 10 different state agencies are required, creating a tangle of red tape. A new donor-funded website is set to streamline this process come 2014, but fast-tracking custom regulations is not enough. “We need not only one reform, we need complex reforms in every place – tax, regulations, customs, trade,” said Matluba Uljabaeva, chair of the National Association of Small and Medium Businesses.
Ranked 147th out of 183 economies in a 2012 World Bank report on the ease of doing business, Tajikistan sees little foreign investment and limited local development thanks in part to pervasive corruption. “In terms of doing business, our place in the world is not so good,” said Uljabaeva. “Tajikistan is not competitive yet.”
While a bribe in Tajikistan can buy everything from fire inspection permits to university degrees, Uljabaeva does not blame corruption alone for the country’s bleak business outlook. Education is also an issue. “Lots of people open businesses and have no idea how to keep them running,” she said, adding that there are plenty of economic education facilities in Tajikistan, but most are purely academic and lack practical training. “Our education system needs reform.”
Tajik women have the double challenge of doing business in a struggling economy where traditionally minded Tajiks believe that “women should be at home,” said the head of a non-governmental organization (NGO) in southern Tajikistan who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from officials. Her NGO focuses on training women in business. In theory, it would seem, there should be space for women to enter the domestic workforce, given the fact that roughly a million Tajik men leave the country in search of seasonal work. But during one of her recent training sessions, she was asked by the leader of the regional government, “Why are you training women? Women can’t think about serious things.”
Such attitudes don’t stop the women competing for the entrepreneur of the year award.
Perched on a plush couch at the British ambassador’s residence, wearing velvet smocks and bright headscarves, two women from the northern region of Isfara could be observed talking about crops. They seemed more worried about bad weather than about tackling traditionally male roles. “Agriculture is hard work as a woman, but we’ve got no choice,” explained one of the farmers, a woman in her late 50s. “Because of where we live it’s the only thing we can do – it’s the only way to make a living.”
“There is a perception that women only trade at markets and make clothes,” said Fletcher, the British volunteer. “But we have strong entries from all sectors.” Since March, the National Association of Businesswomen has received more than 280 applications from all corners of the country. “We had a huge cross-section of women [apply], from someone who makes plastic pipes to plastic surgeons,” Fletcher added.
On September 7, the association will choose Tajikistan’s top female entrepreneur. The winner will take home a $20,000 award. “The competition is a great opportunity,” said Fletcher. “But really this is about more than the competition; it is about trying to change attitudes towards women entrepreneurs in Tajikistan. We want this to be an opportunity for women to gain a higher role in society.”
Checking out the competition over tea at the early July reception, the fashion designers, photographers, herbalists, doctors, farmers, as well as the owners of hair salons, pharmacies, dairies and computer shops had a chance to apply their networking skills and swap success stories.
“This kind of leadership is very important in Tajikistan,” said British Ambassador Robin Ord-Smith, addressing the crowd. “I hope it will help us to overcome the discrimination I see in this country and give young Tajik women a future here.”