Tajikistan is one of the world’s most remittance-dependent countries. Each year, an estimated million Tajik citizens, mostly men, travel abroad in search of work. The women who remain in Tajikistan also work, many in informal jobs in the agricultural sector. The divide is stark: in 2012 Tajikistan’s migration service reported that 85.9 percent of seasonal labor migrants were men. As the male share of agriculture jobs declined, the female share rose.
While it may seem like a simple shift — women filling in for men who have left in search of higher paying jobs — a recent paper aims to deepen understanding of how the increasing number of women participating in the Tajik labor force has impacted gender norms.
The paper, titled “The feminization of agriculture in post-Soviet Tajikistan” and authored by Nozilakhon Mukhamedova, of the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO), and Kai Wegerich, of Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, “attempts to answer whether [the increase in women’s labor participation] has helped to lift gender inequalities or whether, on the contrary, it has served to reinforce patriarchal values.”
Published in the Journal of Rural Studies (and available to read for free here), the paper spends significant space explaining the structure and background of the Tajik agricultural sector. Post-Independence and after the ravages of the Civil War, Tajiks in rural areas found agricultural work increasingly insufficient to meet their household needs. Low wages prompted outmigration, gender norms tilted this migration heavily in the male direction. Women’s responsibilities grew in the absence of the male family members who went abroad in search of better-paying work.
“Increased involvement and the diversification of the roles of women in agricultural activities have led to the phenomenon of feminization of the agricultural labor force,” the authors note.
Gender norms in Tajikistan are rooted in two sets of traditions: those of Islam and those of the Soviet Union. Traditional family values view men as breadwinners and women as caretakers. Soviet modernization, the authors write, was a paradox: women were integrated into the workforce and declared equal citizens, but at the same time motherhood was lionized and the Soviet Union exploited patriarchal family structures. Even under the touted gender equality of the Soviet system some agricultural tasks, such as planting, weeding, trimming and harvesting, were women’s jobs while men took on roles in irrigation, transportation, mechanization, and heavy land preparation tasks.
After independence, the Soviet social safety net and guaranteed employment inherent to the collective farm system weakened. The rural population, the authors write, were left with few opportunities beyond poorly paid jobs in agriculture. “Both the causes and outcomes of poverty are heavily gendered and women and girls have borne a greater share of the cost of economic transition,” they note. While maintaining previous household responsibilities (like rearing children) Tajik women have taken on a greater burden of both formal and informal work to keep their households afloat.
According to one study of poverty in Tajikistan at the turn of the century cited in the paper, “Average remittances received by Tajik households account for only 10 to 12 percent of total household income.” This shortfall put pressure on women to take up additional work, either formal or informal, to fill gaps in household income.
The interplay between gender norms and necessity seems to have led to a feminization of some previously male-dominated agricultural positions, particularly in the services. One of the authors’ case studies looked specifically at mirobs (water masters) who manage the provision of irrigation services in rural communities. Water resources in Tajikistan are limited and management of water distribution a serious matter for rural communities.
As social changes — i.e. outmirgation of men — increased the role of women as household managers and primary users of kitchen gardens. This also meant that mirobs, traditionally men, increasingly had to deal directly with women. But cultural norms, which mandated that men not enter homes of women to whom they are not related, also impeded mirobs from doing their jobs.
One interview the authors conducted is quite illustrative in this regard:
I think it’s possible for a woman to become a mirob although it is considered to be a man’s job. Male mirobs, who worked previously, had difficulties communicating with women water recipients. In the absence of a male representative, a male mirob would not be able to enter a house with only women or shout at a woman in case of a turn violation or water theft, neither could he fine her nor restrict her off-take. A woman mirob is in a better position to be strict and shout at the women who do not fulfill the irrigation turn rules and do not pay for water.
Paradoxically, holding to a gendered tradition (separation of the sexes) has paved the way for the entry of women into a male-dominated field.
As the authors conclude, “economic and social transition as well as structural changes led to the erosion of traditional roles.” The informality of the work taken up by women is “essential” because of the flexibility it offers — allowing women to mesh their existing responsibilities with additional work. Informal positions, however, are subject to “low protection, security, and earnings.”
Women’s wages are about 65 percent lower than men’s in Tajikistan, an astounding gap.
At the same time, despite these downsides and risks, the authors write that “increased participation in the labor force is a sign of their entrance into a wider spectrum of labor opportunities as well as greater sensitivities to economic, social, and political events and the growth of their decision-making power.”
The implications of the paper for Tajikistan worth examining in light of its decline in remittances. In 2016, remittances to Tajikistan dropped in part due to Russia’s economic downturn and adjustment to lower oil prices and sanctions. While the World Bank expects remittances to the Central Asia region to rise in 2017, Tajikistan may not benefit as greatly as neighboring Kyrgyzstan which has overtaken Tajikistan as the region’s top receiver of remittances. Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which provides its citizens easier access to Russia than those of Tajikistan, which is not a member. Some have suggested this pressure will motivate Dushanbe to join the EEU.
If migrating for work is no longer an attractive option and agricultural jobs, now filled by women, remain lowly paid in Tajikistan — where will rural Tajik men make money to support their families? Should Tajik men return to the agricultural sector, what happens to the women now filling those jobs? Are the changes to gender norms in Tajikistan lasting or merely circumstantial?