How EU Helps Women in Uzbekistan to Find Their Place in the Economy

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Special correspondent for international markets
Charlotte Adriaen, an Ambassador of the European Union to Uzbekistan told Kursiv

Gender equality is one of the key issues in the European Union’s political agenda. The EU promotes these values in every country it has diplomatic relations with. Uzbekistan is not excluded. Over the last five years, the way the EU has been supporting Uzbek women has changed. In March 2021, Charlotte Adriaen was appointed as ambassador of the EU to Uzbekistan. In an exclusive interview with the Kursiv edition, she talked about the EU policy aimed at promoting gender equality and raising the profile of women in Uzbek society. 

– Mrs. Adriaen, the EU has actively supported gender equality in Uzbekistan. Why does it pay so much attention to this?

– Gender equality is a common value for the EU, similar to human rights. Fortunately, Uzbekistan’s government agrees, and this is a great opportunity to promote gender equality in the country together. 

When women are presented in all spheres of public life including the economy, it makes a society more resilient and promotes its development. In Uzbekistan, women have huge potential. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), if women’s presence in the labor market in Uzbekistan is increased by 25%, it would boost the country’s GDB by 5%. Of course, it’s not the only reason we should do so, even though it is a really good reason to promote gender equality in the country. 

– What kind of programs for women has the EU been implementing in Uzbekistan? 

– Until 2016 the EU activities in Uzbekistan were focused on projects aimed at family and health support. Since 2017 the EU has implemented initiatives linked to the expansion of rights and capabilities of women. We actively support local organizations which are involved in this area. As a result, we can monitor the situation with gender equality in the entire country. In May I visited a shelter for victims of gender-based violence run by Rakhmdillik, a non-commercial organization. It’s great when you see such support for women by civil society. We also do support similar projects. 

However, we do not want to restrict our activity to just project initiatives. The EU has always expanded its toolset for cooperation. 

In April 2021 Uzbekistan was assigned as a beneficiary of the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+). This status will let Uzbek companies export to the EU about 6,200 items free of customs duties. This is another efficient tool of interaction between the EU and Uzbekistan including gender issues because in order to meet GSP+ requirements, the country needs to join 27 different conventions. One of these conventions is the convention against women discrimination. In other words, our cooperation with the Uzbek authorities, local civil society and the private sector on monitoring and fighting against gender inequality is based on these principles.

Moreover, we have been discussing with the government budgeting support from the EU. We are going to focus our efforts on reforming several sectors, including agriculture where we’ve already done a lot. It is very important to keep budgeting gender-responsible to make sure both men and women have equal access to financial resources. This gender-responsible budgeting principle is reflected in the country’s strategy on gender equality development. 

– What changes in the gender policy in Uzbekistan can you highlight? 

– I’ve been here in Uzbekistan only since March 2021 but I know that the country has adopted 25 new laws and the local legislation has evolved over the last few years. I’ve looked into the country’s strategy on gender equality. This is an interesting document as it covers all facets of public life and guarantees women free access to education, public life and the decision-making process. Today Uzbek women can make a career in science or business, not just sewing or teaching as it was before. 

This is very important for the development of the entire society. Women have huge potential. Where there is a will there is a way, as the phrase goes. Just let them do that.    

However, it’s not enough to just write a strategy. You have to implement it, which is not so easy. For example, we have to monitor how all these new laws work. I mean there are loads of issues that must be solved.

For example, an awful incident occurred in a local university recently. It was sexual harassment toward a female student by her teacher. While being attacked, she was forced to jump out of a window. Fortunately, she is alive. The vast majority of staff in that university is female but all decisions are made by men. However, it’s more important that this incident has gone public even though people used to hide such dark secrets. This time, law enforcement officials took action really fast; an emergency hotline for girls has been opened and all universities have been warned that harassment is unacceptable. This means that the laws are working and the situation is getting better.

Also, these changes might be observed at the political level. In 2018 women in the Uzbek parliament accounted for 16% of deputies. Since then this figure has risen twofold to 32%. However, there are still not enough women among decision-makers in the government, private sector or state enterprises. The political will is needed. Once again, where there is a will there is a way. 

–Is the EU going to facilitate Uzbekistan in achieving these goals?

– The goal of the EU’s new multiannual indicative program for 2021-2027 is to make 85% of our projects gender-responsible. We have to meet these guidelines when we analyze an impact on women and gender equality by any of our projects. This rule must be applied to projects in any sphere: finance, environment, green technologies, agriculture or management. We have to research any aspect of that project to make sure that it is gender-responsible. 

I believe this is a great tool that can be helpful in the implementation of the government’s strategy of reforms and can help civil society to better interact with media and guarantee changes for good to both women and men. 

– What do you think is the main reason for domestic violence against women in Uzbekistan? What can society do to fight gender-based violence? Are there any methods or best practices the EU can bring to Uzbekistan?

– Gender-based violence is a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the growth of domestic violence incidents during the pandemic. That’s why the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in her September address to the EU called on its members to intensify work against gender-based violence. 

For women who were stuck at home because of the pandemic, that situation has gone from bad to worse. Women have been hit by the impacts of COVID-19 the most. Their jobs were cut off first, they’ve suffered from gender-based violence and they worked in the sectors which were affected by the pandemic first. At the same time, in 2020 they saw a lack of opportunities to ask for help from special centers or legal consultants because entire countries were on lockdown.

I think that the patriarchy is something that makes gender-based violence acceptable. This happens not only in Uzbekistan. I think we have to talk about the problem, discuss certain incidents to make sure that society comprehends the simple truth about the issue – gender-based violence is not acceptable at all. Victims of gender-based violence need support. We have to facilitate families to be more resilient, to not let economic reasons, which add fuel to the fire of domestic violence, arise. And we did it during the pandemic. 

Even Europe is not free of gender-based violence but in Europe people are well informed about the problem; that’s the difference. And as I know Uzbekistan is pursuing the same goal; this is really important. There is not even a single justification for violence against girls and women. We have to build a notion that it is just unacceptable.

During the pandemic, we realized that some measures that had been adopted in Europe either didn’t work or were unavailable because of lockdown. We have the European Institute for Gender Equality. It prepares research, conducts surveys, and reviews practices adopted in different countries. Recently, it has presented a Gender Equality Index for 2021. Even though the index has slightly risen, the situation in gender issues is fragile, first of all, due to the pandemic when we noticed a regression in gender issues.

As a possible solution, the institute has prepared three recommendations. First, women must be let into the process of economic rebounding because they do have a huge potential and must be a part of the decision-making process. They definitely have something to say. Second, we have to raise the profile of female health workers. Nurses and social workers are still on the very frontline of the fight against coronavirus. We have to pay them more respect to make society more resilient. And third, we have to create a prevention system for gender-based violence.

I think it would be nice for Uzbekistan to have a similar institute. It has to be an independent think tank that can prepare recommendations or find solutions for challenging issues. 

– One of the EU’s projects in Uzbekistan is facilitating Afghan girls in learning. How is the project going now? 

– The project for Afghan students started two years ago. At the first stage, it was vocational training for ten young girls from Afghanistan. They learned agronomy in Termez. Currently, four of them have been studying at Tashkent State Agrarian University. In the summer the rest of the girls returned to Afghanistan and now they can’t come back to Tashkent because of the crisis in that country. I would like to thank the rector of the Tashkent State Agrarian University, as well as Matilda Dimovska, the UNDP Resident Representative in Uzbekistan and the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education of the Republic of Uzbekistan for their support. We hope that we would be able to invite and host in Uzbekistan 30 Afghan girls but of course, it will depend on the situation in Afghanistan. 

– What perspectives for gender equality do you see in Uzbekistan?

– I can’t predict what women’s future in Uzbekistan would look like but I see big ambitions, I see movement, improvements in the country’s legislation, I see a strategy that is going to be implemented. However, it’s absolutely necessary to let women participate in the design and implementation of all these changes. They must be a part of this process.

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