OXFORD, United Kingdom — The recent wave of anti-immigrant raids in Russia has shed light on the difficulties that labor migrants from former Soviet Union states encounter in the country. Driven by economic crisis, migration from nations such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has existed for well over a decade. In recent years these migration flows, historically dominated by men, have included increasing numbers of women.
This rise in female migrants has complicated the landscape of migration in the region — a fact illustrated in March 2012, when a number of online videos surfaced showing Kyrgyz migrant women beaten and harassed by Kyrgyz men living in Russia.
The women were stripped naked, abused and threatened for associating with non-Kyrgyz men. Shot by self-proclaimed “Kyrgyz Patriots” in cities across Russia, the videos sparked a nationwide debate about the large numbers of women leaving Kyrgyzstan to find work abroad.
This spring, a year after the "patriot" attack videos emerged on the Kyrgyz blogosphere, a draft law barring women under the age of 23 from leaving the country without their parents’ consent was introduced in parliament. By the time the resolution was passed this June, it had been stripped of the restrictive language directed towards young women and simply called on the government to regulate migration. Nonetheless, the resolution did illustrate the rising concerns within Kyrgyzstan about the country’s growing population of mobile young women.
Close to a fifth of Kyrgyz citizens work abroad, predominantly in Russia. These labor migrants send back remittances that account for an estimated 29 percent of GDP, making Kyrgyzstan the third most remittance-dependent country in the world.
An estimated 30 to 40 percent of these migrants are women — greater than the proportion of female migrants from neighboring Tajikistan or Uzbekistan.
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When I asked people in Kyrgyzstan’s civil society why this is the case, many said it is because Kyrgyz women are strong and empowered. Women in Kyrgyzstan, they told me, have more freedom of movement than their counterparts from more religious neighboring states. Migrant women themselves told me they chose to go abroad because there is more “women’s” work in Russia, and because women there get hassled less by police.
In reality, female migrants from Kyrgyzstan often face greater dangers than their male compatriots. More migrant women than men work illegally, leaving them open to greater abuse by their employers. In addition to the poor working conditions, extortion and physical violence also faced by males, women face the additional risks of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
It doesn't help that increasing numbers of young and unmarried women are choosing to go abroad: the proportion of Kyrgyz women who migrate alone is estimated at upwards of 80 percent, according to UN Women. Parliamentarian Yrgal Kadyralieva invoked the need to protect such vulnerable women when she introduced the proposed ban on women’s travel.
Despite the stated intention of protecting women from abuse, activists have criticized the legislation’s emphasis on “preserving moral values” — and rhetoric surrounding the resolution on the need to educate migrant women in how to behave. Critics say Kadyralieva and her supporters are placing the blame for exploitation and sexual abuse on female victims.
The stigma attached to young single women who have traveled abroad for work — particularly to Russia, Turkey and the UAE — is so strong that some say men refuse to marry women who have returned from working in those countries.
Indeed, Kadyralieva herself has argued that the majority of Kyrgyz women in Russia engage in prostitution. The increasing numbers of children abandoned by Kyrgyz women in Russian hospitals and several cases of Kyrgyz women charged by Russian authorities with infanticide have added fuel to the notion of female migrant promiscuity.
Meanwhile, the number of so-called “social orphans,” children who are left behind in Kyrgyzstan when both parents go abroad to find work, has swelled. Left in the care of elderly grandparents, Kyrgyzstan’s youngest generation is growing up without strong parental supervision.
With so many of Kyrgyzstan’s young adults living and working abroad, concerns about demographic decline for this small country are palpable. These fears are exacerbated as many migrants abandon their Kyrgyz citizenship in favor of Russian.
Against the backdrop of a departing population, the patriot attacks — like the resurgent practice of bride-kidnapping — speak to a desire to retain women as a kind of national property.
But in a country where women were central to supporting their families through the economic collapse of the 1990s by means of small-scale trade, the government must look beyond their reproductive capacity. Only by taking advantage of women’s roles as economic agents will the state figure out a way to keep its citizens — both women and men — at home.
Anna Alekseyeva is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University. Her work focuses on government ideology in the Soviet and post-Soviet space. She recently returned from a month-long research trip in Kyrgyzstan to investigate migration patterns.