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Women and the Law in Comparative Perspective

Women and the Law in Comparative Perspective

Visitors from Turkmenistan explore women and the law in the United States and Turkmenistan

Gohar Grigorian Email GoharGrigorian

An exploration of research conducted by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women and of women's legal issues in the United States was the focus of a visit to UCLA on June 25 by a four-member delegation from Turkmenistan.

The visit, which was part of the program on Advocacy for Women's Rights, a Freedom Support Project for Turkmenistan funded by the U.S. Department of State, underscored the complexity of women's legal issues in Turkmenistan and in the United States. In their discussion with UCLA's Christine Littleton (Professor of Law and Women's Studies, and Chair of the Women's Studies Programs in the UCLA Center for the Study of Women), and with Sharon Dolovich (Professor of Law), the delegates probed a number of areas central to women's studies.

Employment Rights

Professor Littleton began by noting that according to U.S. law, in employment women must be treated equally to men. However, she continued, the law does not cover every aspect of potential inequality nor is it alone sufficient to prevent violation of women's rights. For instance, some employers pay women less than men for doing the same job, although the law requires they be paid equally. If the employer says "I want a man for the job," that too is illegal, unless only a man can do the job. There are very few jobs, Littleton observed, that can only be done by men. Nonetheless, in many fields women in the United States encounter obstacles in trying to get a job, and if they do land a job in one of those fields, they too often face discrimination. For instance, women in the construction industry often confront relentless harassment.

A delegate noted by way of comparison that in Turkmenistan masonry is still exclusively a male preserve, but that in painting women make up a substantial portion of the workforce.

Another delegate asked, "If a woman does a man’s job and works with a lot of men, doesn’t she become like them, meaning, doesn't she begin acting like a man?" Professor Littleton replied, "Yes she does." It is unfortunate, Littleton stated, that in order to keep their job, women feel they must deny their personality in this way. The solution to this, Littleton believes, lies in exploding socially gendered job categories; in other words, moving beyond ideas that mark some jobs as "men's" and others as "women's."

A Dual Burden: Work & Family

Professor Littleton argued that one area were the law in the U.S. does not work well has to do with the integration of full-time employment and caring for the family. A great many women bear the double burden of full-time employment plus providing primary care for their family. However, many employers feel they have no responsibility to accommodate women's familial obligations.

In this regard, a delegate asked how many months of maternity leave are granted in the United States. Professor Littleton explained that U.S. workers are entitled to 12 weeks of family-related leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act if they have worked for their employer for at least a year and the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles of its work site. During the leave, their jobs are guaranteed. However, the law does not require that workers on leave receive compensation. At the moment, it is entirely up to the employer whether or not to pay a worker on leave. Additional leave is also possible, but again that is entirely up to the employer.

The visitors commented that in Turkmenistan a mother can take 3 years of maternity leave (of which the first 140 days are paid at 100 percent of wages), and her job is guaranteed. If her baby is disabled, the mother can take up to 6 years of leave, again with her job fully guaranteed.

International Maternity Benefits
Turkmenistan 140 days 100% Social Security
France 16-26 weeks 100% Social Security
Portugal 98 days 100% Social Security
Denmark 18 weeks 100% Social Security
Austria 16 weeks 100% Social Security
Spain 16 weeks 100% Social Security
Germany 14 weeks 100% Social Security to ceiling; employer pays difference
India 12 weeks 100% Social Security
UK 14 - 18 weeks 90% for 6 weeks; flat rate thereafter Social Security
Italy 5 months 80% Social Security
Greece 16 weeks 75% Social Security
Japan 14 weeks 60% Health insurance
Australia 1 year -0- N/A
USA 12 weeks -0- N/A
Source: Australian Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission

Divorce & Child Sex Preferences

The visitors provided a little background on divorce rates in Turkmenistan. Twenty to thirty years ago, there were practically no divorces in Turkmenistan. This was largely the result of strong social pressure to preserve marriages at all costs. For example, if the first daughter in a family got divorced, her younger siblings would have had a very difficult time finding a marriage partner.

But in recent years things have changed. (According to the United Nations, today about 18 percent of marriages in Turkmenistan end in divorce. By comparison, the rate in the United States is about 49%.) The visitors pointed out that today there are many divorces -- many of which are initiated by women -- because ways of thinking have changed. In the past, the girls were told that when they got married, they should stick to their husband no matter what. This is not longer the case.

Nonetheless, Turkmenistani society still values men over women. Families continue to prefer baby boys to baby girls, and they tend to give preferential treatment to boys. For instance, when it comes to education, they are ready to invest in their sons, but are hesitant to spend "too much" on educating their daughters. The visitors stressed that it is important for the development of Turkmenistani society to encourage girls to believe in themselves.

Women in Public: Turkmenistan and Iran Compared

Despite all this, women play a very prominent role in public life in Turkmenistan. The visitors made this very clear when asked if Turkmenistan, which borders on Iran, has been fundamentally influenced by the Islamic revolution in their neighbor to the south.

The visitors answered essentially "no." First of all, Turkmens are Sunni Muslims, while the majority of Iranians are Shi'a. Turkmenistan is also a more open and modern country. For instance, women were never forced to wear the hijab. And fully 42 percent of Turkmenistan's parliamentarians are women, the highest percentage in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Even Turkmenistan's attorney general is a woman.

In short, the visitors emphasized that in Turkmenistan the most active members in society are women.

UCLA and Women's Rights: Research and Advocacy

The visitors asked if the UCLA Center for the Study of Women has collaborated with other organizations. Professors Littleton and Dolovich mentioned that the UCLA Center has cooperated with several other organizations. For instance, it has worked the California Women's Law Center  in various projects, such as daycare centers and a project known as Murder at Home (which deals with domestic violence).

The visitors also asked if the UCLA Center has any programs related to trafficking in women and children. Littleton and Dolovich replied that the Center has one graduate student who is specializing in trafficking issues. However, as Littleton pointed out, the media in the United States are now completely focused on the war on terrorism, and consequently woman’s issues are out of the spotlight. The United States has laws against trafficking, but they are not vigorously enforced.

Women's Prisoners in the United States

Professor Sharon Dolovich touched on a range of legal issues concerning women prisoners in the United States. She mentioned that:

  • the U.S. is number one in the world in the number of woman prisoners;
  • children of imprisoned parents are more likely to get in trouble;
  • there are 1.5 million children in the U.S. with at least one parent in prison;
  • over 200,000 women are incarcerated in the U.S., and their children, instead of getting help, often end up in prison too.

The visitors asked if anything is being done to help these children. Littleton and Dolovich replied that small NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are working to raise awareness of these issues, but that the government itself is does little to address the problems of women in prison.

Professor Littleton mentioned that in this regard the UCLA Woman’s Law Journal and the Center for Women’s Studies will hold a conference on “Women in Prison,” which will bring together academics, lawyers, women's activists, and former prisoners as participants.

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The visit of the delegation was coordinated by the Meridian International Center, and administered locally by the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles.

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The delegates:

Dr. Tachnabat Annamuradova
Physician, National HIV/AIDS Center, Turkmenistan

Gulshen Esenmuradova
Correspondent, The Times of Central Asia, Turkmenistan

Dursoltan Ezizova
Attorney, Legal Consulting Service, Ashgabat, Niyazov City Region, Turkmenistan

Lyudmila Petruhova
Chairperson, NGO "Ynam" (Trust), Turkmenistan

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