Saidniso Shokirova didn’t think she’d be a parent again at age 70, but she has been officially recognized as the guardian of her three grandchildren. The challenge of raising the three kids – 17, 14, and 9– might compare to the challenges leading up to this point.
Her legal coil started in 2016, when her son Anvarjon passed away, leaving his foreign wife and children behind.
The family lives in Tajikistan’s Farmonkala district, near the Tajik-Uzbek border. Anvarjon had married his wife, a citizen of Uzbekistan, nearly 20 years ago in a religious ceremony without official registration, joining the army of families in remote areas foregoing the act of civil registration.
Weddings between citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, especially in the border region, are leading the official numbers of internationally registered marriages in Tajikistan due to shared cultural values and traditions between the two countries. Unofficial numbers of cross-border nuptials are even higher. Poverty and lack of legal awareness contribute to why families overlook the benefits of state registration of civil acts, particularly in remote areas of the country. But lack of civil registration not only leaves marriages unrecognized, but also has a chain effect.
Rasulova, the State Agency “Legal Aid Center” (SALAC) lawyer who has led Shokirova’s case to successful resolution, believes
Preliminary results of UNDP ethnographic research on birth registration show it’s among the most common reasons leading to lack of or late birth registration of children and legal complications.
For Anvarjon’s family, it meant that in the 13 years that he had lived with his wife, none of his children’s birth was registered, turning them invisible for the legal system. When the children reached school age, they could not be officially enrolled in school.
Anvarjon’s wife returned to her parents’ house in Uzbekistan soon after her husband’s passing, unable to take her children along due to lack of birth certificate.
Lost in grief and left alone in the need to care for her grandchildren, Shokirova struggled both logistically and financially. Her futile efforts to get birth registration for the kids and enroll them in school lasted for more than a year, until finally in 2017 she found out about the legal aid centers and turned to them for help.
These free legal aid centers have become a lifesaver for almost 35,000 people like Saidniso, established across remote areas of the country to support the government’s concept of providing free legal aid to vulnerable population, particularly in rural areas. According to the data from the State Agency “Legal Aid Centers,” more than 60 percent of those seeking services are women. Experience shows that when it comes to family law, women are legally more vulnerable. The issues range from lack of civil registration to property rights, often leaving women and children unprotected if their marriage ends. The problem is particularly stark in rural areas, where the level of legal literacy is lower. The government of Tajikistan has committed to tackle the issue by providing free legal aid where it is most needed. The Justice Ministry of Tajikistan and UNDP have jointly established legal aid centers across the country, where 37 state lawyers are currently working to provide consultations to and lead cases of vulnerable population. In criminal cases it means that the lawyer leads the case of a plaintiff or suspect until the case is closed in court. In administrative cases, like Saidniso’s, it means the lawyers consult them until their problem is resolved.
Muharram Rasulova, lawyer, has left her job in private sector for the Legal Aid Center to help the vulnerable regain power to practice their rights
The lawyers who work here not only provide legal services but also uncredited psychosocial support for those frustrated by the challenges of the legal system. Muharram believes that being a female lawyer helps. “Women feel more secure and confide more when they see another woman. Sometimes I hear their stories in intimate details that are not necessary for the case, but they feel better speaking about it,” she says.
Saidniso Shokirova’s case was Muharram’s first social case. “When I first started working on such cases I was surprised at how careless people can be in terms of civil registration. Later on, of course, I found out that there are very many people who do not give importance to registration of civil acts until it turns sour for them,” Muharram says. She does not blame the people, however, believing that there should simply be more awareness raising activities to increase the level of legal literacy among population, particularly the younger generation.
“I spent a year and a half knocking on the doors of various state institutions to no avail. Muharram healed my pain,” Sadiniso says of free legal aid center lawyers Muharram Rasulova. “My grandchildren received their birth certificates and started studying at school. She brought me back to life.”
Muharram Rasulova has been working at the legal aid center for four year. As child, she aspired to become a judge like her father, helping type documents and often reading through piles of legal cases on his desktop. She had never imagined any other profession for herself. After several years of practicing law in the private sector, she turned to more socially-supportive law, which gives her more fulfilment.
“I am the kind of person, who automatically wants to help, when I see people in need of help. So, although it can be frustrating sometimes, the nature of this social work fits my personality. I used to also teach law in university, but the number of clients in the center is constantly increasing and I have decided now to dedicate my time fully to the work of the center,” says Muharram, who has consulted more than 400 people last year alone.
Muharram appealed to the Spitamen District Court, the Commission on the Children’s Rights, the district Civil Registry Office and the Department of Social Protection with a request to resolve Saidiniso Shokirova’s case.
The court decision was more than Shokirova expected: Not only did the children receive birth certificates and, with it, the right to attend school, but Shokirova was also officially recognized as their guardian and state allowance of around 540 Somoni (around US$50) from the Department of Social Protection.
“As long as I'm alive, I will be grateful to her! The state lawyers in Spitamen are doing important work to help the people in need in difficult life conditions,” said Shokirova says.
UNDP and Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation have initially been covering up to 90 percent of the legal aid centers’ operational costs with financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland. In 2021 the Government of Tajikistan has covered 40 percent of the cost, planning to gradually take over the full operational cost of the centers by 2024.