Uzbeks Sew Coats for Afghans

APChildren 2000 workers Oisyn Tyichiyeva, left, and Dilnoza Ortykova making hoods for coats that will be sent to Afghan children.
KHRABEK, Uzbekistan -- Single mothers and handicapped women sit behind rows of sewing machines or cross-legged on the floor at a factory in Uzbekistan, making shiny purple and red winter coats for Afghan children.

In the factory's bakery, Nasiba Ibrahimova, a woman whose alcoholic husband burned down their house and abandoned her and their two young children, bakes bread to feed the workers and keep the factory self-sufficient.

The Children 2000 factory is part of an effort not just to save Afghan children but to better the lives of disadvantaged women in one of the most traditional areas of Uzbekistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country where divorce and disabilities are crushing social stigmas.

"The women should be economically independent," said Malokhat Mirzayeva, director of the Children's Fund, an Uzbek charity group that runs the factory. "They shouldn't be going around looking for money."

More than 100 women work in the factory. Most, like Ibrahimova, were unable to find jobs before the factory opened in September of last year with the help of the United Nations Children's Fund.

UNICEF already has delivered 20,000 of the factory's coats to refugees who fled fighting in northern Afghanistan. The factory is working to finish another order for 9,000 before the end of the year.

The factory is in Khrabek, a village of 22,000 people in the Fergana Valley, the cotton-growing heartland of Uzbekistan where Islamic fundamentalism has long been powerful.

More than half of the women working at the factory are disabled. Some of them are former workers in the cotton fields and rice paddies who have persistent health problems from working long hours in the cold.

About a third of the women are divorced or widowed and have children. Eleven men work in the factory, mostly as guards or repairmen.

All the women in the factory wear traditional village clothing: long colorful dresses that reach down to the floor and brightly colored head scarves.

Kumrihan Alimova had to quit her job in the cotton fields two years ago after she began suffering severe headaches and dizziness due to her high blood pressure. Now she hammers snaps onto coats. Although her husband works as a driver, his salary is not enough to support the two of them and their four children.

Women at the factory earn up to $14 a month, but most also get disability pay or child support from the government that brings their total monthly earning close to the average monthly income of $24.

Ibrahimova came to the factory after her husband burned down their home and abandoned her.

"He came home drunk one day and told me to leave the house," Ibrahimova said, nervously rubbing her fingers as she spoke.

"I told him I can't leave, I have two children. He said if you don't leave I'll burn down the house," she said.

Ibrahimova said she quickly grabbed her 1-year-old daughter Nafisa and 3-year-old daughter Aishe and ran from the house while her husband turned on the cooking gas canisters and lit a match, destroying the house.

With no money and nowhere to live, she came to the factory and found a job.

She now sleeps with her children in the kindergarten that the factory runs.

Ibrahimova's story in many ways illustrates the difficulties of divorce in Uzbekistan. Months before her husband destroyed their home, she had applied for a divorce, but her in-laws objected.

Couples seeking divorce must first appeal to local government committees, which try to reconcile the partners.

"When someone petitions to divorce we summon them and their families ... and we try to persuade them to stay together," said Madaminjon Makhmudov, the deputy chairman of the village council.

This year, the council received 38 requests for divorces. It granted only two.

"We do our utmost to preserve the family and not to split it," said Rano Maripova, head of the women's council of Khrabek. One of her jobs is to visit couples asking to separate.

"We think first of all of the children," she said. "We want children to live in a good, normal family with both parents."

Human rights groups say the strategy prevents women from escaping abusive relationships.