Photo: Gulzhan Turdubayeva

This material was originally published by Radio Azattyk.

According to data from the Kyrgyz Republic’s State Registration Service, there were 10,995 divorces registered in 2019. The city with the highest number of divorce applications was Bishkek.

Human rights activists have noted that the number of single mothers has been on the rise in recent years, as have the problems they face — such as claiming alimony from their children’s fathers. Single mothers often face criticism from both relatives and the public, leaving them without any support. They legally receive 800 soms per month per child in public benefits — but this isn’t even enough to feed a child for a single day. To highlight the challenges they face, Azattyk is creating a series of photo stories about individual single mothers in Kyrgyzstan. The first one, below, centers on a woman named Ainura Zharmanbetova.

Ainura’s story

My name is Ainura Jarmanbetova, I am 32 years old. I am raising two sons and a daughter. The oldest is 10 years old, the younger is 2.5 years old. The kids and I live in a rented apartment in Bishkek.

Six months ago, I opened a cleaning company, where I only hire mothers raising children without fathers, because I completely understand their situation. I’m a single mother myself.

Photo: Gulzhan Turdubayeva

My husband kidnapped me when I was 18. I was in my first year of college in Bishkek. That day, I had gone from the capital to Talas for a wedding, to visit. He saw me there for the first time and kidnapped me immediately after the wedding.

We lived together for 10 years and had three children. All kinds of things happened during that time. There were quite a few reasons for the divorce.

It’s generally not common for Kyrgyz people to support women in their family. When I told my mom that I was tired and wanted to get a divorce, she literally forced me, saying: “You have to live, don’t embarrass yourself in front of people.” And so for 10 years, my life was full of humiliation and violence. Finally, I left home with three children, abandoning everything. I started a new life practically from scratch.

Perhaps if I had devoted these 10 years to my education, knowledge, my life would be different…

Photo: Gulzhan Turdubayeva

After the divorce, it was difficult to find a job. There were times when the schedule just didn’t work — the children were small, I couldn’t leave them alone at home. In addition, due to my lack of higher education, nobody would give me a good position. Government work doesn’t pay much — how could I raise three children with that money?

One day, when I was looking for a job, I found that there were only five soms left in my pocket. I walked home. Then I cried and cried.

The next day, a friend called me and offered me a job: washing the entrance of a nine-story building. I was so happy that I washed it from morning to evening. I expected them to pay me well, but in the end, they gave me only 300 soms. I almost burst into tears…

When I got home, I spent the whole night thinking. Finally, I decided to open my own cleaning company. But first, in order to gain experience, I got a job as a cleaner for a woman I know. With her help, I opened a page on Instagram, began searching for and then finding clients, and started my own business…

We provide a full range of home cleaning services. Three other women and one guy work with me. If you really master a certain skill, you can use it to earn decent money.

At first, the girls and I did all the washing by hand. But I’ve been able to save some of the money I earned, and I recently bought some special equipment.

This has made our work a lot easier, and the customers are happy. An apartment that used to take a whole day to clean now only takes 4-5 hours.

The good thing is that this job allows me to do everything in time: take my daughter to kindergarten and my son to school. And the income this kind of work brings is not bad. The only thing is that I have to work a little more than others. Some days, I only get two or three hours of sleep.

If I work during the day, then in the evenings I have to deal with orders, make a schedule of cleaning visits, and also check the kids’ homework.

Other single mothers work with me, and one of them has as many as six children. This kind of work is convenient for them, too — they get paid right on the spot.

Two years ago, I sent in my application [to continuing education courses] and became a student. For 10 years, I hadn’t studied anything, just stayed at home with my children, but now, for the first time, I decided to take some short-term medical courses. Then I switched to a sewing course.

At first, I was afraid and thought: How am I going to study? But then, when I started, I really liked it. Sometimes I go to the sewing workshop next to our house. There, I can sew clothes for myself and my children. I’m planning to open my own sewing shop.

I have big goals for the future. I want to take some more classes and learn more about business. I want to expand my business and help single mothers like me by creating new jobs for them. Of course, that means I have a lot of studying and hard work to do.

Right now, our company is doing well, we have a lot of clients. So we have a lot of work to do. Because of that, I sometimes fail to take an active part in my son’s school life. But I try to help my kids with their homework, pay attention to their studies. I want my kids to find their place in this life. That’s the most important thing.

And I’d like to say to women and girls: don’t be afraid of anything! Don’t humiliate yourself just so that your children won’t be left without a father. Don’t be afraid to start over. It’s better to build a good life alone than to spend your life in violence.

To be honest, it was only after the divorce that I started taking care of myself and using makeup. Because I didn’t have any money for makeup or clothes before. If I asked my husband for money, he would refuse: “Why do you need makeup, for whom?”

Now, I’ve learned how to earn a living on my own and take care of myself. I’ve started paying attention to my health, exercising.

I go to the gym three times a week. When I’m exercising, I feel like I’m getting rid of the humiliation my husband and his family subjected me to, the traces of the violence, and getting new, positive energy. I become more self-confident.

To be honest, it was only after the divorce that I learned to love myself, take care of myself, and be happy. It turns out that happiness doesn’t come from a family or a husband at all. Happiness is within us, in our hearts.

I dream that one day, my children will grow up, find their place in life, and all of the difficulties will be left behind. I will look at the path I have traveled from the height of success… I have big plans for the future.

Translated by Aidina Sultanova and Zhibek Naseredinova.