Sitting in her a cheerful garden full of watermelon, peppers, and herbs you would never know that Shamsikhon Kholova's life was ever any different. But it was. Six years ago, she and her six children lived in a one-room, mud brick house with a leaking ceiling.
Shamsikhon lives in the Kumsangir district, one of Tajikistan's poorest regions. Like most of her neighbors, the families are led by women because more than half of the men work in Russia or Kazakhstan. And, while they, like her son, send money home to take care of their families and account for roughly half of the country’s GDP, it is the women who raise the children, work in the fields, and try to keep a roof over their families’ heads.
Tajikistan also has strong traditions that work against women who head households. It is frowned upon for women to meet men outside of the family. That makes getting help pretty difficult. If a woman wanted to hire a man to fix something, she would be breaking with customs and face censure from the community.
Shamsikhon knows what this feels like first-hand after she divorced her husband a few years ago. "Before I divorced, I was like any other woman in my village," says Shamsikhon. "I did not go out and it was not proper to ask for help. My husband did that. After I divorced, I was in despair and did not know what to do. I stayed at home and got sick. But seeing my six children suffering, I had to do something."
And, she did through her own determination and a little help from Habitat for Humanity.
No interest loans work
To help Shamsikhon and the tens of thousands of women like her, Habitat for Humanity Tajikistan developed a construction and renovation loan program to help to improve living conditions in rural areas. Since it is rare for women in the country to have construction experience, Habitat's program offers free advice and assistance on top of a loan to guide them through the process of renovating or building their homes.
"I would not have been able to build my house without Habitat because I had six children to feed," Shamsikhon says. "Sometimes, we didn't even have a piece of bread to eat."
In Tajikistan the average person lives on just $2 a day meaning 46.7 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. It also has the lowest level of housing in Central Asia—163 dwellings per 1,000 inhabitants.
“Usually, when husbands are away as migrant workers in Russia, wives cannot go out and take loans. For widows and divorced women who are the heads of their families, it is even harder,” says Sai Ali, a program officer for Habitat in Kumsangir. “We work with them and help them apply for loans and get the advice they need to proceed with construction.
"People do not have a lot of money around here. They can afford to spend $30 to $45 per month to repay loans. That means they have to build in stages because they can't afford a bigger amount to do it all at once," he says. "Even if they can invest enough to put in a foundation in this earthquake-prone area, they have to wait for a year or two to save enough money to put in windows, doors, plaster and paint.".
"Even if they can invest enough to put in a foundation in this earthquake-prone area, they have to wait for a year or two to save enough money to put in windows, doors, plaster and paint, " he says.
This can be very problematic for many families. “Many times, people cannot finish their houses before winter arrives,” says Sai Ali. “It gets very cold here in winter, especially if you don't have a proper floor or ceiling. With our loans, people can immediately finish and start living in at least two rooms avoiding having to live in open or temporary shelters during the cold months."
Habitat's loan program also helps people who cannot afford the interest rates banks charge for short term loans—usually around 30 percent. Habitat’s no interest loans for upwards of 18 months allows people to slowly and affordably repay the money. Loans average around $1,000, but can be as small as $200 to $300. People generally pay back $15 to $65 a month, with an average payment of around $40 a month according to schedules agreed with loan officers.
This was true in Shamsikhon’s case. "We just didn’t have enough money to build a house," she says. “I took out my first loan in 2008 to winterize our one-room mud brick house.”
In 2012 she decided to take out another loan to finish her home. “I had heard about Habitat and decided to apply for help in completing my house. The wood, floors, ceilings, doors and windows were provided through a loan from Habitat,” she says.
Last summer she returned to Habitat for a loan to install an enclosed porch for sleeping in the summer and drying produce.
"If I have a good watermelon harvest this spring, I might be able to repay the remaining loan in one or two months. Usually I pay about $25 a month, but if I have a good harvest, I could pay back $160 at once," she says. Her first loan took her a year to repay, but “it wasn't too hard,” she says.
Professional advice makes the difference
Another problem is that women usually do not have the skills to build a house. "Private developers build houses in the cities, but in villages people build by themselves," says Vafo Azizomadov, the credit manager for microfinance bank Arvand, in Dushanbe. "Usually we have what is called khashar, it is when all your relatives come to help you. In villages people cannot usually afford to hire construction workers so they ask friends and relatives to come over on weekends and help build the house," he says. “People in rural areas consult with Habitat construction advisors because they are not specialists and have no knowledge of construction.”
Shamsikhon agrees. “As a Tajik woman living in a village, I didn't know how to build a house. Sai Ali advised me on how to put in the windows and doors, and what to materials to choose. Without Habitat's help I would not have completed my house.”
"Our engineers conduct training and visit families offering them advice on the construction process," says Sai Ali. “We explain how to install windows and doors using pamphlets and manuals offering practical advice. We work with families throughout the construction process.”
Sitting in her garden, surrounded by her daughters and grandson, Shamsikhon says, “Even some men in the village don't have such a house as mine. They come to me and ask how I was able to do it. They still wonder how a single mother like me was able to do the work of man. I am very proud of my house and what I’ve been able to accomplish.”
Photos: John Wendle for Habitat for Humanity EMEA
Video: GoodWork, Camera work: John Wendle