Umida remembers her own mother, a teacher in a middle school, compelled to leave her three small children to go work in the cotton fields for a month. She now lives in exile in Germany, where she founded the Uzbek German Human Rights Forum.
Recalling her harrowing imprisonment and ultimate release in Uzbekistan, Umida writes:
Two years ago, I left home after spending four months in prison. My son was three and a half years old when I was arrested and accused of distributing information “endangering national security”. When you end up in an Uzbek prison, you lose the possibility of defending yourself. Of course you can say whatever you want in your defense, but you can be sure of being convicted. On May 1, 2007, the Sergeli District Criminal Court sentenced me to seven years in prison.
But I was lucky.Thanks to a wide-spread campaign organized by my fellow human rights activists, I was freed and pardoned. They forgave me. But I cannot forgive the injustice, cruelty, and greed of the people who are governing Uzbekistan today. I want to report how today in Uzbekistan, just like 25 years ago when it was a part of the Soviet Union, people are forced to harvest cotton.
Working with a network of human rights activists inside the country, Umida has done a great deal to document the forcible use of children to pick cotton in Uzbekistan:
I talked with the father of a 15-year-old student of a technical school, who took his daughter to the area where she was to work. He said: “I noticed that it was a cement surface, covered with a thin rug. My daughter and the other girls slept practically on the floor. My daughter cried and said that the food was repulsive, there were no facilities for washing up, and begged to be taken home. The teacher did not agree to release her. Only after persuading her by bringing her a bag of groceries did the teacher allow me to pick up my daughter for two days on condition that I leave my passport with her as security. I gave her my passport, and my daughter was able to rest at home for two days, after which I took her back to the fields.”
She attributes the chronic persistence of the exploitation of children to the total control of the cotton industry by the state, with fixed quotas, low prices for cotton, and and farmers' inability to pay adult wages.
Read more here at Media Voices for Children.