For one month a year, from morning to night, Dilorom Nishanova grows silkworms, a painstaking and exhausting job. She has been doing it since she was 8.
Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government insists that child labor is banned, but Dilorom, 15, hasn’t heard about it. She and her siblings, ages 9 to 17, think it’s perfectly natural to be helping their father grow silkworms, as well as cotton and wheat.
“We just help our parents,” she said, her braided dark hair covered with a traditional Muslim scarf. “That’s what children have to do, right?”
Not so, say Uzbek rights groups. They say children shouldn’t be laborers, especially in May, the breeding season, which happens to fall during school exams.
The silkworm business dates back centuries, to the Silk Road that ran through this Central Asian country. Kokand, the name of the town in the fertile Ferghana Valley where Dilorom’s family farms, is the same as the Uzbek word for “cocoon.” Kokand was the destination of the first westbound Chinese caravan carrying silk in 121 B.C., which started the fabled trade route.
But its modern-day incarnation as a state monopoly has a dark side. Farmers say they are threatened with fines or loss of their land leases for missing quotas and that these are so high that they have no choice but to draft their children into the work.
The use of child labor in Uzbek cotton-picking has been documented widely, and Wal-Mart and several other U.S. chain stores won’t stock the cotton. But the silk industry has largely escaped international scrutiny.
Its annual revenues are tiny compared with the $1 billion cotton industry, but the government clearly prizes silk as a link - and tourist draw - to the glory days of the Silk Road.
It also considers silk an export item that has to be state-controlled - like the exports of cotton, gold, peregrine falcons and the pelts of newborn lambs.
Uzbekistan’s production accounts for less than 5 percent of the world total and is dwarfed by China’s. But it’s proportionately the world’s highest - about 2 pounds per head of the population of 27 million.
Kakhhor Yavkashtiyev, head of the silk-growing department at the Agriculture Ministry, says 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s 2 million farmers are involved in the annual harvest.
“Children are not involved; only adults are,” he said in an interview.
Umurzak Kayumov, a 51-year-old farmer from the village of Naiman near the eastern city of Namangan, says his children as well as grandchildren help during cocoon season, when “we suffer for 25 days, from 4 a.m. until midnight.”
In Kokand, the high intensity of raising silkworms becomes evident from talking to Dilorom and her family.