KYRGYZSTAN: What is the Status of Women in Kyrgyzstan?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Central Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

As one of five Central Asian Republics who have become separate, sovereign states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, made progress towards integrating into the world economy and now see the rising influence of religious fundamentalisms, Kyrgyzstan is in an ongoing state of transition. Dr. Nurgul Djanaeva, President of the Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan and author of Kyrgyzstan Women in Transition, spoke with AWID about how women are playing important roles in, facing persistent challenges amidst and experiencing new setbacks due to this complex transition.

by Masum Momaya

AWID: Generally, what is the status of women in Kyrgyzstan?

ND: The status of women has progressed a bit recently in terms of numbers and percentages especially in political and economic participation, but patriarchal attitudes and institutions and violence against women still persist; there is still much to be achieved in reality.

Generally, we need to increase women's access to economic resources, education, information and communication technologies and governance, as well as to protect women's human rights and eliminate all forms of violence against women. This is critical not just to achieving gender equality but also to reducing poverty and promoting development.

Rural women generally have a poorer quality of life than urban women, are less likely to participate in political processes and face higher rates of unemployment.

Still, we view increasing women's economic empowerment as one of the main bases of strengthening both urban and rural women's status in the country; although economic empowerment alone is not sufficient to achieve non-discrimination and equality.

AWID: How have things changed for women since Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991?

ND: Under the Soviet system, there was mass education. No child was excluded from the school system. There was no homelessness; no problems with access to the available healthcare - the quality was sometimes very good, sometimes not very good - but everyone had free access to medical centres in every village.

There is still a social memory of these factors. For example, people in Kyrgyzstan took it for granted that it was normal to aspire to a good education, but not anymore. They expected access both for boys and girls. Actions were undertaken by the socialist state to ensure that young girls from remote areas were trained up in special women's institutes which offered them full board and accommodation and allowances. This was a huge advance.

Today, this inheritance is not much discussed or kept. The transition period was driven by the imperative to throw away everything that was there before. The approach we had before insisted on everything being for the masses. Now it is quite the opposite. Capitalism only cares about who owns capital. We have a growing gap between rich and poor and a gap in possibilities and opportunities that we didn't have before. We were not very rich before; but we were not very poor either, and we were more equal. Now we have a few very rich people, and the vast majority in need. Women are more susceptible to poverty in this divvying up process.

Some young women have improved prospects now. They can go abroad to complete their education. But very many young women have been deeply disadvantaged. Some have become the victims of trafficking, which was unknown in the socialist period - not only because there were closed borders, but because there simply wasn't that level of poverty, and these criminal structures didn't exist at such high level.

In rural areas, old employment opportunities have ground to a halt, and there are few new alternatives. Rural women have to be lucky to find a job; otherwise, they can only hope to get married early. Recently, the average marriage age for rural women has dropped dramatically.

Patriarchy is stronger under capitalism in Kyrgyzstan.

AWID: Kyrgyzstan has experienced some economic difficulties since gaining independence from the Soviet Union. What kinds of occupations do women work in? And what is the situation of women economically more recently amidst the global economic crisis?

ND: Today, women traditionally work in education, health care, and care work. After the Soviet period, during the transition to the market economy, a lot of women all over the country started small business, including textile and wholesale enterprises. Due to the economic crisis, these women, who initially benefited from opportunities presented by opening of markets, now struggle to earn a living. Also, the crisis made specific groups of women very vulnerable, including working class women, rural women from poor families and women who are not engaged in paid employment and who may be dependent on remittances for income.

Overall, Kyrgyzstan's economy has been hurt by the crisis. The government has not been able to maintain social safety nets and other social services, such as health and education. We are starting to see increased infant and maternal mortality. Food prices have risen, malnutrition rates are rising, and indicators of health are declining.

The global economic crisis comes on the back of an ongoing systemic crisis that our country has been experiencing for decades. Transitioning into a market economy and integrating into the world economy has been difficult as it is. We were just beginning to see growth and gains from 2005-2007 – and a resulting positive impact on development – but then the global crisis halted this and is now setting all of us, including women, back.

AWID: Are women able to participate in politics in Kyrgyzstan, including in Parliament? And are women's interests represented by the political system?

ND: Recently, there have been some measures, including quotas, to increase women's political participation. In spite of lack of political training for women and funding for women's campaigns, such measures have increased the numbers of women in politics, including in the national parliament, mostly because political parties were obligated to include a certain percentage of female candidates in their lists. Still, it is difficult to achieve true participation and real equality of opportunities – and it is not clear whether these numbers are resulting in substantive realization of women's rights.

The most significant factors inhibiting women's ability to participate in public life, include the cultural framework of discriminatory values and religious beliefs, the lack of social services, and men's failure to share the tasks associated with the organization of the household and care and raising of children. Patriarchal attitudes confine women to the private sphere and exclude them from active participation in public life.

The burdens of domestic work are not addressed in public policies, and this prevents women from engaging more fully in the life of the communities. Moreover, women's economic dependence on men prevents them from taking important stands in politics, as voters and as officials. Also, the long and inflexible hours of both public and political work also prevent women from being more active.

The small percentage of women who do participate in politics face discriminatory attitudes and practices and obstacles to their own effectiveness and advancement.

Many male state officials hold patriarchal attitudes about women's roles in society; most legislative processes do not take into consider issues of gender inequality; and budgeting processes rarely result in any financing for women's empowerment – political or otherwise.

Also, generally, the needs of rural women, disabled women and other marginalized women in Kyrgyzstan are not represented in the measures and processes of the political system.

AWID: Are organized crime and corruption significant in Kyrgyzstan? If so, how does this impact women?

ND: Crime and corruption are big problems is Kyrgyzstan, but there is no research about their specific impacts on women, yet.

AWID: How strong are civil society and the women's movement in Kyrgyzstan? And what are some challenges faced by civil society organizations and women's NGOs?

ND: Civil society in Kyrgyzstan is quite strong; we have widespread and thematically diverse women's NGO and women's groups in all provinces in Kyrgyzstan. Also, women lead many non-women's NGOs and human rights organizations. Thus, far women's NGOs have been able to impact legislation, state policies and laws enforcement mechanisms. An ongoing challenge for women's NGOs is lack of funding and also implementing feminist leadership inside our organizations. We also need more access to the media so we can tell our stories.

AWID: How is the situation of violence against women in Kyrgyzstan?

ND: Violence against women is prevalent in many forms in Kyrgyzstan: rape, kidnappings and forced marriages, domestic violence, sexual harassment and trafficking. Women's NGOs are working for legislative reform, training of law enforcement officials and judges, supporting crisis centers, public education, statistics collection and monitoring and evaluation of specific programs. This comprehensive approach is needed for all issues of violence against women.

AWID: Are women being impacted by the growing influence of Islam in Kyrgyzstan?

ND: Yes. For example, now many women in Kyrgyzstan cover their heads – this was not the case in the past and is one visible sign of this influence. The growing presence of conservative religious institutions can strengthen patriarchal norms and may later create additional barriers to women's participation in political processes, education and paid work.

AWID: Are there any rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in Kyrgyzstan?

ND: Not many, but there are NGOs working on these issues.

Read more of Dr. Nurgul Djanaeva's analysis in The Impact of the Crisis on Women in Central Asia

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