When Jogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyz parliament, convened in 2005, it had no female members. Only one member of the cabinet of ministers was a woman. The paucity of women in decision-making positions contributed to difficulties in achieving gender equality in the conservative Kyrgyz tradition.
Even though a legal framework to protect women's rights existed — for instance, a presidential decree in 1996 approved the Ayalzat national programme reflecting the priority areas of the Beijing Platform for Action — a lack of understanding on gender equality among key decision makers resulted in poor implementation of the social legislation.
In 2005, UNDP began facilitating a nation-wide discussion on promotion of women in parliament, connecting the government and the Kyrgyz civil society. Civil society organisations started dialogues to promote the entry of women in national parliament, build a sustainable network between female politicians and civil society, and develop capacity of decision makers to address gender issues.
"Activists came out strong, and they are capable of protecting their achievements," said Aigul Alymkulova with Women Support Centre, a non-governmental organization assisting women with small businesses.
The vigorous efforts to expand women's access to Kyrgyzstan's decision-making process resulted in legislative changes and created strong networks for collaboration at the grassroots level. By 2007, civil society's tireless lobbying resulted in the creation of a 30 per cent gender quota in the election code. The measure enabled an unprecedented number of women — 24 — to join the 75-seat parliament. It was both a success and a challenge, as female members had to prove their professionalism.
Kyrgyzstan was suddenly a champion in women's representation in parliament among Central Asian countries.
Between 2007 and 2010 — when the parliament was dissolved following a political upheaval that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010 — female members of parliament initiated 148 out of the 554 bills that were brought to the floor, championing issues ranging from breastfeeding protection in health bill to the adoption of a specialised law guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities for women and men.
"All the bills had one thing in common," said Mira Karybaeva with Social Technologies Agency, a non-governmental organisation working with women and minorities.
"They are socio-economic in nature."
In June, Kyrgyz voters approved a new constitution curbing presidential powers and establishing the first parliamentary democracy in the region.
"All eyes are on the parliamentary election scheduled for October. And multiple actors are trying to set the rules of the game”, said Alymulova. “That's why we cannot afford to lose the achievements of the past decade."