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Kazak Mothers' Burning Issues

Women in Kazakstan are resorting to extraordinary measures to protest against social security fraud

A group of 20 mothers who threatened to set themselves on fire outside the republic's parliament in protest against the embezzlement of their social security payments has shaken Kazakstan's political establishment to its foundations.

The women, all with large families, claim tens of thousands of families in rural Kazakstan were deprived of their allowances by officials who pocketed the money. The non-governmental association, Adilet (Justice), has backed the women's campaign, from South Kazakstan, holding a press conference on June 14 in Almaty to highlight their grievances.

Adilet's chairperson, Ulmeken Saidova, urged the Kazak public to join the women's fight against what one of them called the 'genocidal' policy of the government.

The women originally vowed to set themselves on fire outside parliament on June 11. They called off the action after Berdybek Saparbayev, the Akim, or regional governor, of South Kazakstan promised to solve their dispute.

Naripa Asanova, one of the women, who is currently expecting another child, said the Akim told them he had grown up in a family with many siblings and was familiar with their problems. However, he had added that most Kazak children were raised in poverty. "Our mothers never shamed us publicly, so don't disgrace your region, yourselves, your husband or your children," he was reported as saying. "Stop trying to cash in on your impoverished progeny!"

Behind government attempts to muffle the women's protest are fears that their campaign may trigger wider social unrest in Kazakstan's impoverished society. As a result, the social security minister, Alikhan Naimenov, the chair of the Commission on Women's Issues, Aitkul Samakova, and the deputy interior minister, Beksultan Sarsekov, all rushed to South Kazakstan to examine the situation.

The delegation achieved little. The regional governor set up a meeting between the officials and the mothers. But according to Adilet's chairperson, the minister merely told the women to take their problems to the courts. "Stop trying to make the government responsible," he was quoted as saying. "If you don't keep quiet, we'll have to ask your husbands to set you straight."

The minister reportedly called the women 'illiterate' and blamed them for their own plight. "No one made you have more children than you can provide for," he said. The chair of the commission on women's issues was equally unhelpful, saying that if the women could not feed their children, they always had the option of putting them in an orphanage.

Ulmeken Saidova said the women raised their claim that officials had embezzled millions of Tenge in child allowance money. "Some 49,000 mothers in South Kazakstan never received government child allowances worth a total of $4 million," she said. "The courts, the Akim's offices and the lawyers are all in collusion. Isn't this something the President and the government should be concerned about?"

Meizgul Sakhova, another of the mothers, wept as she described the organised racket over social security payments. "You cannot get child allowance unless you have the right connections or pay the government clerk a 30 per cent commission," she said. "Our kids are asking for food, and we cannot look them straight in the eye: we have no food."

The leader of the protest movement, Naripa Asanova, said her campaign began as a protest against the corrupt privatisation of their collective farm, in which the farm's former bosses divided the land between themselves, leaving the workers with nothing.

The protest then broadened to include other grievances, such as the corruption over conscription. "We give birth to our children, and the government drafts them into the army and uses them as cannon fodder," she said. "Government officials never let their children get drafted. Our kids will have to go and fight instead. We will start a revolution if we have to."

At their press conference, the women said they would still burn themselves to death if they needed to. "We will either burn ourselves, or ask for political asylum in another country," they said. 'We have not abandoned our self-immolation plans. Let our death help other suffering mothers and children and awaken the people of Kazakstan.'"

The mothers said they had struggled against appalling police harassment even to get to Almaty. Many families in their Baidybek hometown had raised money to send them to capital, but they still had to persuade the train conductors to let some of them travel for free. "The police were after us. They ordered the cashiers not to sell us tickets. They dragged some of us out of the train and threatened the conductors. They treated us like criminals."

When they reached Almaty, the television stations would not report on their campaign. Adilet's chair, Ulmeken Saidova, says the mothers were routinely threatened. Ulmeken Saidova was subpoenaed to the regional prosecutor's office for interrogation on June 12. 'When I asked what kind of information they wanted, they told me: "Either you come here of your own accord, or we will bring you here in handcuffs."

The mothers say all they want is the child support money that the government owes them and the prosecution of the officials who embezzled it. "We no longer trust the president," they said at their press conference. "The government is pursuing a policy of genocide against its own people."

Several political parties have used the case to attack the government, including the Communist Party and the Labour movement. But the government has not responded. So far, it has contained dissent in the country by forcefully suppressing the protests of miners, teachers, doctors and trade unions. It remains to be seen whether the struggle of a group of mothers will transcend the boundaries of a local conflict and ignite a wider conflict.

Bakhytjamal Bekturganova is president of the Association of Sociologists and Political Analysts

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