Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan Gender Equality More Theory Than Reality

Despite relatively progressive legislation, women still find themselves marginalised.
By Tatyana Em

Zulfiya is a stay-at-home mother who has been married for 15 years.

“Recently, my husband started beating me up,” she told IWPR. “It happens often. We’ve got four kids and I don’t have a job. What can I do? I have to put up with it. My parents died a long time ago and I have nowhere else to go.”

Zulfiya said that whenever she wanted to report her husband after particularly brutal assaults,  her in-laws would talk her out of approaching the police.

“I never knew there were any civil society organisations I could turn to,” she said. “I only recently received legal advice for the first time. At a crisis centre, I was told that I didn’t have to tolerate such behaviour. Even if [my husband] is stronger than me, that doesn’t mean he can dominate me and beat me,” she said.

Experts on women’s rights say that while Kazakstan has the best gender equality legislation in Central Asia, the conservative social attitudes of a traditionally male-dominated society mean that many problematic areas remain.

On paper, the state of women’s rights in Kazakstan looks good. The state provides universal maternity benefits. If a woman is employed, she can take up to three years’ unpaid leave and claim both a one-off maternity payment and a monthly allowance that is paid until her child is a year old.

More male than female graduates go on to study for master’s degrees and PhDs, but men rise more quickly in the world of employment. Women account for 49 per cent of the economically active population and 55 per cent of civil servants. At the same time, the vast majority of top positions in politics and business are held by men, while more menial jobs tend to be done by women.

Women earn an average of half the male income, and World Economic Forum data suggest that they are paid less for equivalent work.

One veteran campaigner on gender equality, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Kazakstan’s exemplary laws on gender equality were not being put into practice.

Although the importance of gender equality is recognised by senior officials, in practice this policy is challenged by a deeply-ingrained reluctance on the part of those who are meant to implement these state programmes and strategies, most of whom are men,” the activist said.

Domestic violence is a key area of concern. According to official statistics, domestic violence occurs in one in four families in Kazakstan, and a third of all murders take place within the family.

Rural women are particularly vulnerable to violence in the home, and often feel they just have to put up with it, according to Khadicha Abysheva, head of Sana Sezim, an NGO that offers women legal and social support. She said it was not uncommon for women to be beaten as a punishment for the way they cooked or cleaned.

An estimated 40 per cent of domestic violence victims do not report the abuse to the police, and are often unaware they have any rights.

A law on domestic violence law passed in 2009 sets out fines for perpetrators. Campaigners say this does not go far enough, as offenders often ignore court orders. There have even been cases in which victims has been forced to pay the fines themselves.

The National Commission for Women, Family and Demographic Policy, an agency that operates under President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s office, is now lobbying for custodial sentences for domestic abusers.

The workplace is another area where women face discrimination. Although men and women have equal access to education, the situation changes when they enter the workplace.

When women hold managerial roles, it tends to be within NGOs or small businesses.

For instance, although 55 per cent of civil servants in Kazakstan are women, there are only three in senior cabinet positions, and one of them is the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva, appointed deputy prime minister in September. Tamara Duysenova heads the health and welfare ministry while Janar Aitjanova leads the recently-created ministry for economic integration.

One area where things may be improving is the financial sector.

Umut Shayahmetova is chairperson of Halyk Bank, Kazakstan's third-largest bank. She has held a number of senior posts in banking.

Shayahmetova was one of six women who made it onto a list of the 100 most influential people in Kazakstan, compiled from an online poll done by the Vlast news agency.

“Right now, there are a lot of women among the managers and executive directors in Kazakstan’s banking sector,” said Raushan Sarsembaeva, head of the Association of Businesswomen of Kazakstan.

Gulmira Davletova, who works in an Almaty bank, told IWPR that perceptions of women were changing in the financial world, and that her own workplace had a good gender balance.

“I’ve been in banking for more than 15 years,” she added. “I started out as a financial consultant. Even ten years ago, it was hard to imagine a woman taking up a senior post in a financial institution.

“But now there seems to be a common understanding that women can keep up with that sort of responsibility.”

Kazakstan is a major employer of migrant workers from other Central Asian states, and women from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

The Sana Sezim hotline receives more than 3,000 calls a year, of which most are from migrant women aged 21 to 49.

If they are in the country illegally, they are further at risk, according to Abysheva.

“Female migrants risk having their [identity] documents confiscated, being deprived of food, losing the ability to contact their family members, detention against their will by an employer, and sexual and physical violence,” she said.

Tatyana Em is a journalist in Almaty.