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

Kyrgyz Women Battle Against Discrimination

Kyrgyz women campaign for equality in the political life of the country
By Jypara Abdrakhmanova

Zamira Akbagysheva, president of the Congress of Women of Kyrgyzstan, says her organisation has been working for years to prepare women leaders.


During recent parliamentary elections, the Congress put forward 28 women parliamentary candidates - only two were elected.


Around 10 per cent of parliamentary deputies are female. The majority of those were elected via party lists. There are no female regional governors or akims.


Kyrgyz women are active in education, medicine and the media. And there are various associations, federations and NGOs working to bring their problems and ideas to the fore.


Nevertheless, the majority of women stress it is difficult to compete with men on equal terms in almost all areas of political, professional and social life.


Despite state-level backing for gender equality, the political arena in particular remains the preserve of men.


Sagyn Ismailova, chairman of the State Commission on the Affairs of Women, Families and Youth, believes male managers regard intelligent, well-educated women as little more than assistants or advisers.


Ismailova also complains that few top-level political and state figures understand the essence of gender equality. She believes the majority of Kyrgyz men possess a "caveman mentality" and remain convinced the best place for women "is in the kitchen".


Parliamentary deputy Alevtina Pronenko says her male colleagues often fail to understand her point of view during legislative debates.


The authorities, meanwhile, have brought pressure to bear on some prominent women in Kyrgyz society. The editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Respublika, Zamira Sydykova, has been repeatedly taken to task for her forthright criticism of the government.


In October last year, the International Fund for Women's Press awarded Sydykova an award for 'bravery in journalism'.


Tolekan Ismailova, director of the NGO coalition For Democracy and a Civil Society, also faced constant criticism in the pro-government media during the recent parliamentary and presidential elections.


Ismailova and her colleagues were barred from many polling stations and counts after the Central Electoral Commission declared the organisation had not been legally registered. She and other election observers were repeatedly threatened with arrest.


Though marginalised in contemporary Kyrgyz politics, women have played a significant role in the social and political life of the country in the past.


Kyrgyz myths and legends revere Janyl-Myrza, the brave warrior-wife of the national hero Manas. The country's most respected and famous personality is a woman - the Alaisk tsarina, Kurmandjan Datka.


Kyrgyz women have traditionally always taken part in the resolution of important family, clan and tribe issues, and even fought alongside their menfolk in times of war.


During the Soviet period, many senior ministerial and Communist Party posts were occupied by women - for example, Kuluipa Konduchalova served as Minister of Culture.


Independence brought other women to the fore. Roza Otunbaeva, a former minister of foreign affairs, is now Kyrgyz ambassador to London. Nelya Beishenalieva is justice minister and Cholpon Baekova is chairman of the Constitutional Court.


In addition, Kyrgyz women run 90 per cent of the so-called "shuttle" businesses - a mainstay of the country's economy.


These businesswomen, aged between 17 and 55, make their living travelling around Kyrgyzstan and overseas trading goods. Many leave their children at home with unemployed husbands, the meager income they earn providing the family's only means of support.


Often the women travel long distances and via bizarre routes. Some, for example, having bought goods in the United Arab Emirates, take the products back to Bishkek, then to Moscow, and finally to some remote Russian towns, where they will remain, often for months, until the goods are sold.


En route, the women have to run the gauntlet of local tax and customs officials who in addition to charging the relevant duties often confiscate the goods until sizeable bribes are paid.


Chairman of the NGO Akyikat Jolu (The Path to Justice) Bubuaishi Arstanbekova claims four women were driven to suicide in 2000 due to the excesses of corrupt Russian customs officials. Three hanged themselves and a fourth jumped from a ninth floor window.


Kyrgyzstan is a paradoxical country where women dominate in a struggling economy, but where men control politics. With increasing frequency, women's NGOs are sounding alarm bells over growing infringements of women's rights and the development of an entrenched male chauvinism in politics.


The campaigners fear that if women's status in society continues to be undermined, they could soon be pushed out of political life altogether.


Jypara Abdrakhmanova is a regular IWPR contributor