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

Kyrgyzstan: Forgotten Revolutionaries

Women played a key role in the “Tulip Revolution” but are now in danger of being forgotten by the country’s new leaders.
By Aziza Turdueva

Hopes that the March revolution would advance women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan were dashed last week when the country’s conservative parliament rejected all three female cabinet nominees.

The rebuff of Roza Otunbaeva, Alevtina Pronenko and Toktokan Borombaeva leaves the new parliament and government without a single female voice – a step back even from the Akaev days when government included several women.

“There is not a single person, not a single deputy, who can understand the problems of women and protect their rights,” said Borombaeva, who was nominated for the position of culture minister.

“In the past we were able to express our opinion to some extent, although there were only six of us women in parliament.”

Tolekan Ismailova, head of the NGO Citizens Against Corruption, added, “Gender equality has been crushed, and now women cannot even work in executive power. The male parliament has infringed the rights of women.”

Otunbaeva, one of the country’s best-known politicians who had worked as acting foreign minister under the new regime, was among many Kyrgyz women who played a key role in the turbulent events that led up to the ousting of Askar Akaev.

She was considered a leader of the revolution and was accused by Akaev himself of being the engine behind the March incidents.

Up for the post of foreign minister, she had clashed with the new government and was outspoken in condemning the corruption that she says has continued despite the regime change, even calling for parliament to be dissolved.

“Our deputies showed how limited they are, how vindictive they are,” said a spokesperson for the women’s group Eraiym, commenting on the all-male parliament.

Government corruption was one of the many complaints that sent thousands of Kyrgyz women onto the streets in the months before the revolution. They were also protesting high unemployment, poor housing, violations of human rights and a shortage of money to feed and clothe their children, as well as expressing their frustration at the Akaev regime’s failure to implement policies to improve the situation of women.

Women from the provinces, where lack of infrastructure, clean water and the poor condition of roads, schools and hospitals create great hardships, were particularly active in the protest movement.

One woman who openly and harshly criticised the former leadership, Klara Ajybekova, said they also protested for patriotic reasons. “Women set themselves the goal to entrust the future of the country, the future of the state, to honest, respectable people capable of building a lawful democratic society,” she said.

News of the cabinet snub has only reinforced the growing belief among many women activists that the regime change has not improved their lot in life. They say if their problems remain unresolved, they may once again be forced to take to the streets to demand their rights.

Karamat Orozova, who took to the streets in the southern Batken region, is disappointed that even after the revolution her life remains difficult.

“Women protested because of the difficult situation in their families, because their children live in impoverished conditions,” she said. “In villages, many families go without meat for months on end. Not every family has sugar on the table. Since the revolution, the situation of these families has not changed.”

Janna Saralaeva, head of a Jalalabad women’s group, added, “We expected positive changes in society from the revolution, and an improvement in the situation of women. Now we are unhappy with the personnel policy of the current leadership. Officials from the Akaev regime are occupying high-ranking positions again, and there are no decisive steps to fight corruption and bribery. There is no revolutionary renewal in the country.”

Some, however, are more optimistic that things will eventually change for the better, pointing out that relatively little time has passed and urging patience.

“A new government has just formed, so women do not need to take part in pickets and protests. We hope that the new government will think about the people,” said Salima Sharipova, head of the NGO Umai Ene.

Others are advocating a more active approach, saying women should once again take the initiative to ensure their voices are heard. Aziza Abdrasulova, head of the NGO Kylym Shamy, suggests campaigning for a law introducing quotas for women in parliament and government before the next elections.

“In the 15 years since independence Kyrgyzstan has been ruled by men. What is the result? An economic and social crisis, corruption and unemployment. Now we women must muster our courage and rule the country. It is well known that countries where a sufficient number of women are represented in government are all flourishing” said Abdrasulova.

Aziza Turdueva is a correspondent for Radio Liberty. Cholpon Orozobekova provided additional reporting.