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

Uphill Struggle for Women Politicians in Kyrgyzstan

Poor showing in the recent parliamentary ballot leaves only three female candidates with a chance of being elected.
By IWPR Central Asia

Traditional Central Asian chauvinism and a gulf in earnings between women and men appear to be making life almost impossible for would-be female politicians.


Only 40 of the 389 candidates standing for election to parliament on February 27 were women – and none enjoyed an outright victory in the first round of voting.


Even if the three women who won through to the March 13 second round – the president’s daughter Bermet Akaeva, who is local coordinator for the Aga Khan Foundation; Olga Bezborodova, a former editor of the Vecherny Bishkek newspaper; and Sharipa Sadybakasova, who heads the Kyrgyzstan Bank – are successful, they will hold just four per cent of the 75 parliamentary seats.


The capital Bishkek had the largest number of female candidates, 16, with nine others running in the rest of northern Kyrgyzstan and another 15 in the south of the country. Naryn region did not have a single woman standing for election.


Some observers believe this political inequality reflects a deep-rooted malaise, and they blame ingrained sexist attitudes which make it very difficult for women to succeed. Others say the economics of Kyrgyz politics – where those with most money to invest in their campaign tend to win – excludes women.


“Female voters themselves don’t vote for women candidates,” noted Viktoria Tian, a psychologist from the Sezim Crisis Centre, a women’s help group.


“According to Central Asian traditions, women have long been considered second-rate citizens and this has been exacerbated by the Soviet belief that women should not become involved in politics. If there was just one women among a hundred male Communist bosses, in the eyes of society she was there because nobody wanted her as a wife and mother.


“Many voters are elderly people, and they believe that female candidates should stay at home and cook,” she added.


Achakhon Turgunbaeva, the head of the Osh regional social welfare department, who wanted to run but was barred from doing so, pointed to three main difficulties facing would-be politicians.


“Firstly, women are greatly hindered by our own mentality…. Secondly, there are not enough rich women in the country who are at the same time strong politicians. And third, [equality] policies in this republic are no more than words – women are not equal here,” said Turgunbaeva.


“Women and men may be nominally equal when it comes to elections. But victory can only be achieved through the money that men possess.”


Analysts believe that one possible solution to the problem of sexism would be to introduce a parliamentary quota for women, or to boost women’s chances of selection by increasing the number running on party lists.


Outgoing parliamentary deputy Oksana Malevannaya - a well-known figure and television journalist – lost her seat to a male candidate at the recent election.


“Kyrgyzstan has many strong women leaders in civil society, but we are not represented in major-league politics because of the state’s repressive ideology,” she said. “I would call [this mindset] administrative chauvinism. It’s easier for the regime to control men who are focused on their business.”


Toktaim Umetalieva, the head of the pro-government Association of NGOs and a former deputy candidate, described the lack of women deputies as “a disgrace”.


“Above all, it is a disgrace for the democratic regime and all the efforts made to develop gender politics. This is linked to the poor socio-economic situation in the country, and the poverty of the people, who in some cases voted in return for a piece of bread!”


Arkady Dubnov, an expert on Central Asia and journalist at the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostei, told IWPR that female politicians may ruffle too many feathers as they often speak frankly, “They do not conceal their opinions on real issues, they pose questions directly and want to solve problems. A lot of people don’t like that, as it goes against tradition and hurts the pride of male politicians.”


While traditional views and widespread sexism may be holding women back, one opposition activist blames the authorities for setting the bar too high for female candidates.


“Women could not get in because the registration fee was too high, and because they refused to lie or make empty promises,” said Ishengul Boljurova, deputy head of the opposition People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan.


Janyl Mambetaly, a judge from the Sverdlov district of Bishkek who lost out to a male candidate in the elections, believes the election was all about money.


“The men who got into parliament used money,” she alleged. “Women go to parliament to work, but getting elected by honest means is impossible in this country.”


Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR coordinator in Bishkek. Leila Saralaeva and Gulnura Toralieva are IWPR contributors in Bishkek.