Kazakhstan: Empowering Girls

Arailym Ashirbekova, Institute for Development and Economic Affairs (IDEA), Kazakhstan, MA Gender and International development, University of Warwick.

“We need a strategy to end the violence against girls, early and forced marriages in Central Asia.”

Women’s League of Creative Initiative of Kazakhstan

This essay presents a summary of the issues and ideas on women empowerment discussed at the conference of the Women’s League of Creative Initiative of Kazakhstan held on January 27, 2015. The author presents part of her own research, and incorporates it into the discussion of the topics raised at the conference.

Empowering girls

The Women’s League of Creative Initiative of Kazakhstan held its conference on January 27, 2015 in Almaty ending with a call to improve the status of women and girls in Kazakhstan. The conference was attended by women activists, religious clerks, donors, national and international experts.  One of the main questions raised by participants was on early and arranged marriages. Based on personal research, the author suggests that economic empowerment is a way to foster positive change.

Kazakhstan made a number of commitments to the international community by signing Beijing Platform for Action, Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other similar international agreements on women’s rights. The National Commission on Women’s Affairs and Family Demographic Policy under the President of the republic of Kazakhstan was established in 2006. The Strategy of Gender Equality for 2006-2016 is a threshold for the implementation of gender policies in the country. However, one might observe insignificant changes on the eve of 2016. There is lack of gender disaggregated data and official statistics, and there are gaps in national law. These shortcomings were mentioned at the conference, however, there is a need to go beyond the rhetoric and come up with feasible mechanisms.

The implementation of Western norms and mechanisms for ensuring gender equality have not been successful in local contexts worldwide. This fact might be explained by the ambiguity of the concept of ‘gender’ per se. As a result, the attempts of the international community to apply universal gender equality values and norms have been met with reluctance from local populations. Numerous publications have been released to criticize the principle of “one size fits all” in gender and development (Abu-Lughod 2013, Sachs 2010). Most of the literature defines gender as “socially and culturally constructed differences between men and women”. For example, in the context of Afghanistan, “gender” has no exact translation in Pashto or Dari, which means ‘social sex’ in most policy documents.  Most of the Afghan interviewees perceive it as ‘non-Islamic’ imported term.  Similar conceptual misunderstandings can be traced in the context of Kazakhstan, where the term “gender” has no translation in Kazakh/Russian languages, but it is simply transliterated in local languages as an English word. Most of the people I have interviewed, had no clear understanding of the term, considering it rather ‘a feminist appeal’.   Thus, there is a need for conceptual clarification in gender related policies

Research findings:

Kazakhstan is a multiethnic state where ethnic and cultural traditions are deeply embedded in some communities and supersede state laws. Therefore, the practices of early and forced marriages and bride kidnapping still exist. Research conducted by the Women’s League of Creative Initiative shows that most of the cases occur in ethnic minorities[1]:

“Early marriage is typical for the Uighur population. They believe that a girl who doesn’t marry before the age of 18 – has failed”

(Child spouse, member of an ethnic minority)

In Almaty oblast, 56,3% of girls aged 15-19 have completed secondary education out of total 84,684 girls and 4,8% of all total married women are in this age category[2]. The factors for the problems can be attributed to social, cultural, economic, educational attainment of girls and women, and their residence in rural areas. Another reason is the stereotype of a subordinate status of women in families and their subjection to the parents:

“That’s the way all women in our family and our people get married”

(Child spouse, member of an ethnic group)

Proposed solutions:

As the author claims, one of the primary reasons for early marriage is the economic factor that plays a crucial role in these practices. Parents often see a source of income in marrying off their daughters into wealthy families. However, there is an untapped economic potential in girls outside of the marriage. An unmarried girl who can be educated and become capable of earning money for her family is a greater source of income rather than an uneducated minor married at the age of 14. As a result, of these choices, a girl either gets more choice in life or is being trapped by social stigma and inability to rule over her own life. By promoting economic empowerment through a complex of programs at grassroots, the status of women in Kazakhstan can be significantly improved. As global practice shows, the investments in income-generating projects for young girls and educational programs are effective. For example, the micro-credits given to women have resulted in income-generating projects in Bangladesh by Grameen Bank, which gradually led to economic independence from the male members of the family. The girls at grassroots need to be mentored by outstanding entrepreneurs of the country who can share and transmit their experience. The role of men is very important in effective outcomes for the empowerment projects. Boys should be included into the projects. During the session on women’s entrepreneurship on November 18, 2015, most women expressed the idea that they feel more empowered when economically well off. That is to say that women gain more power in decision making when earning money. While decisions over the household, children’s education are made negotiating with their husbands, economic empowerment of women gives their voices more power. At the same time, working women, especially entrepreneurs, who participated in the conference, emphasized that they did not feel discriminated in society thanks to their income and the social status. However, they noted the problem of a double burden on them due to the traditional mindset of members of Kazakh community, which is still present in the society.

[1] Khairullina, Assiya (2015) “Bride kidnapping and early and forced marriages in post-Soviet Central Asia”, National Reports of Experts

[2] ibid

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