Gender equality and women’s representation in politics are a concern for Kazakhstan as it pushes to join the world’s 30 most developed nations. Gulshara Abdikalikova, Advisor to the President of Kazakhstan and Chair of the National Commission for Women’s Affairs, Family and Demographic Policy, spoke to The Astana Times about the country’s efforts and achievements in creating gender parity, her career and her goals.
I won’t say I have faced any particular obstacles because I’m a woman. Just like in any other sphere, in politics you have to be purposeful, competent, hardworking and have the ability to work with people. I know many used to claim that it is not easy to be a woman in politics. But politics is a hard thing for everybody no matter who you are–a man or a woman. Kazakhstan’s is a progressive society where men and women have equal rights–this is supported by the gender policy of Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev in his 2012 state-of-the-nation address drew additional attention to the question of the enhancement of women’s status. ‘We have to actively involve women in state and public administration, especially on the local level in the regions,’ the president said.
In addition, it is important to remember that the position of Kazakh women was always different from the position of other Oriental women as they used to be worthy comrades for their husbands. There is the Mausoleum of Rabiga-Sultan Begum standing next to Hodzha Ahmet Yassaui’s Mausoleum in the city of Turkestan, also called the small Mecca for Muslims. This mausoleum was erected in honour of the first woman in the Muslim world who took part in governing a state.
This year is the 230th birth anniversary of Kazakh Khansha Aiganym who ruled after her husband Ualy Khan’s death. These examples prove that Kazakh women used to have a special status in the social hierarchy.
Who has supported you in your aspirations?
My family, relatives and people close to me have supported me throughout my career. I think it is quite natural, since they, as no one else, know my abilities. Then come those people with whom I have worked side by side, starting with the lowest levels of my public service, my mentors, department heads and then the superiors who noticed my professional skills and some progress I made in my work.
I am grateful to our President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who gave me the chance to lead a very complex and important institution, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. The president also issued a decree appointing me as his Advisor on Women’s Affairs, Family and Demographic Policy.
Would you say that equal representation for women in politics is secured and promoted here, and is this issue relevant for Kazakhstan?
This trend is relevant not only to our country. In Nordic countries, you can find a sufficient number of women in politics. For instance, in Sweden, 44.7 percent of the parliament members are women. Among all the employees of the Government of Norway, female employees make up 42 percent. They also occupy half of the seats in the Workers Party. According to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, Iceland was recognized as the leading country in securing women equal representation in politics.
The position of the woman in our country is different. However, Kazakhstan has made progress increasing the number of women in the decision-making sphere. For example, in 2011, in the highest legislative body of the country, women accounted for 14 percent of the total number of deputies. It was a two-fold increase compared with the previous convocation in 2004. After the election to the lower house of the parliament in 2012, the number of women reached 24.3 percent. At the moment, the number of women in the highest legislative body has increased to 25.2 percent.
As for the executive body, we have now more female vice ministers, executive secretaries in the ministries and deputy akims (governors) of regions than before. Female political civil servants total 10 percent. Among them, 15 percent are in Corps A and 940 servants are in the reserve of the Corps A. Among those, 148 are women (16 percent).
By studying the above-mentioned report, you can conclude that we have made more progress than any other [Commonwealth of Independent State] CIS country. I am sure that Kazakhstan women have sufficient educational background and enough experience to occupy high ranking positions in politics in the near future.
How has the situation for women changed over the course of your career?
We never used to have a lot of women in government. Moreover, they took responsibility for the most complicated spheres such as healthcare, economic integration and social protection. I think that, first of all, common goals and challenges the ministries are faced with have brought us together. We are friends since the days when we were low-level employees working in different departments of the government. And I am glad to have maintained our good professional and warm personal relations.
We have also established good professional contacts with the deputies. Some deputies are members of the National Commission for Women’s Affairs, Family and Demographic Policy under the President, which I chair. We combine our common efforts for the prosperity of Kazakhstan society. Once I read an interesting quotation: ‘A true friend is not the one who looks at you, catching every move. A true friend is the one who is looking and moving with you in the same direction.’
The deputies, as well as members of the National Commission, did much to improve the position of families, women and children in Kazakhstan.
We actively engage other female deputies in our activities even if they are not members of the National Commission. For example, last week we held a forum, Women and Religion, in Shymkent, which was aimed at explaining the role of a woman in religion to youth, as well as at promoting the formation of the religious consciousness corresponding to the traditions and cultural norms that exist in a secular society. We invited Orazgul Asangazy, deputy of the Mazhilis of the Parliament to participate in the forum. Other active participants who attend our events are Senator Svetlana Zhalmagambetova, as well as Nadezhda Petukhova, Svetlana Ferkho and other Mazhilis representatives. I would characterise the special camaraderie between us as the feelings of a mother concerned about the future of her children.
Would you expect politics and policy in Kazakhstan to change if more women held positions of power? What changes might you expect?
I would like to quote the statement our president made during last year’s meeting with Kazakhstan women in power, ‘Koktem shuagy.’ This is an annual meeting we hold before celebrating International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. Addressing the participants of the event, the head of state said that the more women take part in the decision making process, the better the quality of these decisions will be.
In his address to the people of Kazakhstan, Strategy 2050: New Political Course of the Established Nation, the President again emphasised that modern Kazakhstan women should aspire to make a career. And he gave an order to actively involve women in the state and public administration.
Women’s potential is enormous. International research organisations are now exploring this issue. Here is an interesting example. According to the World Bank, the achievement of gender equality can enhance the productivity per employee up to 40 percent. And what leader is not interested in this.
Is there a plan to increase the number of women in decision-making process?
We are working in this direction. The Action Plan developed on instructions of the president was adopted recently. The Action Plan indicated that by 2016 the number of women in decision-making process should be no less than 30 percent. This plan was developed only after thorough study. The fact that such a task was set proves that we have some potential in this direction.
What is more important is that there is an understanding in society, an understanding of the most forward-thinking male leaders. We have almost reached the target in parliament. During the recent 15th Congress of the Nur Otan party, it was decided that women in its political council will make up 30 percent. And in the Atameken Union, women make up 50 percent. I hope these figures will be the basis for our further perspectives.
Currently, we are working in all directions, including representations on the boards of directors.
Do you feel the state supports women representation in politics?
First and foremost, I would like to note that our women have felt the support of the state from the first years of independence. The National Commission was established in 1998, according to a presidential decree. By the way, this year we celebrate our 15th anniversary. We were the first CIS country which has created a mechanism for the implementation of state policy in the field of human rights protection and the legitimate interests of the family, women and children.
During the years of independence, our women have proved that they can overcome any difficulties. Speaking at the Congress of Women of Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev praised their achievements: “All these 20 years of independence, when we went through the most difficult period for us after the collapse of the USSR, including total economic stagnation and subsequent years of successful state building, you (Kazakhstan women) were always there supporting my course.”
Women are willing and able to work in any field. They are ready to contribute to building a welfare society. But certain conditions have to be created in order to do business. The sooner our society overcomes stereotypes and takes into account the economic potential of women, the faster we will build a desirable society.
What are your current goals?
My goals are directly related to the activities of the National Commission, whose objectives are indicated in our documents: increasing representation of women at the decision-making level, reducing violence in the family, ensuring active economic participation of women, improving the position of children, families and senior citizens, preserving and developing traditional family values, and more.
In order to implement these goals, I continue learning and improving my skills and knowledge. I study foreign experiences in the sphere of gender equality. Whatever country I visit, I always note good initiatives that can be implemented in Kazakhstan. I try to communicate with colleagues from other countries. I have just come back from an international conference, Women, Peace and Security, which was organized by UN Women and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe). I think there were many interesting things to learn for the participants who came from 15 different states.
In order to share useful experience, we also try to hold events using various formats. Seeking to educate newly elected akims, we recently conducted two seminars for rural female akims from western and southern regions of the country. Next year, we plan to continue this work.
Our work is also aimed at the moral education of young people, which includes the forum Women and Religion, violence prevention workshops and various training sessions to build a society of gender sensitivity. And this is only a small part of the extensive work we do.