In today’s knowledge economy, the most important resource and main driver of prosperity is the talent and energy of a country’s people. So the better a society can maximise the potential of every one of its citizens, the more confidence it can have in its future.
It is why, of course, the empowerment of women is now rightly recognised as a critical development issue. Without removing the barriers that prevent half of the world’s population from making their full contribution to our societies and economies, we simply won’t be able to achieve national and global ambitions. Women’s rights matter to all of us whatever our gender.
Yet a full century after the modern struggle for women’s rights began, no continent or country can claim true gender equality. Despite real progress, women continue to face obstacles – sometimes formal but often informal and unconscious – which men do not.
It is why International Women’s Day, marked around the world on March 8, is so important. It is a chance to recognise the achievements of women and their contribution to our societies. In Kazakhstan, it is the centrepiece of a national holiday, which brings together this global event with other more personal celebrations of women’s role in our families, communities and national life.
But it is also a moment, if we are wise, to take stock of what has been achieved in the critical battle for women’s equality and also what more can be done. There are many areas in which Kazakhstan can take quiet pride. Our constitution guarantees equality before the law for men and women. There is no discrimination in terms of ownership and inheritance rights.
Our country has invested heavily in the education of girls and women. A sign of this success is that female students now easily outnumber their male counterparts at our higher education institutions. On this measure alone, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the country’s economic future.
On health and social welfare, too, we have seen significant progress. Maternal mortality has dropped dramatically over the last 20 years thanks to the strong focus given to improving health and reproductive care. There is more support for mothers while maternity leave and pay are generous with very strict safeguards in place to protect the employment rights of women who take time off to have children.
This, in part, is a reflection of the major role that women play in the economy. Labour force participation for women is almost as high as for men. Indeed according to the latest Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), women make up the majority of those in professional and technical roles. We are also seeing an increasing number of women-run businesses and start-ups.
But the WEF report also reveals areas for improvements. Female wages – as they do in almost every country in the world – lag behind those of men. Out-dated stereotypes still limit the number of women in the most senior roles and restrict them to what are often seen as “caring” professions here and in many other societies.
Kazakhstan may do well in regional terms on political representation with numbers of women parliament members and ministers increasing. But the country remains a long way behind global leaders. The evidence shows that the more a parliament represents the make-up of a country as a whole, the better its decisions. True gender equality right across the labour force can give a huge boost to economic growth.
The result is that Kazakhstan ranked 47th out of 145 countries assessed for the 2015 Gender Gap. It is the best performance in the region and ahead of countries such as Poland, Singapore, Russia and Thailand. It is reason for satisfaction but not for celebration.
The good news is that the government understands not only that there is more to do but why gender equality is so critical for the country’s ambitions. Rooting out both formal and informal discrimination has been put at the forefront of policy with a raft of initiatives from tough action against domestic violence to increased support for women entrepreneurs.
Kazakhstan is also actively working with international organisations, such as the UNDP to help adopt best practice. MPs, officials and business leaders have travelled to Sweden, for example, to see firsthand how Scandinavian countries, which as always are top of the WEF index, are ensuring women are not held back.
These serious policy issues may seem a long way from the family celebrations and national festivities that will take place over the next few days. But making sure men and women are equal partners in our families, community and country was why International Women’s Day was created and adopted and is at the core of building a prosperous and peaceful world. So let us congratulate and thank our women for everything they have done for us.