ASTANA – As the world celebrated March 8 International Women’s Day, the Almaty community had a chance to explore and promote gender equality through the prism of art, media, health, science, cinema, economics and politics during the week-long FemAgora festival. The event was designed to show different examples of women sharing their success stories and raising acute and sensitive issues.
The programme featured panel discussions, roundtables, film screenings and exhibitions engaging experts and researchers from Kazakhstan and beyond.
Each day explored different topics, including the way women are represented in the media, women in art and politics, economic opportunities, sexual and reproductive health and the LGBTQ community.
The festival, in its second year, slightly changed its structure, said organiser and gender advisor and educator Leila Zuleikha Makhmudova.
“We organised the event with Moldiyar Yergebekov [Associate Professor at Suleiman Demirel University, PhD in art history] for the first time last year. This year, we changed the format a little bit. We added different authors for different sections. We decided to change the format, because we do not want to limit the number of authors. We want to engage as many people and organisations as possible,” she told The Astana Times.
“We position this festival as Central Asian. There were speakers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and we also invited speakers for our science section from Washington, London and Moscow with research interest in our Central Asian region to share their expertise,” she added.
Diverse themes that ensured diverse views make the festival distinct.
“I have participated in many discussions, but regardless of the topic, either entrepreneurship or health, every time the discussion leads to one topic – education – but I have not witnessed this in this festival. I think this is great and it was achieved through our involvement of different authors and speakers coming from different backgrounds. Usually we see same people at all conferences, but it was not the case for FemAgora,” said Makhmudova.
While the festival gathered 50-80 attendees each day, she noted the audience was not large.
“There was one section where we had only two people, but we still conducted the discussion. I felt all right, regardless of how many people were there, because I realise that some themes are specific and are not quite popular; so is the interest that these themes draw,” she said.
“There were several people that attended each and every day of the festival. They were listening attentively and asking questions and it was visible that the festival changed something in their lives. Such feedback shows that the goal of the festival was achieved,” she noted.
Gathering women from different spheres and allowing them to share their experience and expertise was among the festival goals. Their efforts entail a “transformative work for the region.”
“These women, working in cinema, health and all other spheres, are doing different jobs. They try to work beyond the usual schemes. They make these spheres more inclusive not only for women, but for different groups of the population. Their vision is completely different,” said Makhmudova.
Though gender issues do not enjoy high popularity among the public, the country is making efforts to ensure equal opportunities by showing its commitment to gender equality. Kazakh legislation toward gender equality has expanded with the country joining the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1998.
The main legal document in this area is the country’s law on gender equality adopted in 2009 that guarantees equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women, in addition to the national gender equality strategy for 2006-2016. In 2016, Kazakhstan endorsed the Concept of Family and Gender Policy through 2030.
Despite the efforts, however, experts note problems remain.
“Gender equality is a right and similar to any constitutional right, it should live up to reality, enabling civil society to thrive by expanding its political, social and economic opportunities. This event is a good step to recognise these rights,” said United Nations Development Programme Assistant Resident Representative Irina Goryunova.
Among the obstacles is also the so-called glass ceiling, the term referring to a subtle and invisible barrier inhibiting one’s advancement in a hierarchy.
“Glass ceiling, as a rule, is driven by stereotypes, our culture and traditions. We ourselves raise girls. Corporate culture, too, [contributes to the growing glass ceiling.] But, I believe, we try to help these bright women to spread their wings and enhance leadership skills and expertise, so that they will actively take part in working groups [and decision making.] Our support of women from bottom to top is very important and we need to continue doing that,” she said.
Gender imbalance also includes the wage gap. In 2016, Kazakh women on average earned 31.4 percent less than men, according to statistics made available by the Kazakh Ministry of National Economy.
Women currently compose 22.2 percent of Parliament, which is below the 30-percent gender equality threshold considered to be a point at which women can bring real change to policy agendas, and slightly below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 27.1 percent.
“Twenty-two percent of women are in local level executive bodies, 10.5 percent are in the government, including Gulshara Abdykalikova [Deputy Prime Minister] and Kulyash Shamshidinova [Minister of Education and Science]. Women account for 55 percent of administrative civil workers, 48.2 percent are in the judiciary and 19 percent are in second tier banks’ top management,” said Mazhilis (lower house of Parliament) deputy Irina Smirnova.
Kazakhstan’s indicators are close to the Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA) regional average, where 21.5 percent of parliamentarians are women compared to 14.5 percent in 2006.
The nation also ranks among the top countries in terms of enrolment in primary and secondary education and a growing number of women are working in small and medium-sized businesses.
Gender-based violence, however, still remains an acute issue in the country..
“I can see positive changes and despite the fact there are less women in parliament, in the decision-making process, it is easier if their work is in society, where they can show their active position and they are less restrained and their voice can be heard,” said Smirnova.
Makhmudova hopes the festival will gather more participants in 2020.
“We hope to see the same trend next year. After all, we meet new people that can take part in the festival. There are more women and they are not stopping, but continuing doing their job. The topic will be expanding,” she said.