It is now well over four decades since the United Nations officially recognised March 8 as International Women’s Day. The annual event, which is marked around the world, has helped draw attention to the contribution of women to our societies which was over-looked for so long. It is a chance to celebrate the indispensable role of women in our families, in communities and in a country as a whole.
But as well as a celebration – something which surely has taken place in families across Kazakhstan last weekend – International Women’s Day is also a call to action. It should remind us of the barriers women still face and how leaving them in place makes us all, male and female, poorer in every way.
The evidence is already overwhelming that gender inequality undermines the strength of our economies and the health of our communities. And in an era where success more than ever depends upon the ability to harness the talents and potential of each individual, the damage it causes to prosperity and stability will only increase. Gender equality is not just a goal in itself, but essential if we are to tackle poverty, raise living standards, increase opportunity and drive wider development.
As we have said before, no country has yet closed the gender gap. Women everywhere still face conscious and unconscious barriers and bias, which their male counterparts do not. This certainly remains the case in Kazakhstan, as the Government has itself recognised.
But independent studies have also found real improvements in recent years. A comprehensive report, for example, from the Asian Development Bank on gender equality and female empowerment published late last year found that Kazakhstan’s overall performance had improved so strongly since 2000 that it was now better than average for Europe and Central Asia as a whole.
Kazakhstan’s scores particularly high on gender equality in health and education, where its performance is outstanding and holds great hope for the future. Where the performance is weaker, such as on female political representation, the Government has put in place policies and targets to close the gap. We need more women’s voices shaping decisions.
This is also the case in the economic sphere where the strong progress of the past on labour participation and earnings is showing signs of stalling. The Government recognises that removing obstacles to equality in the labour market is simply essential if the country is to achieve its aim of joining the ranks of the top 30 developed nations.
In some cases, this requires action to break down educational and occupational stereotypes, so women are not restricted to certain types of careers or find progress harder. There are many sectors where women leaders are common-place. But there are others, such as the extractive industries and transport, where the culture needs to be changed.
Women in work in our cities are also likely to find the route up the career ladder easier than in more rural communities. It is culture as well as laws, which need to be changed. Wherever women work – and, of course, in their homes and communities – they have a right to feel safe and respected.
There is recognition, too, that there is huge potential in helping even more women set up and grow their own businesses. Women already account for more than half of those engaged in small and medium sized enterprises and two-thirds of individual entrepreneurs. These are the areas of the economy which will create the high-paid jobs of the future.
The Government is working on its own, and with partners, to give these businesses the help they need. Financial institutions have been encouraged to remove unfair barriers to credit which can hamper growth. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has just announced the female-led businesses across Kazakhstan it will support through its fast-track programme.
There is more to do but, as the Asian Development Bank reported, the right policy framework backed by real commitment from the top is in place to drive forward progress on gender equality. Delivering on this goal is in everyone’s interest, whether male or female and requires everyone’s involvement.