ASTANA – United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Global Director for Gender Equality Raquel Lagunas visited Kazakhstan on Oct. 16-20, meeting with senior government officials, parliamentarians, and women’s organizations and attending several strategic events. She spoke about what it takes to promote gender equality, the challenges facing Kazakhstan and Central Asia, and the role of media in an interview with The Astana Times.
“That is the first time that I am in Kazakhstan. I was very interested in knowing one of the countries that is leading the work on gender equality in Central Asia,” said Lagunas.
Packed visit to Kazakhstan
While in Kazakhstan, Lagunas participated in a seminar discussing women’s role in the energy sector and attended the Civil Forum and the National Forum on Demographic Changes.
She also met with Evgeniy Kochetov, Kazakhstan’s Vice Minister of Culture and Information, to discuss the implementation of the Gender Equality Seal for Public Institutions program. The program, which supports public institutions in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, was presented to Minister of Culture and Information Aida Balayeva on Oct. 10.
Among the major initiatives undertaken by the UN to combat gender equality is the Spotlight Initiative implemented with the European Union (EU). It is the world’s largest dedicated effort to end all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030.
Asking questions and questioning norms is normal
When it comes to promoting gender equality, it all starts with each person
“The first step is always to go through this kind of self-reflection and introspective process of asking, how did I grow, what did I learn from my mother, my father, what are the models that I was exposed to when I was a child? Because this is really the most powerful channel where we reproduce inequalities,” she said.
“If you learned only women should be the ones taking care of the kids or washing dishes, maybe it is better to have some fairness and redistribution of domestic work inside the house. Why? Because then everybody can have access to more time and different benefits in many senses,” she said.
At the individual level, each person, she noted, has an opportunity to “become role models” by speaking up if they witness abuse or harassment and by promoting education. According to Lagunas, education is “one of the biggest equalizers.”
Kazakhstan’s strides toward gender equality
While Kazakhstan is leading in the region of Central Asia in terms of gender quality, there are a lot of opportunities to improve. The nation ranked 62nd out of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2023, compiled by the World Economic Forum. It lists 28th in terms of economic participation and 27th in terms of educational attainment.
The promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women stands among the priority areas that Kazakhstan focuses on in its work in the Human Rights Council, along with the universal abolition of the death penalty, the fight against all forms of intolerance, and the promotion of freedom of religion and belief. Kazakhstan was elected a member of the council for 2022-2024 at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in October 2021.
Countries face similar challenges
Challenges countries face are “coincident,” said Lagunas, but she went on to differentiate between basic needs and strategic needs in terms of promoting gender equality.
“Kazakhstan succeeded in the basic abilities. Education, for example, the gap is completely closed. It is fantastic. We shouldn’t take it for granted – education, and increasing women’s access to the labor market,” she said.
Strategic needs are those about women’s political and economic participation. According to the Bureau of National Statistics, women occupy 26.9% of seats in the Parliament, and 52.4% of judges are women. But there are only three women ministers in the government of 19 ministers.
“The number of women CEOs in private sector companies or the segments of the labor market where women are accessing are still the traditional ones, not the ones that are ranked higher in the power scale,” said Lagunas.
Yet, Kazakhstan has traditional gender roles that prescribe specific expectations for men and women. These roles often limit women to caregiving and domestic responsibilities while positioning men as the breadwinners. In Kazakhstan alone, women spend an annual average of 14.8% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 4.9% for men.
Women are often pushed into lower-paying and less prestigious professions. In contrast, men dominate high-paying and leadership roles, perpetuating gender wage gaps and hindering gender equality in the workplace.
Gender stereotypes and discriminatory stereotypes still prevail, what Lagunas describes as “harmful social norms.”
“Of course, there is also violence against women. (…) Family needs to be a safe space for everybody. So this is a big pending challenge for Kazakhstan,” she added.
Promoting gender equality is not possible without close cooperation with women’s organizations
“For UNDP, it is very important to support them. (…) We also try to build a bridge between the government and women’s organizations. To fight violence against women, you need to have everybody seated at the table – Ministry of Health, Ministry of Interior, and women’s organizations because they are really the ones with the best thermometer. They know what is happening in every community. They are so important,” she said.
Role of media
Media also plays a significant role in promoting gender equality. “Media is really the fifth power, so is the one shaping narratives,” said Lagunas.
“It is a power of change when they become aware of how to use a positive force to not reproduce the stereotypes. I’ll give you an example. In the news, you read about homicides, men killing his partner or wife, killing a woman, when you read it is named as a passionate crime, but it is not a passionate crime, it is a sexist crime or a femicide. Language matters and language has the power to create reality. Same with images, audios or radio, so the power [of media] is incredible,” she said and it is a force of change when they become aware of how to use a positive power in terms of not reproducing the stereotypes.