Experts Highlight All-Society Effort as Kazakhstan Pushes for Gender Equality

ASTANA – Prominent experts from various fields emphasized the multifaceted and collective efforts needed to tackle gender inequality in Kazakhstan at a June 20 webinar. 

The webinar discussed the current situation and challenges in addressing gender inequality. Screenshot from the webinar.

Hosted by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and the Energy, Growth, and Security program of the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC), the discussions centered around the recently adopted law criminalizing domestic violence, which entered into force in Kazakhstan on June 16, economic empowerment, and the role of education in fostering gender equality. 

High-profile case as a catalyst for changes

The murder of Saltanat Nukenova served as a stark wake-up call for Kazakhstan. Her death, widely covered in the media both in Kazakhstan and beyond, sparked a national outcry and shed light on the issue of domestic violence in the country.

Experts attending the webinar agreed this high-profile case catalyzed legislative changes and public awareness, ultimately leading to the adoption of the law.

Kazakh diplomat Madina Jarbussynova described the adoption of the law as a victory for civil society and gender activists in Kazakhstan.

“It is recognized in our society that this high-profile murder accelerated the acceptance of the changes to the law, and two days ago, this law came into force. Criminalization of domestic violence is a sort of a victory of the civil society, the public movement in Kazakhstan, and the work of the parliamentarians in these different councils with civil society and gender activists,” said Jarbussynova. 

She stressed the impact of this trial has been profound, with more women coming forward to report domestic violence. 

The diplomat also noted that the law envisions the establishment of family centers. Their main role will be to prevent violence in families and in society. 

“Last year, Kazakhstan initiated the establishment of the Regional Central Asian Alliance on the Prevention of Gender-Based Violence. The team of experts visited our Central Asian neighboring states to discuss the structure of this alliance. In a week in Almaty, there will be a meeting in the form of a dialogue between the state officials from Central Asian states and civil society, as well as gender activists, to discuss this alliance,” she said. 

She noted Kazakhstan’s government has allocated $300,000 this year for the establishment of this alliance. 

Jarbussynova also said this is a problem that pertains not only to Kazakhstan but also to the whole world. 

“Violence against women impacts women across the world, regardless of age, race, class, and ethnicity. According to the UN estimations, each third of women aged 15 years or older globally have experienced violence – physical, sexual or emotional violence from an intimate partner during their lifetime,” she said.

Jarbussynova was recently elected into the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for 2025-2028. Her term on the committee is expected to begin on Jan. 1, 2025. 

“I am the first woman not only from Kazakhstan but also from Central Asia who, in our 32 years of membership to the UN, was given a chance to be elected to this committee,” she said, noting that it recognizes the region’s commitment to empowering women and reflects a balanced approach by UN members to include representatives from different regions.

Deep-rooted causes for gender inequality 

Jarbussynova emphasized that violence against women stems from deep-rooted gender inequality and discrimination, highlighting historically unequal power dynamics that have perpetuated domination over and discrimination against women, preventing their full advancement.

She notes that women play a significant role in Kazakhstan’s economy, yet they face a pronounced gender wage gap, which stands at around 32%. Women are also underrepresented in the political sphere. Just 17% of parliamentarians are women. 

She said experts often point to several reasons for this underrepresentation, including a lack of financial resources for election campaigning, negative stereotypes against women in leadership positions, and domestic responsibilities.

“Women hold a considerable presence in the civil service but are underrepresented at the higher level. They do, however, predominate in such spheres as the judiciary, social services, and education. But this predominance does not mean that they occupy high positions even in this sphere,” said Jarbussynova.

Cultural and traditional beliefs also play a significant role in shaping gender identities and social norms in Kazakhstan, which vary across the country’s regions. 

“Violence against women is primarily a cause and consequence of gender inequalities, and even the improved legislation and well-established law cannot just change the situation. There should be active engagement, not only women but men, in these movements and campaigns,” she said. 

Ariel Cohen, managing director at the Energy, Growth, and Security program, emphasized the contrast between traditional and modern societies in his remarks during the webinar, highlighting the hierarchical nature of traditional societies where women are relegated to a secondary position. 

Kazakhstan’s international commitments

Jarbussynova also spoke about Kazakhstan’s international commitments to address gender-based violence, including under the UN 2030 Agenda and the Generation Equality Forum. She noted President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s open acknowledgment of violence and discrimination has played a pivotal role in driving legislative reforms. 

She also revealed that Kazakhstan is working towards joining the Istanbul Convention and plans to adopt the International Labour Organization Convention 190 to prevent workplace sexual harassment, underscoring its commitment to gender equality and the protection of women’s rights.

Very needed changes

Jennifer Wistrand, a deputy director of the Kennan Institute, a Washington-based research institute focusing on Eurasia, echoed Jarbussynova’s remarks, saying that addressing women’s rights is “very needed” everywhere. 

“Gender-based violence can take many forms, including sexual violence and sex-selective abortions,” Wistrand noted. “Central Asia is not alone in its quest to combat gender-based violence and other abuses against girls and women. The global community is complicit in this violence and these abuses.”

However, she cautioned that legislative changes are not enough. “Laws are critically important. There needs to be more of them, and they need to be more comprehensive in nature. Unfortunately, governments and laws alone will not succeed in stemming the tide of domestic violence in Central Asia, as long as bias against women in Central Asia exists to the degree that it does,” said Wistrand.

She cited the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Social Norms Index, which reveals a high degree of bias against women in Central Asia. Only 8.74% of women in Kazakhstan, 2.6% in the Kyrgyz Republic, and 2.32% in Tajikistan are estimated not to face any gender bias. 

Wistrand went on to note that such bias translates into tolerance for domestic violence and that passing more comprehensive laws, along with increasing women’s representation in government, is essential.

Economic factors also come into play. Women in Central Asia earn significantly less than men, with wages amounting to only 60-78% of men’s earnings. Wistrand brought up data from the World Bank, which indicates national incomes could rise dramatically if women participated equally in the workforce.

“Laws like Saltanat’s law can take some serious steps in addressing domestic violence, but the interplay between culture, society, and economy is equally important and less easily amended by the weight of laws,” she said.

Cohen also noted that addressing domestic violence in Kazakhstan requires an all-society effort, including from the top leadership, civil society and media. 

Role of education

Dina Daniyarova is a coordinator for the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), a United States Department of State initiative launched in 2019. This program, operational in over 100 countries, including in Kazakhstan since 2020, aims to empower women through education and entrepreneurship. 

She emphasized how important education is in pushing gender equality not just in Kazakhstan but across the region.

“It [AWE] has been launched in Kazakhstan in 2020. In 2021, I had the pleasure of working on expanding it, and for the first time, it was conducted in the Kazakh language. It is important that when international programs enter the country, they also take the language component and target the right regions and the audience to achieve the right impact and results,” she said. 

The academy reached more than 100 women. Participants reported significant changes in their perceptions and understanding, especially after undergoing gender-based violence (GBV) training in collaboration with international partners. 

“They see that the opportunities that the world presents are really great and just limitless, almost, for most of them. They see that educational programs have the power to create a new cohort of ambassadors for gender equality, not just in our country, but also in the region,” Daniyarova added. 

She noted the Kazakh government prioritizes women’s economic empowerment, with over 43% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) led and founded by women. 

However, Daniyarova noted a disparity. While three-quarters of micro-businesses are run by women, their representation diminishes in larger enterprises. Addressing this gap could have a tremendous impact on both the economy and the broader gender equality agenda.

“I think it means that for the society itself, this is an important agenda, which is why the law had this momentum as well. Hopefully, we will continue the development,” she added.  

Jarbussynova expressed hope that the adoption of the law in Kazakhstan will be an example for other countries to follow.

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