Panel in Astana Unveils Influential Stories of Women in Diplomacy

ASTANA – Breaking Barriers: Women in Diplomacy panel discussion at Maqsut Narikbayev University (MNU) in Astana on June 21 uncovered the stories of women who sought influence and were great female agents in diplomacy.

The panel was moderated by UN Kazakhstan’s Head of Communications Elnara Bainazarova, who was joined by Ambassador of South Africa to Kazakhstan Keitumetsi Seipelo Tandeka Matthews, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Madina Jarbossynova and British Ambassador to Kazakhstan Kathy Leach. Photo credit: Aibarshyn Akhmetkali/The Astana Times

The event took place ahead of the International Day of Women in Diplomacy, which is celebrated every year on June 24.

“Diplomacy requires the best of humanity. That best has to be harvested from both men and women. Only together can we achieve the results we want to see in peace and development,” said Michaela Friberg-Storey, the United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator in Kazakhstan, highlighting the importance of gender parity in diplomacy.

Coming from a time when female diplomats were unthinkable, Friberg-Storey stressed the need to promote gender parity within the state institutions.

“(…) Change needs to come from within the country. Kazakhstan is on that journey, and Kazakhstan really stands out when it comes to the very prominent post of the Permanent Representative of the country to the United Nations. No other country in the world has had this position dominated by female ambassadors. So I would like to congratulate Kazakhstan on this and say that we look forward to gender parity also here so that there is a 50/50,” said Friberg-Storey.    

Since Kazakhstan joined the UN in 1992, the country has been represented by a female ambassador for the majority of its membership—17 years out of 32 years.  

The current number of female ambassadors to Kazakhstan is 11 out of some 67, and the number of female ambassadors from Kazakhstan stands at three. Although these figures are not as high as they could be, there is no doubt that these indicators will continue to show a positive trend, given the strong focus of the Kazakh government on women’s empowerment.

The panel was joined by Madina Jarbussynova, the former Permanent Representative of Kazakhstan to the UN. In a historic move, she earned a prime diplomatic post, being elected to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“My election to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is recognition of the achievements in Kazakhstan in this area because I’m the first expert elected not only from Kazakhstan but from Central Asia since our states gained independence,” said Jarbussynova.

As a woman serving in prime diplomatic posts, Jarbussynova outlined the importance of defining work as an arena for individual achievement regardless of gender and free of stereotypes.

“Nearly half of the staff of the central body of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are young women. But when we look at the positions of the directors of the departments and higher, and we start counting the number of female ambassadors, we come to the negative characteristics of this situation. I think it is a continuation of some stereotypical opinion that diplomacy is a male sphere,” said  Jarbussynova, advocating for women’s nomination to higher positions in diplomacy.

“It is well known that when women deal with politics, they address the issues, which benefit the ordinary people, change the social life, environment and peacebuilding. So I am sure that with the political will in our country, the situation can be changed,” she added.

Kathy Leach, ambassador of the United Kingdom (U.K.) to Kazakhstan, shared the U.K.’s history of steady institutional change that supported women in diplomacy. 

She tracked the impact of the generation of female diplomats who were forced to leave foreign office once they were married. And the impact of later women who combined diplomacy with family life, serving as role models for female diplomats to come. 

Apart from having prominent women as role models, the foreign offices would require building systems and separate accommodations that support women, such as flexible working and job sharing.

Between being a spouse and a diplomat, Leach acknowledged that women are judged differently from men. She encourages women to create their own support systems and be confident in their endeavors.

“It’s walking into a room like you belong in that room. It’s sitting in the front row. It’s asking the first question. It’s not sitting at the back and hiding away. You don’t want people to think you’re in that room to make the tea. You want people to know that you’re in that room because you have a professional job to do. So walk into that room like you own that room and have a right to be in it,” said Leach.

According to Ambassador of South Africa to Kazakhstan Keitumetsi Seipelo Tandeka Matthews, a female fight for liberation in South Africa determined their path and involvement in diplomacy. In evidence, she provided vivid and engaging portraits of women who fought in guerrilla warfare combats in camps of the Pan African Congress and the African National Congress. Those women and their followers managed to play a role in South African foreign policy.

Matthews advises women to exercise authority with kindness and manners.           

“You need to be confident. You need to be well-educated. It is extremely important. You need to be well-read, interested in people, respectful of cultures and other people. You need to have excellent manners,” said Matthews.

“You know, you don’t need to be like a man just because you are in a man’s job. That’s the worst quality any woman can have, is to emulate a man because he wants to be at the top. It is disgraceful, and I don’t support it, and I think it’s something that we should discourage,” she said. 

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