Steppe Sisters: Kazakhstan’s Rising Women Politicians

By Michelle Witte

Gulshara Abdykalykova, Aigul Solovyova and Svetlana Romanovskaya are three of Kazakhstan’s decision makers, part of the slowly growing group of women at the highest levels of government.

Kazakhstan Women

Deputy Prime Minister Gulshara Abdykalykova
Gulshara Abdykalykova is the former minister of labor and social protection of Kazakhstan and, until Nov. 28, Chair of the National Commission for Women’s Affairs, Family and Demographic Policy under the President of Kazakhstan. Abdykalykova, who has a PhD in economics, started her career in national politics at the ministry in 1995.

A Woman Warrior Tradition
Abdykalykova, Solovyova and Romanovskaya may be part of a minority, but they are not anomalies. The women of Kazakhstan have not often been content to live behind screens or veils, or to lettheir fates be decided for them.

As archeologists begin to dig into the country’s long history, they’ve found graves of women buried like warriors, with bows and swords; women with arrowheads lodged in their bodies and bowed legsfrom a life of horseback riding. The country’s 2010 commemorative 100-tenge coin honored Tomyris, queen of the Massagetae people who lived on what is now Kazakhstan in 5th century BC. She is said to have defeated and killed Cyrus the Great of Persia in battle.

“It is important to remember that the position of Kazakh women was always different from the position of other Asian women, as they were worthy comrades of their husbands,” Abdykalykova told EdgeKz. Citing monuments to Rabiga-Sultan Begum, who she calls the first woman in the Muslim world to take part in governing a state, as well as Aiganym Khansha, a Kazakh woman who ruled after the death of her husband, she said, “These examples show the status Kazakh women had in the social hierarchy.”

Old Obstacles and Current Challenges
That doesn’t mean today’s path to power is an easy one. “It is difficult to build a career, for both men and women,” Romanovskaya told EdgeKz. “However, there are challenges that fall on women’s shoulders if they try to combine family and career. … After my husband passed away, I moved to Astana and it was difficult to retain the status of a successful woman while not forgetting about the role of a loving mother and a caring hostess. You can overcome the obstacles, but only if you are ready for them.”

“There were a lot of obstacles,” Solovyova told EdgeKz. “In the academic sphere, I had to prove my competitive ability at every step, putting in much more effort in comparison to my male colleagues.”

Solovyova came to politics through her experience as an entrepreneur and business owner. “During the first years of independence, I, like many other women, decided to start a business, despite the fact that I had a high position in a scientific institute and had attained an academic degree,” she said. She began organizing with other entrepreneurs to solve the problems they encountered. She then formed an entrepreneurial union that put her in contact with representatives of the government, leading her eventually to her political career. But the way wasn’t always smooth.

“I also remember one situation when I gathered entrepreneurs to discuss creating [an economic union],” she continued. “Most of them were men, and as I was calling to unite and negotiate, one of them suggested they step out for a smoke, and they all rose from the table and left me alone. Later, I found out that they met in a sauna and organized a union there, under the same name and using the charter that I proposed—but without me, of course.”

“However, creating something is not the same as getting it to actually work. I met the challenge with cold head and created an alternative, using more strength this time. … There was a time when there were no women in business associations on the national level … . It is probably hard to imagine today, but some time ago it was a reality.”

Not every woman agrees that gender is an issue in business or politics. “I wouldn’t say I have faced any particular obstacles because I’m a woman,” Abdykalykova said. “Just like in any other sphere, in politics you have to be purposeful, competent, hardworking and have the ability to work with people. I know many have claimed that it is not easy to be a woman in politics. But politics is a hard thing for everybody, whether you’re a man or a woman. Kazakhstan is a progressive society where men and women have equal rights.”

Women in Kazakhstan

Aigul Solovyova
Aigul Solovyova has been a member of Kazakhstan’s Mazhilis, the lower chamber of its parliament, since 2007. She is on the Parliamentary Committee on Economic Reform and Regional Development, chair of the Coordination Council of Kazakhstan’s Civic Alliance, chair of the Union of Women Entrepreneurs and a member of the Entrepreneurs Forum of Kazakhstan, among others. Solovyova has a PhD in chemistry.

Gender Policy and Women’s Reality
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Social Institutions and Gender Index ranked Kazakhstan 14 out of 86 countries in 2012, a slide from the third place ranking it got in 2009 out of 102 countries. In 2006, the country put into action a strategy to promote gender equality for 2006-2016 with the goal of having women occupy at least 30 percent of decision-making roles at all levels of government by 2016. The UNDP, assessing the country’s action plan for implementing the 2006-2016 gender strategy in 2009, called the country’s actions regarding gender issues “highly effective” and called Kazakhstan “one of the few countries in the world with the developed base of legal documents stating the strategic steps of the state for the development of gender equality in detail.”

In 2009, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev charged the government with mainstreaming population issues, including gender issues, into the nation’s Strategic Development Plan to 2020.

“Our women have felt the support of the state from the first years of independence,” Abdykalykova said. “The national commission [the National Commission for Women and the Family] was established in 1998 by presidential decree. … We were the first CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] country to create a mechanism for the implementation of state policy in the field of human rights protection and the legitimate interests of the family, women and children.”

Kazakhstan has also already achieved many of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, including ensuring equal access to primary and secondary education for girls and boys. Women and men have the same school life expectancy and, as of 2012, roughly a third more women than men were enrolled in tertiary education (colleges, universities, and other post-secondary education training institutes).

However, writing legislation doesn’t always lead to a change in activities on the ground, a fact pointed out by several studies reviewing the realities of gender bias in the country. Solovyova, who hasrecently been active—and strongly critical of the government—in addressing problems with the country’s distribution of affordable housing, suggests that the country’s new strategy, Kazakhstan 2050, could do more to promote the well-being of women, children and the elderly.

Women in Business
Kazakhstan’s women are active members of its business community. Abdykalykova reported at the national conference, “Political and Economic Advancement of Women is the Path to Competitiveness,” in November 2013, that women contribute 40 percent of the country’s GDP. They make up 52 percent of those engaged in small and medium businesses and 66 percent of all individual entrepreneurs.
Those individual entrepreneurs are often engaged in family businesses or businesses run out of their homes. “Women of Kazakhstan are well educated, so they actively participate in small and medium sized business, which is regarded as family business by most men,” Solovyova said.

These family businesses, however, are not often a stepping stone to upper management positions in their own or other companies. The 2011 Enterprise Survey’s country note on Kazakhstan says women were owners or part-owners of 34.4 percent of the country’s businesses and held top management positions in only 25 percent in 2009.

Women of Kazakhstan

Mazhilis Deputy Svetlana Romanovskaya
Svetlana Romanovskaya is a member of Kazakhstan’s Mazhilis, a member of the Mazhilis Committee for Legislation and Judicial Reform and president of the country’s National League of Consumers. She has a PhD in law and has studied extensively in Europe and Russia on international finance, mediation and arbitration, consumer policy and other topics.

Women in Government
There are 28 women in Kazakhstan’s 154-seat two-chamber Parliament, a number that doubled between 2000 and 2012.

At the same November conference about women’s economic roles, Abdykalykova reported that the share of women in the country’s lower house of parliament had reached 25.2 percent, that women made up 25 percent of local executive bodies and that there were 260 female akims (mayors) of urban, rural and village districts. Until Abdykalykova’s own appointment as Deputy Prime Minister on Niv. 28, women also held 15.8 percent of ministerial positions.

The representation of women in the decision-making process in Kazakhstan exceeds the world average, the average for upper-middle income countries and that of China, Russia, and any other country in Central Asia.

It remains behind that of the European Union and North America, however, as well as the aggregate of the 30 high-income OECD countries. And while the official Women & Men of Kazakhstan report of 2010 has women making up 56 percent of all civil servants, only 9.3 percent of those were politically appointed civil servants. The majority hold administrative positions.

Though Kazakhstan’s women are developing their roles and their power in their growing country, they are also familiar with the modern glass ceiling, which seems to have more to do with tradition than legislation and opportunity.

Solovyova told EdgeKz that there are many reasons why there are few women in high-ranking positions, and that some of them had to do with the choice between family and career.

“Maybe it is connected somehow with our mentality and traditions, which influence the role of woman in society and create certain stereotypes. … Politics, however, was always a man’s business where they do not want additional rivals. On top of this, it’s men who decide whether to allow woman to go to politics or not.” The president’s gender strategy is intended to counteract this, she added.

“Women are willing and able to work in any field,” said Abdykalykova. “They are ready to contribute to building a welfare society. But certain conditions have to be created in order to do business. The sooner our society overcomes stereotypes and takes into account women’s economic potential, the faster we will build the society we want.”

The Female Future
“We never used to have a lot of women in government,” Abdykalykova said. “Now they’ve taken responsibility for the most complicated spheres, such as healthcare, economic integration and social protection.” Kazakhstan’s ministries of healthcare, economic integration and labor and social protection are all headed by women.
Abdykalykova says that the government is working to involve more women in decision making, including approving a new action plan for raising the number of women in all decision making bodies to 30 percent by 2016. “What is more important,” she says, “is that there is an understanding in society, an understanding by the most forward-thinking male leaders.”
“The changes have started and women are using the opportunities created [by Nazarbayev],” Solovyova said. “Women in politics have proven that they are professionals, well educated, and can be laconic, hard-driving and competitive.” The way forward, she said, is to not create artificial barriers and continue to work on  equality programs. “Women’s participation in politics means finding a balance between the aggressive approach of men and a more weighted position.”

There is debate, of course, about how to achieve this balance. “I’m against artificially created equal representation of men and women in the institutions of government,” said Romanovskaya. “If a woman is smart, she can try her strength in this field. But as a deputy of the Mazhilis, I can say that I feel enormous responsibility and pressure that not every woman will be able to bear. In any case, I do not support gender inequality, but overall efficiency, of the parliament, for instance, or any other political institution. [That] does not depend on how many men and women are working there.”
All three political players have much more they want to accomplish. Solovyova is working to increase the public’s influence on the decision-making process and develop local government, among other things. Abdykalykova had been working to further the goals of the National Commission on Women’s Affairs, Family and Demographic Policy, in particular collecting best practices from working trips abroad. She will now oversee what is known as the social block of responsibilities as Deputy Prime Minister. Romanovskaya is working to create the Eurasian Association of Mediators, a body she says will be important in the context of Kazakhstan’s push for regional integration.

“I have never regretted the fact that I have chosen this path,” said Romanovskaya. “Our quality of life depends on us and it is in our power to do something to improve our lives.”

Kazakh Women in Comparison
Women in Kazakhstan’s decision-making bodies and those around the world.
Country or region Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (%) Proportion of women in ministerial-level positions (%)
Kazakhstan 24.3 15.8
Central Asia (excluding Kazakhstan) 20.3 9.2
China 21.3 11.5
Russia 13.6 15.8
Upper-middle income countries 21.9 15.2
High-income countries 23.8 19.7
European Union 25.7 24.4
Source: World Bank’s DataBank website for 2012.

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