For the last few years, Professor Cholpon Koichumanova has been working on a project studying the role and place of women in modern Kyrgyzstan.
The project has been implemented with the support of the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
In this interview, Dr. Koichumanova talks about some of her findings and shares her views on how to expand women’s prospects in Kyrgyz society.
Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor, Corresponding Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic. Author of more than 50 scientific articles, 5 monographs and 2 recommended textbooks. Head of the “Center for Humanitarian Research in Central Asia” of the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic.
What does the life of a rural woman in Kyrgyzstan look like today?
As younger people in Kyrgyzstan move to urban areas or abroad, rural areas in Kyrgyzstan are increasingly left to women.
More than half of women—65 percent of the total female population—currently lives in rural areas. They cope with aging and poorly maintained countryside infrastructure, a lack of water and other resources, and the overall deterioration of living conditions. In addition, the life of a rural woman is defined by family, social, and cultural values that sometimes threaten this group of the population.
What are the specific problems?
In Kyrgyzstan, about 1.5 million people living in 396 villages do not have access to clean drinking water. This problem holds special gender significance since, first, it directly impacts housekeeping and other forms of life of the population, and, second, it is one of the main factors affecting human health. The insufficient provision of safe drinking water to the rural population, along with unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, causes epidemiological tension, increasing the incidence of acute intestinal infections, helminth infections, and typhoid fever. About 30,000 cases of acute intestinal infections are registered in Kyrgyzstan every year; per Ministry of Health reports, treatment of diseases transmitted through dirty water costs the country more than 4 billion soms per year. Solving the problem of access to clean water is therefore paramount.
This is just one example of the health care issues that women living in rural areas face. Since medical services are provided here through feldsher-obstetric stations (FAP), it is necessary to carry out major repairs there and provide residents with proper health care services, including psychological health services. We need a full-time psychologist in every village, since it is rural women and girls who are most exposed to domestic violence and are left alone with their problems, which subsequently lead to murders, suicides, etc.
Violence against women remains one of the main problems in Kyrgyzstan, and this problem is only getting worse. Unlike urban women, rural women typically do not seek help from law enforcement agencies. They either distrust law enforcement agencies or are prevented by a certain mentality from filing formal accusations against relatives, neighbors, and fellow villagers.
There has been a catastrophic increase in abduction for the purpose of forced marriage. According to research data, 60 percent of marriages in mono-ethnic rural areas happen after bride kidnapping (ala kachuu), of which two-thirds occur without the consent of the girl. According to various studies, between 22 and 35 percent of the victims of ala kachuu did not even know their kidnapper. The kidnapping of a woman for marriage occurs twice as often in rural areas as in urban ones and is associated with physical, mental, and often sexual violence.
Rural women today make up 60 percent of the migration flow abroad, often leaving their children with elderly parents and other relatives. In this regard, it is necessary to strengthen control over children whose parents are working abroad, since it is they who are most often subjected to psychological, physical, and sexual violence by adults. It is necessary to officially register the guardianship of relatives who are caring for the children of migrants. Also, if a child is entitled to benefits and payments from the state, then a guardian has the opportunity to receive them. In the absence of a legal representative, a minor is not able to receive benefits on his own. Guardianship makes it possible to identify migrant children and regulate this process.
In recent decades, owing to the difficulties of the transition period, there has been significant destruction of the network of preschool institutions in rural areas, and it is necessary to restore them. According to the most recent data, on average, a little over 22 percent of kindergarten-age children in the republic attend one. In other words, only one child in five goes to kindergarten. Moreover, the proportion of children not enrolled in preschool education is almost twice as high in villages as in cities.
An equally urgent problem for any region of Kyrgyzstan is the poor condition of roads. If in cities they are still trying to rebuild them, then for rural areas this remains unrealistic. It is necessary to improve the condition of roads between villages in order to improve communication between members of the rural population. School buses should be introduced in areas where children have to walk long distances to get to school. Unfortunately, comfortable public transport is not yet available to residents of rural areas of our country.
Generally speaking, there is a lack of jobs for rural women. In addition to taking care of children, women in villages are usually busy with housework: cleaning, cooking, washing, raising livestock, milking cows, tending gardens, and even cultivating the land. It is urgent to create jobs for them. The opening of small businesses will provide an opportunity to embark on new professions and develop entrepreneurship, as well as to combine family and work responsibilities through the growth of home-based jobs using modern information and communication technologies.
We need more women at the political level—in rural keneshes as well as in senior positions in district and regional administrations and other state structures.
We need more women at the political level—in rural keneshes as well as in senior positions in district and regional administrations and other state structures. After all, it is the political power that determines and controls the life of the entire society. The active legal education of rural women should also be organized, empowering women to access economic resources and basic services; own and dispose of land; and understand other forms of ownership, inherited property, the division of property after divorce, and receiving alimony.
Does the government offer protection to rural women and what is the state of the gender laws in Kyrgyzstan?
During the post-independence years, a very solid legislative base has been created in the republic to determine and regulate gender policy. In 1996-2000 we had a specific program, Ayalzat National Program, that incorporated the priorities of the Beijing Platform for Action and was aimed at improving women’s status in the country. When summing up in 2000 the results of the implementation of Ayalzat, it was recognized that women and men lacked equality of opportunity in the sphere of public service. The priority goal set in this program—to achieve 40 percent female participation at the decision-making level—has not been achieved, and the state, represented by its political institutions, is not sufficiently striving to establish a gender balance in power structures. Decrees of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, such as “On Further Improvement of the Personnel Policy for Attracting Women Leaders to the Public Administration of the Kyrgyz Republic” (2002) and “On Approval of the Regulations on the Commission for Gender Expertise of Normative Legal Acts under the Secretariat of the National Council for Family Affairs, Women and Gender Development under the President of the Kyrgyz Republic” (2004), as well as the provisions of the Law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On State Guarantees for Ensuring Gender Equality,” have become important documents aimed at implementing the constitutional principle of equal access to state and municipal service.
Yet despite the fact that during the years of independence in Kyrgyzstan important laws proclaiming gender equality have been adopted and quotas introduced for women’s representation in parliament and other representative state bodies, in day-to-day life gender equality is being promoted only through the efforts of civil society and with the help of international organizations. The state develops programs and strategies without supporting them with the resources necessary for practical implementation. For example, almost no resources were allocated from the state budget for the implementation of the state’s national strategy for achieving gender equality until 2020.
Kyrgyzstani women actively unite in women’s non-governmental organizations. Initially, women’s NGOs arose in the cities, which can be explained by the relatively high political culture of city-dwellers compared to the rural population. But NGOs are appearing in rural areas too. However, these NGOs exist only thanks to foreign grants, and some rely on funds from subsidiary farms and assistance from international non-productive organizations.
The women’s movement in Kyrgyzstan still lacks consolidation. First, it is a challenge to train women leaders from among the younger generation, as the women’s movement has not seen the influx of young people into its ranks. Second, the state does not provide support to women’s organizations, even those that protect the rights of women and provide them with social support. Third, in the context of the growing influence of religion in the socialization of the younger generation, women’s organizations and groups acting under the auspices of religious and so-called traditional values are becoming more active. Fourth, over the past two years, public opinion has formed a negative view of NGOs as biased by the ideas of the West, which has of course had a negative impact on women’s organizations.
The modern reality is that the formal equality of women and men—enshrined in the Constitution and a number of other legislative acts, as well as in international documents signed by the government of the Kyrgyz Republic and ratified by the Jogorku Kenesh—does not at all guarantee their practical equality. For women, only horizontal movement is really available; vertical movement—to the highest echelons of power—is the prerogative of men. The gender component is also very poorly reflected in the activities of political parties, which everyone knows are the main lever of influence on state power. Women are seen as an object whose life can be improved from outside without developing their own civic initiative.
For example, if in the Jogorku Kenesh of 2016, 26 percent of deputies were women, the level of their representation has now decreased to 17 percent. The most recent local-level elections also show negative trends in women’s political leadership: whereas in 2013 women made up 12-13 percent of local keneshes, they now make up only 10 percent. If earlier there were 70 ayil okmotus in the country that contained no women at all, there are now 80. Today, women are included in the ranks of political parties only because there is legislation on quotas and because it is necessary for the image of political parties. Women are used only as a resource; their political subjectivity for the leaders of the party remains in last place. Consequently, the opportunities for women to gain power and participate in big politics are fraught with difficulties. On the other hand, although the women of Kyrgyzstan show interest in politics, only about 8-10 percent of them believe that political means should be used to protect rights. Notably, among the leaders of non-governmental organizations, the percentage of women who hold such an opinion is much higher: 35 percent.
What is the court of aksakals and what is its role in the social status of women?
In the Kyrgyz Republic, a new public institution for the protection of the rights of victims, the court of aksakals, has gained legitimacy. These are elected, self-governing public bodies that consider materials sent to them by the court, the prosecutor, and other law enforcement agencies that have the right to consider criminal cases, as well as cases of property and family disputes between citizens, in order to achieve reconciliation. Courts of aksakals can be established by decision of a meeting of citizens, local keneshes on the territory of ayil aimaks, and cities where aksakals enjoy respect and authority. It works like this: 5 to 9 people aged 50 and over listen to both sides and make a decision on your issue. They consider issues not only according to the law, but also according to their conscience and personal convictions. Of course, this method is faster than the courts, where proceedings can drag on for many years. There are often gaps in laws, and some issues really need to be resolved “according to conscience” and not according to the letter of the law.
At the same time, as practice shows, the courts of aksakals have not become an effective support for working with the population. One way to increase their activity could be to involve women in their work. Unfortunately, however, according to established tradition, only men are elected to the courts of aksakals; indeed, their very name implies older males. In this regard, it is necessary to consider changing the Law “On the Courts of Aksakals” to the Law on “Courts of Elders.” This would reflect the basic principles of gender equality, protect women from discrimination based on sex, and thereby establish progressive democratic relations. The name “courts of aksakals,” meanwhile, restores a medieval logic according to which wisdom is inherent only in men. This is despite the fact that our studies have shown that in the difficult 1990s, it was women who endured all the hardships of the transition and solved the most difficult problems, showing wisdom, patience, and perseverance. In our opinion, the involvement of women with authority in these courts—accompanied, of course, by a change in their name—would raise the form and method of their activity to a new level.
Are there any signs that rural women are playing an increasing role in the Kyrgyz economy?
As you know, women tend to work in traditionally “female” areas—education, science, health, culture, and art—where wages are low, but without which the development of the country is impossible (women make up 85 percent of all school personnel in rural areas and 90 percent of the staff of nursing stations) Recently, they have become increasingly involved in the system of entrepreneurial relations, forming typical “gender niches” of modern economic activity. Women are seen as more responsible in doing business than men. They traditionally work in trade, consumer goods, services, and education.
In addition, in recent years, women have turned to the traditions and skills of needlework inherited from their mothers and grandmothers—carpet-weaving, embroidery, making products from felt, etc.—to alleviate poverty and unemployment. At first, women worked individually, but in recent years, societies of craftswomen and needlewomen have mushroomed in each region. Some of them number 200 people. Thus, the revival of folk art and handicrafts has been brought about by women from all regions, 90 percent of whom are from rural areas. Needlewomen try to preserve good traditions and pass on their skills to the younger generation. Many of them have their own sewing workshops where young girls practice and even earn money. In order to develop this type of activity, many women apply for small grants from international organizations and receive support. They purchase sewing machines and other necessary equipment and materials, creating jobs and providing financial assistance to their families. No less importantly, needlewomen in the villages pass down their knowledge and skills to younger generations, preserving and increasing the richness of their national culture. The proportion of women who want to engage in business is constantly growing, thereby increasing women’s role in the development of the country.
All photos by
Cholpon Koichumanova, “Daily life of rural women” series from “Женские судьбы: времена не выбирают“, Bishkek, Turar, 2021