Stigma and legal loopholes mean that many women suffer in silence. Aigul, a financial analyst from Almaty, recently lost her job after refusing her boss’s sexual advances. The head of the company had begun asking her to stay late in the office, using the opportunity to proposition her.
When Aigul refused, she lost her bonus, and her boss began criticising her work.
“I decided to put up with it since I’m a single mother and it was hard to find a job after returning from maternity leave,” she told IWPR. “But then at a corporate event, my boss openly tried to get me to leave with him in his car. I resisted and left on my own. When I came into the office on Monday, I was told my work wasn’t up to the required standard.”
One of the most traumatic aspects of the whole episode was the derision from workmates, Aigul added.
“My colleagues made fun of me, saying that I wasn’t tough enough. When you’re a single mother, society expects you to accept this kind of propositioning,” she said.
In Kazakstan, social stigma and legislative loopholes mean that women who face sexual harassment in the workplace can expect little protection.
Many women see it as an aspect of professional life that they just have to tolerate, and attempts to lodge formal complaints rarely receive a sympathetic response from officials.
In a straw poll conducted on the streets of Almaty, Kazakstan’s second city, every woman questioned by IWPR said she had been subjected to sexual harassment at some point in her life.
One woman who had travelled from the countryside to find work in the city told IWPR that she had been offered accommodation in return for sexual favours. Another said that a local bus driver told her he could employ her as a fare inspector on the same condition.
Prosecutions are rare for such offences in Kazakstan, and campaigners now want a specific reference to sexual harassment in the workplace to be included in law.
Zinaida Kim, a lawyer, explained that there was no legal provision explicitly covering sexual harassment.
Articles 120 and 121 of the criminal code deal with rape and “forcible acts of a sexual nature”, respectively. Article 123 penalises compulsion to sexual activity by blackmailing or threatening someone, as well as taking advantage of someone’s financial situation.
Kim noted that the law did not specify that “intent for sexual activity” was either a civil or criminal offence.
“The Feminist League of Kazakstan [recently] initiated amendments to the law… on equal rights and opportunities for men and women, but so far these remain at the initial stage,” she said.
Feminist League president Yevgeniya Kozyreva said that she hoped a recent complaint brought to the United Nations by a woman from a village in northern Kazakstan would prompt changes in the law.
Anna Belousova, a cloakroom attendant from Pertsevka in the Kostanay region of Kazakstan, said she had been fired from her job at a local school in 2011 after being propositioned by the head teacher. She told local media that after she refused his sexual advances, she was told to pay 10,000 tenge (70 US dollars) just to keep her job. Her wage was 15,000 tenge or 100 dollars a month.
When Belousova refused, her contract was not renewed. Local police told Belousova that they could only take action if she had been raped, and prosecutors declined to launch criminal proceedings, even though Belousova said she could produce phone recordings of the teacher’s alleged threats.
Her protests to the district and regional education bodies also fell on deaf ears. In the midst of her complaints, the head teacher was handed a “best regional teacher” award and in May 2012, the district court ordered Belousova to publicly apologise and pay damages to him.
Belousova then filed a complaint with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW). The committee’s report, released in September, criticised the way Belousova had been treated and called on the Kazakstan government to overhaul its laws on sexual harassment and compensate her.
Although Kazakstan ratified the CEDAW convention in 1998, the committee’s recommendations carry no legal weight. Nonetheless, Kozyreva said she believed they could spur Astana into action.
“The UN committee recommends that our country adopt comprehensive legislation, in particular in the field of labour law, to prevent sexual violence and persecution in the workplace in line with international standards,” she told IWPR.
Although equality is enshrined in Kazakstan’s legislation, in practice women frequently face discrimination in the workplace. (See Kazakstan Gender Equality More Theory than Reality.)
Recent research from the Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (CIOM) in Kazakstan found that women are usually in “lower-status” jobs, and this “increases their chances of being harassed by employers”.
“The disclosure of sexual harassment at work, as well as domestic violence, can traumatise women even more, as there is a social myth that the woman is to blame… Our justice is inadequate when it comes to violence towards women, which creates a sense of male impunity. That is why men who behave violently do not consider themselves to have committed a crime,” CIOM head Guljan Alimbekova wrote in the report.
Lawyer Marat Oskarov agrees that current laws do not provide enough protection.
“When the legislation can’t help, how do we support someone?” he asked. “Women very seldom turn to me for help in resolving such problems.”
He recalled how a neighbour once asked him for assistance after being sexually harassed.
“I turned to a local police officer, and he gave me a straight answer – if there was attempted rape, he could take action; but if a man just ‘paid attention’ to someone, then this woman should just refuse and that’s that. If a man attempted to rape her or behaved like a hooligan, police would bring him to book, [but] the officer told me not to waste paper filing a report, as there was no case to answer.”
Tatiana Em is an Almaty-based journalist.