In her article for CABAR.asia, political analyst Aliya Tlegenova unveils the gender policy concerns and offers several efficient ways to address them.
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Women’s political participation is an essential prerequisite for democracy-building and good governance. Women’s voices – and women make up over half of the country’s population – help to consider a broader spectrum of public interests and identify certain issues often ignored by male politicians. Men’s experience is drastically different from that of women so concerns such as unpaid domestic work, domestic violence, street harassment, or the notorious lack of ramps for strollers in cities are often not tabled for discussion in representative bodies.
Kazakh context-specific gender policy
There had been certain progress made with providing women with equal rights and opportunities. For instance, Kazakhstan has ratified a key international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and in 2009 the government adopted an Act on State Guarantees of Equal Rights and Opportunities for Men and Women. Although these were major steps up for building a more equal society, gender issues are still largely overlooked by the government. The 2030 Family and Gender Policy Concept, for example, suggests that the government still resists creating a separate strategy for gender equality and combines the latter with family issues.
The country’s gender policy heavily relies on the Act on State Guarantees of Equal Rights and Opportunities for Men and Women. There are certain limitations, however, to that legislative Act. For instance, it does not provide a clear and complete definition of discrimination. It also utterly fails to prohibit discrimination and inequality. Instead, the law is replete with numerous provisions intended to promote equality, whereas responsibilities are not delineated. It is also unclear as to which state authority is responsible for supervising the compliance with those provisions.
Women in public office
Speaking of a systemic approach to state-provided equal opportunities for both men and women, it is pivotal to address women’s representation in public office, and, accordingly, empowering them to have a say in public policies.
The official numbers on women’s participation in public life and decision-making suggest that apart from taking extensive but internationally satisfying actions, Kazakhstan has made little progress in giving women space to defend their own interests and advance their agenda in government and representative bodies.
For instance, women’s representation in the lower house of parliament in Kazakhstan, although grown significantly since the early 2000s, still stands at 27.4%.
It is contextual to examine the concept of a “critical mass”. Researchers believe that a reason why women in government are not as active in advocating for women’s interests and gender agenda is the paucity of a “critical mass” that would empower them to work more effectively, form women’s coalitions and have a stronger voice in decision-making. Passing this 30% threshold allows female voices not to get lost amongst male MPs.
If we to consider the gender composition of public office, then 2018 data demonstrate the proportion of women in the civil service to be 55%. However, these are mainly women in the administrative service and not in the political one. Even in administrative posts, very few women occupy management positions – only 4.1%. Among political public servants, the share of women in 2018 totaled 9.3%, wherein in 2019 it dropped to 7.5%.
The proportion of women in the maslikhats, the local authorities, is also insignificant. For example, in 2019, out of more than three thousand maslikhat representatives, only 700 were women (22%). At the same time, there are significant disparities in regional representation of women. By 2016, only three regions (Kostanay, Pavlodar, and North Kazakhstan) advanced the 30% threshold, while the South Kazakhstan region reached only 5%.
According to a sociological study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, nearly 60% of Kazakhstanis believe that women should definitely participate in politics. The majority of the respondents also believes that women’s social policy as women are more aware of the pressing problems of society.
Despite the lingering stereotypes in Kazakhstani society, the study findings presented above suggest that society is rather inclined and not opposed to women’s active political participation. Official figures, however, signal that the authorities are ill-prepared to make real changes, to define and adhere to the current gender policy, which would be in line with international norms.
Political parties also play an important role in promoting gender equality. Parties have a direct public office promotion mechanism as they compile electoral lists. They, therefore, have a greater capacity to facilitate the participation of underrepresented groups. However, this is rather irrelevant to political parties in Kazakhstan, as there is a great understaffing when it comes to women in their ranks.
Non-governmental and international organizations hence still fulfill the strongest role in fostering gender policy and advocating for women’s interests in the Kazakhstani context. In its Kazakhstan Country Gender Assessment Report, The Asian Development Bank states that the government often collaborates with NGOs that work on gender equality. In particular, the National Commission for Women and Family and Demographic Policy and line ministries consult various NGOs and even involve the latter in their working groups. However, even this cooperation is unfortunately limited. The state chooses to heed the NGOs only concerning social and “women’s” issues.
It turns out that even where women or women’s NGOs have been given the opportunity to influence policies, areas of their influence are still limited. It is, therefore, crucial to understand that gender parity in politics is not only about women’s representation in government, but also their active participation in decision-making in all policy areas, especially those concerning resource allocation.
Gender Quota System Design
Given the widespread gender discrimination, the introduction of quotas (as a temporary special measure) is a fairly common world practice and has already proven effective in promoting women in politics and transforming gender relations. While introducing quotas is not a permanent solution to the problem, it is yet an imperative step to expand women’s representation in parliaments, enabling women to shape the public agenda, participate in discussions, and have a real influence on decision-making. Quotas also help encourage access to decision-making positions and foster more women in leadership in the future.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, a quota policy was introduced in 2007, and women’s representation in parliament thereby spiked up from 0% to 26.6% on the elections the same year. Although social barriers for women still remain, the introduction of quotas has made a huge breakthrough, opening up new possibilities to increase women’s representation in the country’s parliament. In Uzbekistan, gender quotas, introduced as early as 2004, were finally respected in the last parliamentary elections in 2019. Women made up 41 percent of the candidates, and each party exceeded the 30% threshold for women’s representation.
In April 2020, deputies of Kazakhstan’s Mazhilis approved the introduction of a thirty percent quota in party lists for women and young people. Whilst gender quotas have proven effective as a tool to strengthen the role of women in politics, Kazakhstan’s quota system design is unlikely to help achieve greater gender parity in the political life of the country.
Even a cursory examination gives the impression that the gender quota in Kazakhstan was instituted only to formally comply with international standards and agreements. Even before the quota was adopted, the lower house of Kazakhstan’s parliament had 27.1 percent of female deputies in 2020. If the quota system design allowed to secure women’s representation in the Mazhilis at 30%, it would already be a success. However, the reform raises some questions.
First of all, the quota implies the representation of both women and young people. That said, the proportion of women in parliamentary lists is entirely up to the parties themselves and it may well turn out that young people, with very few women among them, will fill the quotas.
Secondly, the quota applies only to party lists, which in a closed list electoral system (as in Kazakhstan) allows parties, upon the release of the election results, to allocate electoral mandates at their discretion. The absence of any control mechanism or sanctions for non-compliance with the quota halts the guarantees that parties will really keep seats in parliament for women. Based on the results of the latest elections to the Mazhilis, female candidates make up only 20% of the People’s Party of Kazakhstan and even 17% in the Ak Zhol party, even though both parties adhered to the quota in their initial party lists.
Besides, the experience of Kyrgyzstan and Armenia proves that even when women reach the parliament, it does not promise their participation in political processes. There are common cases when some time after the elections, women MPs left the parliament for various reasons, and men took their place again. Likewise, parties often promote wives, sisters, and daughters of male politicians to the quota seats. These women candidates act more as mouthpieces for their relatives rather than advocate for their political agenda.
Given the above, it is rather difficult to expect even attaining a “critical mass”, let alone providing a real opportunity for women to set agenda and to influence policies.
Based on the 2021 election results, it became evident that instead of a systemic approach to gender equality, the authorities choose to institute partial reforms and ratify international conventions, only creating a facade of compliance with international norms. Thus, the new Mazhilis composition has the same 27 percent representation.
In order to truly approach international standards in gender policy, and most importantly, to provide equal opportunities for women to participate in politics, there are several simple yet effective measures:
- The quota system should focus on women and be separate from quotas for other groups.
- Since voting takes place on a closed list system, it is pivotal to oblige the parties to fulfill the quota for the election results. It is also crucial to establish a mechanism to replace MPs who have left the parliament with MPs of the same gender.
- The numbers should not be emphasized; women’s active participation in parliament is equally important. Women should also be equally represented at the top of the parliamentary standing committees.
- Women’s representation at the local level and in the executive branch must also be respected.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.