Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

On the Way to Democracy: Women's Activism in Kazakhstan

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

On the Way to Democracy: Women's Activism in Kazakhstan

Article excerpt

Over the last few years, much has been written about the status of women in Kazakhstan, or to be more precise, about how that status has worsened because of the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet system.

I remember well when women had such privileges as paid maternity leave for up to one year, or up to three years unpaid, during which time it was illegal to dismiss a woman from her job (the time also counted as working time for the calculation of her pension). Women took for granted the state's health care system of obstetric clinics, gynecological institutions, sanatoriums, and delivery centers that cared for women free of charge. There were also a low-cost child-care system (free for disabled or sick children); free public education; government allowances for families with children; and state support for families with many children, including additional allowances, inexpensive children's clothing, housing privileges, and so on.

Allocation of a certain number of seats for women in the Supreme Soviets of the USSR and union republics created an outward show of equal participation in state government. The activity of women leaders in district committees and city committees of the Communist Party, as well as in executive committees, was quite noticeable. Although they did not have the top positions in the Party's ranks, women worked with children and the elderly in social protection and education spheres. And to me, still a child then, it seemed that all the authority was in the hands of these tirelessly active women workers.

Much has changed since those days. Now I look back and wonder if we really were equal or if we simply were satisfied with our status. I also wonder how much we have lost by sacrificing our status to men without a struggle. So the question is, should we strive for equality or should we cry about the loss of social protection?

Now women and men face common difficulties in the new market economy, but women can often cope with the conditions better than men can. When the government removed the child-care system and the right to a free education, women stood up to protect their children from illiteracy and poverty by going to work in the new marketplace economy. Former teachers, scientists, doctors, and engineers now go to the markets of cities and villages with cheap goods procured in Poland, China, Turkey, South Korea, and India. By selling imported goods, women not only support their families but also pay for their children's education, which has become rather expensive under the present conditions. Statistics from the Report on the Status of Women in Kazakhstan, 1997, a government publication, indicate that women compose up to 80 percent of the vendors in the markets of Kazakhstan. Among these businesswomen, 36 percent have the highest educational background.

Women have assimilated into the new field of entrepreneurship very quickly. However, entrepreneurship, although relatively simple, requires large amounts of time and thus becomes an all-absorbing activity. Women with a good education know how to battle on two fronts every day--in and out of the home. But without significant financial means and access to cheap credit, women are limited to acting as small business entrepreneurs, which leaves no time for their professional and cultural development, for leisure, or for hobbies.

All these problems are well described in the modern feminist literature of countries with transition economies. Serious researchers have published numerous scientific articles and monographs evaluating the impact of economic reforms on women. In Kazakhstan, perhaps the greatest number of publications on gender themes are devoted to the problem of female unemployment and its causes.

The chairman of the Association of the Sociologists and Politologists of Almaty, Dr. Bahytzhamal Bekturganova, comes to the following conclusions in her manuscript "Sociology of Women: Kazakhstan 1995-1998":

   Under conditions of recession, gender differences have not been taken into
   account. … 
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