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Unequal positions: Why women are not allowed to run the country

A scandal erupted in Kyrgyzstan in 2019. Men from Saruu village in Jeti-Oguz district, Issyk-Kul region, recorded an appeal to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov. They were dissatisfied with the fact that women received seats in the local kenesh (council).

This story best demonstrates the true attitude of men towards women’s equal representation in Kyrgyzstan’s government. The saddest part is that the situation has only gotten worse over the past three years.

Data department of 24.kg news agency analyzed the representation of women in executive bodies at the local and national levels. At the same time, we did not take into account the situation in the law enforcement agencies, because the data on the number of their personnel are secret.

The conclusions are disappointing. According to the National Statistical Committee, there are as many women as men in the country. Therefore, they should be equally represented in the country’s governance system. But they are not. Kyrgyzstan has even adopted a law «On State Guarantees of Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Men and Women». It stipulates the need for gender balance. But experts are sounding the alarm and say this law is being implemented formally.

«Women are employed at the level where there is no decision-making. That is, they perform some technical part. But there are no women ministers/deputy ministers, heads of districts, governors, mayors,» former deputy of Parliament Ainuru Altybayeva said.

The problem is not the number of women in the administration, but the fact that they are most often given senior or junior positions. According to the State Personnel Service, last year women held only one-fifth of the top positions in the state administration. A little more than a third of women worked in chief positions.

Women work in City Halls and aiyl okmotu

All administrative positions in the local government system are divided into four types: top, chief, senior and junior. The employees taking the top and chief positions have the most power and opportunity to make decisions.

To date, there is a difficult situation with respect to gender balance in the system of municipal authorities. At the local level, there are 17 top positions, of which one or two have been held by women in the past five years.

Last year, according to the State Agency for Civil Service and Local Government Affairs, a woman held only one of 17 top positions in the municipal sphere.

This is the vice mayor of Bishkek Victoria Mozgacheva. Venera Ryskulova also held the same position in the Osh City Hall from September 2021 to February 2023. She temporarily acted as vice mayor, so she is not included in the State Personnel Service data on the number of women in local government bodies. And this is the maximum you can count on in Kyrgyzstan. Women have never become mayors of Bishkek and Osh cities.

At the end of last year, more than half of women held junior positions and another third held senior positions. Gender expert and feminist Zhanna Arayeva notes that there is always a tendency in patriarchal society that the most profitable places in terms of power, access to resources and payment always remain the prerogative of men.

«The difference in patriarchal society is precisely that women are loaded with the dreariest, boring and low-paid work, which in addition brings fewer privileges. This is due to the stereotype that only men can make decisions, because they are supposedly more decisive, while women are more emotional. There is a perception that a woman is responsible for running the household and a high position will distract her from her family. Girls are taught from childhood that they should not express their career ambitions because they have yet to be mothers and wives,» she says.

Experts believe the data clearly shows that there is a so-called glass ceiling. This has to do with both woman’s reproductive role and her role in the family.

«Often, again because of our cultural practices, women are given more responsibilities. The same domestic unpaid labor, raising children, and if there are elderly parents, caring for them. Thus, because of the lack of time and resources, women cannot pay due attention to their qualifications and career,» Baktygul Islanbekova, a gender specialist at the Social Technologies Agency, said.

Women are entrusted with execution of decisions in government agencies

In the public administration system, the positions of heads of ministries and agencies are considered to be political positions. The president or the head of the Cabinet decides who will take them.

All other positions are considered administrative ones. The hierarchy is the same as at the local level.

In the state administration, women are mainly entrusted with the positions of sector heads or specialists. At the end of last year, they occupied almost half of such positions. But women take less than a quarter of positions among experts or consultants, which are considered to be the main ones.

At the end of last year, women held only 16 out of 66 top positions. That’s less than a quarter of the positions. Only about five percent of the top positions were occupied by women.

Women have only become governors of regions four times in the history of independent Kyrgyzstan. In April 2010, Karamat Orozova had served as governor of Batken region for one month. Zhumagul Egemberdiyeva had served as head of Jalal-Abad region for two years, Tokon Shailiyeva had headed Issyk-Kul region for a year and a half, and Koisun Kurmanaliyeva had headed Talas region for five years.

«Men make decisions, men sit in power, because we live in a society where it is run by men, and they bring other men to power. And, accordingly, it is difficult for women to get through, because we get a complex picture, where there are stereotypes, and the pressure of society, and the inability to get to the social elevators, because men are in power,» the feminist Zhanna Arayeva said.

Zhanna Arayeva emphasizes that women do not get to high positions so often, not because they are less competent, but because the system does not allow women to get there.

 And those rare ones who make it through have to work under heavy criticism, scrutiny and a huge amount of accusations about everything. If it was done by a man, it’s ok, but if it was done by a woman, there is a barrage of accusations and hate.

No place for women in the Cabinet of Ministers

The attitude of the authorities to gender equality is best demonstrated by the current composition of the Cabinet of Ministers. For most of the year, there was only one woman in the Cabinet — Health Minister Gulnara Baatyrova. After the latest Cabinet reshuffle, there are two now. Gulnara Baatyrova was sent to head the Ministry of Labor, Social Security and Migration, while Nuriya Kutnaeva was appointed the Minister of Digital Development.

But the problems did not start today or even yesterday. For the last 25 years, women have been slowly being pushed out of the power system.

Studies show that the gender imbalance has been getting bigger since the mid-1990s. In 1996, there were six female heads of ministries in the Kyrgyz government. This amounted to a record 36 percent of all top officials. In 2001, that percentage dropped to 24, and by 2008 it had fallen to 15.

There was a brief period in the country’s recent history when Kyrgyzstan was headed by a woman. That was Roza Otunbayeva. But here is a paradox. There were no women ministers in the government when she was еру president. They represented her in the Parliament and the government. A study by Kloop media outlet shows that since 2011 there have usually been 2-3 women in the Cabinet — the deputy prime minister for the social bloc, the ministers of health, education, finance and justice.

Most of them (six people) were in 2016, which is remembered for another change of power in 2020. But a year later, in October 2021, only Dinara Kutmanova remained in the Cabinet. Last August, Gulnara Baatyrova became the Minister of Health. Until March of this year, there were two women in the Cabinet, but the head of the Ministry of Natural Resources Dinara Kutmanova was fired and a criminal case was initiated.

The situation changed only in September, when Nuriya Kutnayeva became the Minister of Digital Development.

«We must realize that we live in a patriarchal society. And, unfortunately, these patriarchal foundations, norms they have only developed in recent years. Secondly, women are very limited in financial resources, and third, there is a rejection and lack of support for women’s political leadership,» Baktygul Islanbekova, a gender specialist at the Social Technologies Agency, said.

Political will can change the situation, former MP Ainuru Altybayeva believes.

The country’s authorities should not formally comply with the gender quota, but do everything they can to increase the number of women in managerial positions. This is the only way to get rid of the stereotype that women are bad leaders and to remember that women can be excellent managers.

Gender expert Zhanna Arayeva draws attention to another problem. It is harder for women to get through because of behind-the-scenes arrangements. Many issues are decided one-on-one by men, based on male solidarity.

«Men can go to a bathhouse, to some gatherings where a woman cannot go. So women naturally can’t make decisions on the sidelines. When they are deprived of this right to be a decision-maker, all other women suffer. There are fewer mechanisms for their advancement. If the quota was 50/50 or at least 30-70, more women could be promoted to some high positions, because they would be supported by other women, and they would be able to solve many issues,» Zhanna Arayeva concluded.

The full version of the material in Russian: Неравные позиции. Почему женщин не пускают к управлению страной

Data Editors: Saviya Khasanova, Alexander Bogachev

Illustrations: Nadezhda Khabichevskaya

The material was created by the fellows of the data journalism program of Internews’ Media-K project in Kyrgyzstan, implemented with the support of USAID in the Kyrgyz Republic. The opinions and conclusions in the material do not necessarily reflect the views of Internews and its partners.