Hidden from the world’s attention, with its five “stans” and 79 million people, Central Asia has been a region of democratic growth after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The last three decades Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been tested by economic, social, and political challenges during their independent evolution. Kyrgyzstan is a rare, if tumultuous, democratic success story in the heart of this region. But for Kyrgyzstan, too, the struggle for democracy continues, as can be seen by the role of women in society. Kyrgyzstan’s recent elections show, far too clearly, that women legislators still struggle to be seen as leaders and professionals. That’s a worry beyond the country’s borders, and it should be a concern for all five of the “stans.”
To put it mildly, gender equity is not a priority for Central Asia’s neighbors, which include Russia, China, and Iran. Kyrgyzstan might well be the region’s best hope for female political participation. According to a recent law, no more than 70 percent of those elected can be of a single gender. This law was designed to bring women into politics, and it worked. In the April 2021 election, 39 percent of those elected to local office were women. Compare this to the last election when women comprised only 10 percent of those elected.
Unprepared for such a globally progressive accomplishment, the supporters of Kyrgyzstan’s patriarchy (women and men alike) mobilized to stop women politicians from winning parliamentary seats in November. This anti-reform bloc passed a new election law, dropping the gender quota to 60 percent. Anti-democracy politicians won an additional eight seats in Kyrgyzstan’s 90 seat parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, leaving women with only 19 seats, although 52 percent of the country’s 3.6 million voters are women.
And women politicians can see what’s happening. A former female MP, Aisuluu Mamashova, said “Making a woman in Kyrgyzstan run against a man by law guarantees seats for (…) men.” Masuda Mambetova, a former candidate for parliament, agreed. “Kyrgyz aren’t ready to see women as political leaders, despite them being more active in every sector of life compared to men.” Her colleague Jyrgalbubu Jusupbekova added that the “lack of women in positions of power limits the chances of women engaging in politics. I have had to mentor a younger female from my district for a long time before I could convince her to run this year.” These voices echo elsewhere in Central Asia as the five countries share a socially conservative culture.
Local behaviors and attitudes around gender equality and cultural norms need to change. And there’s no time to waste given the democratic backsliding and patriarchal laws, as well as the global pandemic, further exacerbating inequality. One way to boost women’s political participation in the region is through the C5+1 (five Central Asian countries and the United States) diplomatic platform, which needs to focus on political inclusion and empowering women politicians as a way to address shared security, economic, and environment concerns. Including female leaders in the C5+1 high level working group meetings could result in real progress toward strengthening democratic elements in the region. As recent research shows, women’s participation in decision-making normalizes political inclusion, increases transparency in government and business, and pushes countries away from internal and external conflict.
Another way to promote women politicians in Central Asia is to support women-led local organizations like the Bishkek-based Zhenskaya Demokraticheskaya Set’ (ZDS), or Women’s Democratic Network. Such home-grown networks nurture the politically underrepresented through mentorship and leadership training. Local organizations, of course, have the benefit of knowing the landscape, so ZDS operates with a full understanding of the conditional roles of Kyrgyz women as kelins (or daughters-in-law, i.e., occupying the bottom of societal hierarchy). ZDS has identified avenues for gradual change putting women in community projects to improve local roads, build childcare centers, and organize sports events. ZDS trains over 10,000 Kyrgyz women every year– about 7,000 activists, 2,200 members of local councils, and hundreds of businesswomen. ZDS is a success story. In 2021, after almost a decade in existence, a whopping 75 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 3,084 newly elected councilwomen were ZDS alumni. USAID and the International Republican Institute (IRI) support ZDS in this vital work. Organizations like ZDS are key to women’s empowerment in Central Asia.
Finally, it is important to promote political inclusion and women now in order to build on the international empowerment momentum of the past couple of years. Practical policy tools, such as funding results-oriented programs like ZDS, and diplomatic incentives, such as supporting emerging democracies in Central Asia through local outliers like Kyrgyzstan, can provide real resources to achieve local policy shifts that include women in decision-making and promote democratization. Democracy is contagious. If Kyrgyzstan drifts away from autocratic tendencies by standing up against gender-based violence and political exclusion, chances are that its “stan” neighbors will follow, limiting the influence of China-Russia-Iran in the region and thus the entire developing world.