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UN: Kazakhs, Uzbeks Need Action On Women's Rights

  • Robert McMahon

A UN committee that monitors women's rights has found Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan need to take more action to improve economic and social conditions for women. But committee members also found cause for optimism due in part to the surge in non-governmental organizations promoting women's rights in the two countries. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Committee responsible for monitoring compliance with a treaty on women's rights is calling on the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to take stronger steps to reverse some negative trends in conditions for women.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that women in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan face a number of common forms of discrimination. It said, for example, that women typically earn lower wages than men and have much lower representation in government bodies.

And in both countries, the committee said, women face a return to what it called a "patriarchal" attitude emphasizing their traditional roles as mothers whose main job is to support their families.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan presented their first reports to the committee late last month as required under an international treaty both countries have signed. The chairwoman of the committee, Charlotte Abaka, told a news conference on Friday that both countries face economic problems common to states making the transition from communism.

In a period of economic upheaval, Abaka says, women in the two former Soviet states, as well as the former communist state of Mongolia -- also reviewed last month -- have taken on an unfair share of the burden in raising families. Abaka said governments in the region have been encouraging large families while at the same time failing to stress that men must assume equal responsibilities in raising these families.

The result, she says, has been a growing trend of women reverting to traditional stay-at-home roles, eroding their social and professional status.

"When things are difficult, there is always the tendency of looking back to your roots and this has not always been positive for women. Once the economy improves, once the health of women improve, some of these issues sort of get more easily resolved."

Nearly all UN members have signed on to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, which is now in its 20th year. The treaty sets the basis for countries to ensure equal rights for men and women through providing women equal opportunities in political and public life -- including the right to vote and to stand for election -- as well as in education and employment.

States such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia, which have signed the treaty in recent years, agree to take all appropriate measures so that women can enjoy all human rights.

Representatives of the three countries who presented their reports last month stressed that they were committed to women's rights and outlined a number of improvements. Kazakhstan's minister and chair of the National Committee on Family and Women's Affairs, Aitkul Samakova, told the committee that Kazakhstan had been gradually incorporating the provisions of the women's rights treaty into its legal system.

She said, for example, penalties had been toughened in cases of rape and other sexual crimes.

But Samakova acknowledged that wages were very low in such traditionally female sectors of employment like health and education. She said there were plans to raise these wages but that Kazakhstan was a young state and this would take time.

Uzbekistan's main representative at the UN session was Akmal Saidov, head of the National Center for Human Rights. He said a system of quotas had been introduced to ensure women had equal access to employment in more than 6,000 public institutions and offices. Saidov said the government had also taken steps to combat poverty among rural women by initiating a federal plan to privatize land and provide micro-credits for the development of small businesses.

Officials from both countries repeatedly cited the importance of collaborating with non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, on improving women's rights in a number of fields.

A senior expert on the UN committee, Ayse Feride Acar of Turkey, said at Friday's news conference that the activism of NGOs was playing a crucial role in the Central Asian countries.

"Women's NGOs are really coming along in these countries in transition and the work they do in the promotion and in the protection of women's human rights, in cooperation with international agencies, with UN agencies, is really significant."

What Acar described as "booming NGO communities" in these countries have become effective in engaging governments to tackle growing problems like trafficking in women.

"The governments are cooperating with NGO communities in the protection of women's human rights and issues such as violence against women, issues such as trafficking of women, which are very significant in these countries, are really being approached by these NGOs, often in cooperation with UN agencies and with the government."

UN officials said they would urge the two governments to observe a provision in the treaty that obliges governments to take special temporary measures to address severe inequalities, such as gaps in wages.

They also said they would call on the governments to sign on to a new amendment to the treaty on eliminating discrimination against women. The amendment, which came into force in December, allows individuals or groups to initiate complaints with the UN oversight committee in cases where local officials have failed to respond.