Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Raushan Sarsembayeva was a quiet little girl, says her mother, Batiya -- a voracious reader who hardly ever spoke.
"When she was little, Raushan was very quiet -- she just didn't say much, ever. Big eyes and curly hair. She was a very good student," Batiya said.
"I like young people like my son, who believes women are his equals."
Now, however, Sarsembayeva has become the voice for thousands of Kazakh women working their way up the country's professional ranks.
A tall, confident, self-made entrepreneur who makes her rounds in a sleek Mitsubishi Galant, Sarsembayeva is the founder and head of the Kazakh Businesswomen's Association, which over the past decade has blossomed from a one-woman show into a bustling network of 20 national affiliates.
The group's 5,000-plus members represent the cream of Kazakhstan's female professional elite -- women making inroads in the fields of business, government, science, education, health care, and culture.
The 47-year-old Sarsembayeva says the idea for the group came to her in 1995, when she herself was an up-and-coming entrepreneur.
Although her own business was developing well, she says she was struck by the plight facing thousands of other educated and highly qualified women frozen out of the workforce during the post-Soviet transition.
"Our first program was called Women and Poverty. When we began that program, we saw that there were a lot of women without work. So we began to focus a lot of attention on re-educating them and so forth," Sarsembayeva said.
Since then, the Kazakh Businesswomen's Association has taken numerous strides toward improving the economic lot of the country's women, launching projects aimed at protecting the health and welfare of families, working mothers and children.
One of the group's most successful initiatives to date is the Kamkor, or Care, children's shelter. Based in the small town of Talgar outside Almaty, Kamkor is home to some 110 orphaned and homeless children between 5 and 17. Kamkor, which receives no government funding, survives on donations from Kazakh and foreign sponsors. The Kazakh Businesswomen's Association is the single-largest donor.
Kamkor's director is Tuyak Eskozina, a former Education Ministry employee. She says the home would never have survived without Sarsembayeva's guidance and support.
"Raushan is a very charming person. She does a lot to help people. She's a skilled organizer. She never thinks of herself. She thinks of the difficulties of others and how to ease their lives -- that is Raushan's credo. I and all my children [at the home] love her and respect her. When our home opened, a lot of people didn't understand us. There were many people who wanted to see us fail. After all, we don't take a kopek from the government's pocket. Thanks to Raushan, we now have many sponsors, and the majority of them are businesswomen," Eskozina said.
Kazakh women are not an invisible presence in the country's professional sector. According to official statistics, women now hold 40 percent of managerial jobs in private businesses. Some 70 percent of trial attorneys and 60 percent of judges in the country are women. Women make up nearly 30 percent of management at the country's media outlets.
But there is one sector from which women are conspicuously absent -- government. Currently, women hold just two of 22 cabinet posts and seven parliamentary seats. Meeting powerful women from abroad, Sarsembayeva said she came to realize that until Kazakh women gained equal political representation, the fight for their rights would advance in tiny steps, rather than leaps.
In 1999, the Kazakh Businesswomen's Association joined forces with the Agrarian Party to participate in parliamentary elections -- the first time a women's bloc was represented on the ballot in sovereign Kazakhstan.
"Unfortunately, the first attempt was unsuccessful. Later, in order to move toward our political goal, the association initiated the formation of the Democratic Women's Party of Kazakhstan, which unfortunately the Justice Ministry did not register, despite the fact that we had collected 54,000 signatures in accordance with the political party law [which requires more than 50,000 members for a party to register]," Sarsembayeva said.
Undeterred, Sarsembayeva is once again looking forward -- to this November's parliamentary elections. This year, she became the deputy head of Asar, the upstart party led by Dariga Nazarbayeva, the eldest daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayeva, whose party already claims some 77,000 members, has brashly predicted Asar may take as many as half of the 77 seats in the Mazhlis, or lower house of parliament, during this year's elections. Some have expressed skepticism about Nazarbayeva's political agenda, but others have praised Asar for drawing in members from beyond the standard political realm, to include economists, lawyers -- and women. Sarsembayeva says the Asar leader and presidential daughter sets a strong example for the republic's women.
It is not clear whether Sarsembayeva herself will stand for election. But the country's top businesswoman -- who is currently working to complete a degree in gender politics, and who has met powerful women in the West like U.S. Senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- says if the party asks her to, she is ready. It is time, she says, for Kazakh lawmakers to address the gender inequities that continue to tether the lives of the country's women.
"I am sure that an economically independent woman is always ready to enter politics, be in politics, deal with politics -- because, in general, women are in charge of their problems. No one is going to solve them but the women themselves. They have to recognize the problem, offer a solution, and lobby for it by themselves -- a woman has to do it herself. That is why women should go into politics. I think there is a historic opportunity today that everyone should be taking advantage of -- that no one is interfering in what women do, and women are mostly left to themselves to actualize their plans. Kazakh women are very highly educated. Of course, they need support, the support of the state. Nowadays, there isn't blatant discrimination, but there is indirect discrimination," Sarsembayeva said.
Sarsembayeva, who has two grown children, says at the very least, attitudes are changing among the country's younger generation. "I like young people like my son, who believes women are his equals," she says. Among older men, she says, a tenacious double standard still remains. Although many look to the most powerful woman in Kazakh business as a professional equal, she says they still prefer their own wives to stay at home.
Sarsembayeva's mother, Batiya, who lives with her daughter and 19-year-old granddaughter in Almaty, says Raushan has helped break that traditional wife-and-mother stereotype. At the same time, she has created a wider "family" -- women working to improve their lives and the lives of others.
"When Raushan wanted to start up the association, she came to me for her blessing. And I told her, it's going to be very hard. It's going to be very hard for Kazakh women to become active. But if you can do it, it is something that's never going to stop. And now all the members -- women all over the country -- are constantly calling us at home, day, and night. And they all call me 'Mama,'" Batiya said.Click here
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