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Kyrgyzstan: Women Say Their Opportunities Are Shrinking Ahead Of Polls

Observers say women in Kyrgyzstan have traditionally enjoyed more freedom than those in neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Post-Soviet independence brought them even more rights and opportunities. Although ordinary Kyrgyz are still reluctant to see a woman rise to prominence in either politics or business, Kyrgyzstan is the first post-independence Central Asian state to have appointed a woman as a foreign minister and ambassador. But recent amendments to the country's electoral law means women may have little chance of being elected in this month's parliamentary ballot.

Prague, 17 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Is a female lawmaker better than a male one?

Some voters in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh think so. They are supporters of Achakhon Turgunbaeva, who was recently dealt a political setback when she was barred from running in the 27 February parliamentary elections.

The decision came after Alisher Sabirov, a male rival running in the same Osh district, accused Turgunbaeva of violating electoral law on media campaigns. On 10 February, the Osh city court supported Sabirov's claim and suspended Turgunbaeva's candidacy.

Speaking from Osh, Turgunbaeva told RFE/RL that for her, Sabirov's move was a triumph of sorts. His accusation meant he considered her a serious contender and a threat to his own ambitions.

"I believe Alisher Sabirov did not even think that women can be so strong and fight for their rights," she said. "But I think right now he perceives me as a powerful rival, not a woman."

Some 500 protesters blocked Osh's main thoroughfare following the decision to bar Turgunbaeva's candidacy. A second demonstration was held when the Kyrgyz Supreme Court upheld the ruling on 14 February.

One female demonstrator told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that female deputies are better because they are more attentive to the needs of their electorate.

"We have gathered here because we want to have Achakhon Turgunbaeva as a candidate in our constituency. The reason is that a woman can listen to the complaints of other women," she said. "We learned about her platform and think that she will be willing to listen to us. Those men [previous deputies] never did so. Now we are standing here with the hope that a woman could hear us and listen to us."
"Despite all the initiative that women have shown, when it comes to elections, our voters, our people, prefer men. They think only men should hold positions of authority." -- Zamira Sydykova, "Res Publica"

Turgunbaeva is not the only woman who has been barred from the Kyrgyz elections.

Roza Otunbaeva, the co-chair of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) opposition party, was denied the right to register as a candidate.

Opposition and rights activists criticized election officials, saying the decision was politically motivated. Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of the country's president, Askar Akaev, is running in the same district -- and may have stood little chance against Otunbaeva, an experienced and powerful politician who has held ambassadorial posts and served as foreign minister.

Zamira Sydykova is the editor in chief of the independent "Res Publica" newspaper and a member of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan opposition bloc. She told RFE/RL the Otunbaeva and Turgunbaeva cases prove the issue is not only about gender discrimination.

"I know the constituency [where Turgunbaeva was nominated], I know all the candidates. I believe what happened was simply rivalry," she said. "It did not matter if a candidate was a woman or not, Russian or not. It was not a gender issue."

But not everyone agrees. Ogiloy Mirbabaeva, an independent Kyrgyz journalist, told RFE/RL she believes the ruling against Turgunbaeva showed clear signs of gender bias and was tantamount to a threat against all women candidates.

"This is a big mistake on the part of the judges," she said. "What upsets me most is that a woman is suffering from this situation."

Observers say it has become more difficult for women to win parliamentary seats since the Kyrgyz election code was changed two years ago.

The new legislation eliminated the use of party lists and proportional systems in selecting parliamentary deputies. Now, candidates are elected only from single-mandate districts. With women making up less than 10 percent of the 421 candidates registered for this month's vote, Turgunbaeva said at best only a handful of women will end up in parliament.

"It's very difficult for women -- especially Uzbek women, [as an ethnic minority] -- to be elected to parliament," she said. "There must be either a quota for women or a proportional system of elections. But nowadays, under current legislation, it is very difficult for women. We predict that very few women will be elected."

Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country to have introduced a gender quota, ahead of parliamentary elections there last December. Observers praised the move as a sign of democratic reform, but noted it was unlikely to mean any real change as long as the Uzbek legislature remains subservient to the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov.

Kyrgyzstan has seen initiatives to introduce a quota system for women, but a law has yet to be adopted.

The amended electoral law is one obstacle for women. Another one, according to Sydykova, are the lingering stereotypes about the role of women in society.

"Despite all the initiative that women have shown, when it comes to elections, our voters, our people, prefer men," she said. "They think only men should hold positions of authority. Women can be involved in election preparations, in various election activities, but when it comes to who should be a parliamentarian or a government official like a minister or, of course, the president, people have the absolute opposite attitude."

Bermet Akaeva is not the only female presidential relative with political ambitions. The president's sister-in-law is also running for parliament. And the country's first lady, Mayram Akaeva, is considered one of Kyrgyzstan's most influential politicians and a potential successor to her husband.

Sydykova said Akaev will try to anoint a successor from within his own clan, but that his wife is an unlikely choice. Bermet Akaeva's parliamentary run has already raised considerable resentment among the Kyrgyz public, she said. Seeing Mayram Akaeva rise to the presidency would likely spark even deeper anger.

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