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Women & Power In Central Asia (Part 2): Women Increase Presence In Kazakhstan's Business Sector

By Saida Kalkulova Entrepreneur Sabyrkul Asanova (Courtesy Photo) In 1998, Kazakhstan ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Since then, some powerful Kazakh women have emerged in various fields, including the traditionally male-dominated business sector. In this second of a four-part series, RFE/RL examines the situation of women in Kazakhstan through the prism of three Kazakh businesswomen.

Prague, 29 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Following its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan moved toward a market economy, and it has been developing rapidly ever since, due in large part to considerable foreign investment.

Official statistics also suggest that the negative balance for women -- who represent 51 percent of the country's 15 million people -- might be evening out. Forty percent of all women are registered managers of private businesses, according to those figures.

Forty-year-old Saltanat Rakhymbekova is the head of the Business and Industry Department for Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region. She credits the Kazakh government with implementing a proper "gender policy."

"For example, in the Karaganda region alone, there are lots of women who hold managerial posts," Rakhymbekova says. "This is the result of the Kazakh government, which is carrying out a proper gender policy. Women's skills and initiatives are being taken into consideration. I think that if women are eager to do their best to succeed, all the necessary conditions are created for them in the country."

Rakhymbekova spends much of her time at work but says that, like other women, she likes to spend every spare minute with her family, including her husband, a technical scientist, and their two daughters. She is herself from what she describes as an ordinary Kazakh family, albeit one with 10 children.

"First of all, I am lucky that I was born in Kazakhstan," Rakhymbekova says. "I appreciate my parents, who educated me. I studied at a university where 90 percent of students were men. My husband always understands me and supports all my efforts."

Bucking A Trend?

Sabyrkul Asanova, 50, is a successful Kazakh businesswoman. She is president of the Symbat Fashion Academy, which is a leader in the country's fashion industry. Asanova is highly respected for her business acumen -- and pleased with what she has achieved so far.

"I always worked hard, and now I am successful," she explains simply.

Asanova says she is satisfied with what she has built. And while some are tempted to parlay such entrepreneurial success into political influence, she insists she is not eager to become involved in politics.

"If we, women, have something to do, we try to work tirelessly," Asanova says. "While men spend 10 minutes smoking, women use that time to work. I think it is impossible to have lots of women in power, however, because, in principle, women were created for a family or to give birth to babies."

Flower Power

Forty-five-year-old Gozel Kulzhanova -- who has a daughter, two sons, and a grandchild -- works in a completely different sphere. She owns a floral-decoration company called Gulistan that works on buildings, offices, and private homes. The partnership appears to be the only company in Kazakhstan that is focused specifically on the service.

Kulzhanova has sought to leverage that expertise, recently founding a magazine titled "Gulistan" that is about the planting of flowers and other plants:

"My job is very interesting," she says. "I'm happy when I see the results of my work. I think that if a person finds his favorite job, he is happy."

Kulzhanova says she wants Kazakhstan to be among the most beautiful countries in the world.

Still Struggling

The lives of many women in Kazakhstan remain bleak, however.

A Kazakh economist, Aytqali Nurseyit, notes that women still face obstacles in the country, and he says many women lost their jobs during the transition to a market economy. But he points out that Kazakhstan's economy has grown strongly in recent years and argues that the situation of Kazakh women is changing, too:

"What is unique about Kazakhstan, or Kazakh women, is that about 40 percent of Kazakh women have their own businesses. This is very good," Nurseyit says. "Kazakh women also play a key role in the fields of education, science, and health care."

According to the United Nations Development Program's "Human Development Report," at present, female economic activity is 81-86 percent of that of men in the five Central Asian countries. It is equal to the rate in Russia, whereas in Pakistan the rate is 44 percent.