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Kyrgyzstan: Women's Congress Seeks To Advance The Role Of Women

Prague, 24 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Zamira Oqbagisheva, chairwoman of the Kyrgyzstan Women's Congress, says independence gave rise to the creation of women's organizations in Kyrgyzstan.

She says changes in Kyrgyz society forced women to unite in order to protect themselves.

During the Soviet era, the government and the Communist Party guaranteed women participation at different levels of power. Although independence brought many positive changes, the post-independence transition to a market economy made life in Kyrgyzstan much harder, especially for women. Oqbagisheva says the number of women at the poorest levels of society has swelled tremendously.

About 20 women's nongovernmental organizations exist now in Kyrgyzstan. The goal of the Kyrgyzstan Women's Congress, which was founded in 1993, is to protect women and to assist them to adjust and survive in the new conditions of transition, she says.

Oqbagisheva asserts that women, overwhelmed with everyday problems, are discouraged from participating in the political life of the country. Only four women serve in Kyrgyzstan's legislative body, and only about 29 percent of those in responsible government positions are women.

The Kyrgyzstan Women's Congress seeks to advance the role of women in decision making through training and education. One training course is entitled "Women and Politics." Kyrgyz women who have achieved success in business, public policy or other fields conduct the courses. The Congress also invites lecturers from abroad. For instance, a woman member from the German Bundestag recently described to participants how she started and conducts her political career.

The Congress also assists women economically. A number of factories and other enterprises have bankrupted and closed during the transition, putting women out of work. Oqbagisheva says the Congress, using a grant from the United States Agency for International Development, opened a Business Center in the capital, Bishkek, to teach women how to run businesses. She says jobless teachers, nurses, and office workers are taught the principles of marketing and management.

Most of the Kyrgyz population lives in rural areas. So the Congress focuses on those areas. Oqbagisheva says the organization has opened a number of training centers in the countryside in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Oqbagisheva describes the Congress' work this way: "I can't say exactly what kind of a society we must build, but what I know for sure is that the role of Kyrgyz women is crucial."

Mira Jangaracheva is a deputy prime minister in Kyrgyzstan. She says the International Women's Conference held in Beijing in 1995 gave a strong impetus to Kyrgyz women to review their place and role in the society in an era of economic and political change. Jangaracheva and delegates from Kyrgyzstan participated in developing a number of documents aimed at advancing the role of women.

As she puts it: "I realized how deep the gap is between rich women that have few problems, and those who must strive to make ends meet."

Jangaracheva says that upon returning from Beijing, she has paid closer attention to women's issues in her own country.

"The first thing we did after the Beijing Conference was to ratify here the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women," she said.

The UN General Assembly adopted the convention in 1979. It is widely considered to be a key international document for protecting women's rights. The convention has been ratified by most of the UN member states, although a few countries, including the United States have not ratified it.

Jangaracheva said she believes that the problems that women face in Central Asian countries are similar, so Central Asian women need to gather more often and share ideas on how to improve their lives. The level of democracy of a country and its place in the international community depends to a great extent depends on how the country treats its women, she says. In her words: "As long as a country wants to be recognized by the international community, it should pay closer attention to women's issues."