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Kyrgyzstan: Top Political Posts Unavailable To Women

Women in Kyrgyzstan are more active in all walks of life -- particularly political life -- than are women in neighboring Central Asian nations. But a traditional patriarchal system still limits Kyrgyz women's access to top political posts. Janyl Chytyrbaeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service speaks with some of the women who make up Kyrgyzstan's political elite about their perceptions and problems.

Prague, 23 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Recently, the Women's Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan asked its leader, Tokon Shailieva, to run in this autumn's presidential election. Shailieva -- who is a successful businesswoman and a former member of the Kyrgyz parliament -- accepted the offer. If the Central Election Commission approves her nomination, she will become the first-ever female candidate for the presidency in Central Asia.

But parliamentary elections earlier this year-- in which Shailieva also participated, and lost -- showed that Kyrgyz women today still have little chance of attaining high political office. Of the 36 women candidates who ran in the February elections, only five were elected. In parliamentary elections four years earlier, some 80 women ran and, again, only five were elected.

Lack of financing is one major reason. Prospective candidates need about $650 to register, a huge sum in a country where the average monthly salary is $21. Women constitute more than half of Kyrgyzstan's unemployed and have been most disadvantaged by the country's economic reforms. Few can muster the money needed for an election campaign.

Equally important, many prominent Kyrgyz women refuse to participate in electoral races because of a reluctance to engage in what they consider unfair and unequal political contests. Zamira Akbagysheva leads the Women's Congress of Kyrgyzstan, one of the largest and most influential women's non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in the country. She deliberately stayed away from the February elections. Akbagysheva told RFE/RL why she now avoids political life:

"About a year and a half ago, the Women's Congress held a meeting where we decided not to engage in politics. We had nominated candidates to the previous parliamentary elections, but we learned then that there are too many unexplainable situations that we cannot accept. As the saying goes, politics is 'a dirty game.' That is why we decided to abstain from elections."

Even those women who decide to run often are unable to match the male candidates' electoral style. Aleftina Pronenko, who won a seat from the capital Bishkek, explains why:

"I think women lost because they were not able to participate in men's tough political fighting on an equal footing. Women were not prepared to handle the 'dirty' tricks. They simply refused to participate in a mean-spirited race."

According to some analysts, stereotypes about women's role in Kyrgyz society are another important reason why they have not succeeded in attaining high national political office. But on the local level, there has been some progress. Roza Aitmatova, the president of the Women's Support Center, says her organization's activists did surprisingly well in raising women's participation in local elections last autumn.

In the most spectacular case, in Talas province, six out of seven women candidates were elected, and one of them was chosen to head a village council. Previously, all 19 members of the council had been men. Aitmatova attributes this success to the strong campaign her group conducted in the village.

On the local level in Kyrgyzstan, women generally hold about one-third of all elected posts. But at higher levels, far fewer women are chosen. Aitmatova -- who is also the younger sister of a prominent Kyrgyz writer, Chyngyz Aitmatov -- says this is largely because of the patriarchal stereotypes that been strongly revived since the fall of communism:

"The main problem is, of course, the stereotypes. They say women have nothing to do with politics."

Aitmatova says that when women persist in participating in political life, officials sometimes resort to threats to expel them from their jobs. Also, a council of village elders can be convened to try to persuade a woman to stay out of political life. Although they are unofficial, these councils play an important role in Kyrgyz social life and carry considerable weight among the population. This was the case, Aitmatova says, in one of the villages of Kara-Buura district in Talas province:

"When one woman refused to give up, the head of the local government convened a council of elders to discuss her case. The head of the council told her she should know her place and not engage in a contest with men. That is an example of how women are forced out."

Despite the disappointment many Kyrgyz women felt about the results of the February parliamentary elections, they clearly benefited from the experience. Bermet Tugelbaeva, the leader of Diamond -- an association of women scientists -- told our correspondent that women learned much more about campaigning and the role of political parties.

Tokon Shailieva of the Women's Democratic Party says she knows her chances for success in the autumn presidential election are small. But she believes it is possible Kyrgyzstan could have a female president in about 10 years. That belief, however, may be too optimistic. Given the continuing economic, political, and cultural obstacles for women in Kyrgyzstan, Shailieva's vision is not likely to be realized in the foreseeable future.