Central Asia Needs to Promote Women Politicians

  • Mirgul Kuhns

“Hidden from the world’s attention, with its five ‘stans’ and 79 million people, Central Asia has been a region of democratic growth after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The last three decades Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been tested by economic, social, and political challenges during their independent evolution. Kyrgyzstan is a rare, if tumultuous, democratic success story in the heart of this region. But for Kyrgyzstan, too, the struggle for democracy continues, as can be seen by the role of women in society. Kyrgyzstan’s recent elections show, far too clearly, that women legislators still struggle to be seen as leaders and professionals. That’s a worry beyond the country’s borders, and it should be a concern for all five of the ‘stans.’

“Unprepared for such a globally progressive accomplishment, the supporters of Kyrgyzstan’s patriarchy (women and men alike) mobilized to stop women politicians from winning parliamentary seats in November. This anti-reform bloc passed a new election law, dropping the gender quota to 60 percent. Anti-democracy politicians won an additional eight seats in Kyrgyzstan’s 90 seat parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, leaving women with only 19 seats, although 52 percent of the country’s 3.6 million voters are women.

“Local behaviors and attitudes around gender equality and cultural norms need to change. And there’s no time to waste given the democratic backsliding and patriarchal laws, as well as the global pandemic, further exacerbating inequality.  One way to boost women’s political participation in the region is through the C5+1 (five Central Asian countries and the United States) diplomatic platform, which needs to focus on political inclusion and empowering women politicians as a way to address shared security, economic, and environment concerns. Including female leaders in the C5+1 high level working group meetings could result in real progress toward strengthening democratic elements in the region. As recent research shows, women’s participation in decision-making normalizes political inclusion, increases transparency in government and business, and pushes countries away from internal and external conflict.

“Finally, it is important to promote political inclusion and women now in order to build on the international empowerment momentum of the past couple of years. Practical policy tools, such as funding results-oriented programs like ZDS, and diplomatic incentives, such as supporting emerging democracies in Central Asia through local outliers like Kyrgyzstan, can provide real resources to achieve local policy shifts that include women in decision-making and promote democratization. Democracy is contagious. If Kyrgyzstan drifts away from autocratic tendencies by standing up against gender-based violence and political exclusion, chances are that its ‘stan’ neighbors will follow, limiting the influence of China-Russia-Iran in the region and thus the entire developing world.”

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