AS IT STRUGGLES TO IMPROVE STATUS OF WOMEN, KYRGYZSTAN BURDENED WITH FINDING WAYS TO OVERCOME COUNTRY-WIDE POVERTY, ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD

27 January 1999
WOM/1086

AS IT STRUGGLES TO IMPROVE STATUS OF WOMEN, KYRGYZSTAN BURDENED WITH FINDING WAYS TO OVERCOME COUNTRY-WIDE POVERTY, ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD

27 January 1999

Press ReleaseWOM/1086

AS IT STRUGGLES TO IMPROVE STATUS OF WOMEN, KYRGYZSTAN BURDENED WITH FINDING WAYS TO OVERCOME COUNTRY-WIDE POVERTY, ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD

19990127 Committee Concludes Consideration of Kyrgyzstan's Report on Compliance with Anti-Discrimination Convention

With more than half the population of Kyrgyzstan living in poverty -- and Kyrgyz women comprising 90 per cent of the poorest sectors -- the Government was urgently seeking measures to improve the economy, a representative of Kyrgyzstan told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning, as it concluded its consideration of that country's initial report on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

At a time when it was struggling to improve the status of women, the Government was burdened with finding ways to overcome country-wide poverty, Sagyn Ismailova, Chairperson of the State Commission on the Status of Women, Family and Youth, told the 23-member expert body, which monitors compliance with the Convention. Nevertheless, during that economic transformation, a number of measures had been taken to improve the situation of women. The year 1996 had been declared the Year of Women, and the State had adopted a national programme, modelled on the Beijing Platform for Action, to improve women's status.

Indeed, Kyrgyz women had not stood on the sidelines, but had participated in the labour market, occupying an ever more important place in the rapidly growing informal trade sector. Some of them were joining the business sector as entrepreneurs, aided by start-up capital in the form of micro-credit. Now, they were entering the market economy at a quicker rate than men and were fast becoming the "avant garde" in the resurrection of the economy. Despite the expansion of their economic roles, however, many Kyrgyz women were still convinced that they did not belong in public life and politics.

Several experts commended government efforts to improve the status of Kyrgyz women, but emphasized the need to reinvigorate the process. Incorporating those measures into a society was a challenging and long-term

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task. Moreover, "gender-proofing" legislation and absorbing the basis of other countries' success could aid the integration of a national machinery into the political structure.

Several experts expressed deep concern about the economic situation of Kyrgyz women. Although efforts to introduce micro-credit and promote women's participation in business were welcome economic measures, the Government should guard against a tendency to push women into traditional employment sectors. Furthermore, emphasizing informal employment could deny women the opportunity to acquire new skills needed for the modern sector, as well as the usual protections offered by labour laws. In the long term, plans should be made to integrate them into the formal labour sector.

The Committee will meet again today at 3 p.m. to resume its consideration of Liechtenstein's report.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to continue its consideration of the initial report of Kyrgyzstan on its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The delegation of Kyrgyzstan was scheduled to respond to questions posed by the Committee following the presentation of that country's report on 22 January. (For further background, see Press Releases WOM/1081 and WOM/1082 of 22 January.)

Statements

SAGYN ISMAILOVA, Chairperson of the State Commission on the Status of Women, Family and Youth, responded to the questions posed by experts following the presentation of her country's report last week.

Regarding article 1, she said that the decisions of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 were a crucial turning point in implementing women's policy in Kyrgyzstan, which began with a presidential decree and the establishment of the Ayalzat programme. The Parliament had ratified five international conventions on discrimination against women, and set up a social commission for implementing that programme. Invaluable assistance had been given by the government structures dealing with women's issues and women's non- governmental organizations (NGOs). Women's organizations in rural areas were also involved in promoting the development of national creativity and in making efforts to affirm a new status for women in Kyrgyz society.

Turning to article 2, she said that article 15 of the Kyrgyz Constitution stated the equality of all citizens under the law. The Government had been increasing the awareness of the population on the human rights and freedoms guaranteed in various treaties. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was also financing the mass publication of manuals on people and society, in which the basic provisions of human rights law were set forth. In addition, the texts of all conventions ratified had been translated into the State language and into other languages, such as Russian and Uzbek. Also, human rights courses were offered in many universities and schools.

In accordance with its provisions, the State Commission for Family, Women and Youth carried out State and national gender-development programmes in those areas, she continued. Its work was done in cooperation with organizations, political parties and movements concerned with family, women and youth issues. The Commission also supported NGOs which dealt with women's and youth's issues. Its activities did not duplicate the work of other State ministries. With the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Commission had established regional women's initiative centres in all regions of the Republic to implement the Ayalzat programme and offer inter-agency cooperation in solving problems related to family, women and

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youth. A working group was also set up to improve the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan, based on the Beijing Platform for Action.

The women's initiative centres had demonstrated the vital nature of their activities by attracting extrabudgetary funds, she added. They also had credit and business project services for women. In the future, it was expected that the Women's Credit Home could be implemented as provided for in the Ayalzat programme, which would carry out activities to increase women's employment. It would be a positive step in removing women's unemployment and improving the material well-being of families.

Turning to the issue of violence against women, she said that initial studies in the area had been conducted in 1994 and 1995, with the support of the Institute for Human Development in the Netherlands and a national body in the United States. In 1995, a women's organization known as the "Diamond Organization", made up of social scientists, held a conference on the issue of gender protection. For the first time in Kyrgyzstan, the country spoke about what had given rise to violence against women.

She said the conference had allowed the Government to develop a comprehensive programme to protect girls and women from violence, set up crisis centres for victims and provide them with legal assistance. Presently, under the Ayalzat programme, a number of measures were being implemented, including trying to eliminate the factors that promoted violence, such as reducing pornography. A telephone network hotline and rehabilitation centres had been established. Most of the work was carried out by the inter-agency working group and coordinated by the State Commission on the Status of Women, Family and Youth.

Statistics showed that up to 30 per cent of violence against women occurred in the home, she continued. Damage done to the health of women was punishable under the new Kyrgyz Criminal Code. However, only 20 per cent of family violence was actually reported. People did not want to publicize it and often relatives tried to cover it up. Six crisis centres were established in the period 1995-1998, and presently there were more than 10 centres throughout the Republic.

Regarding lesbianism, which was a new phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan, she said that the Kyrgyz Criminal Code classified it as an act of sexual violence, and anyone involved was subject to imprisonment. It is difficult to answer why it was classified as a criminal offence, since it did not involve violence. However, it had also been considered a criminal matter and a moral issue in Soviet times.

Regarding article 3, she said that the Government had a strict programme on improving the status of women, and women's NGOs were equal partners in implementing that policy. There was also a women's democratic party, designed

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to increase women's participation in country's social and political life, which was also broadly involved in managing State and social affairs. It also sought to establish a legal base from which to combat all forms of discrimination, and lobby for women's interests in Parliament. By its initiative, a meeting of women parliamentarians from the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was held to discuss drafting election laws.

A number of measures had been taken to improve the situation of women as the country underwent transition and moved into a market economy, she said. The year 1996 was declared the Year of the Women, the State had adopted the Ayalzat programme to improve the status of women, and the State Commission on the Status of Women, Family and Youth had been established. Women did not stand on the sidelines, but had participated in the labour market during the transitional stage. There had also been an increase in the number of well-trained NGOs dealing with women's affairs. In addition, the Civil Code, Criminal Code, Labour Code and the laws on consumer rights, all provided for the protection of women's rights. In a relatively short period of time, the Government had adopted measures to improve the social security system, to ensure access to social services and to develop small and medium-size businesses. The only obstacle to implementing the Ayalzat programme had been the absence of adequate financial resources from the State budget.

Turning to questions on article 5, dealing with sex roles and stereotypes, she said that the Criminal Code sought to promote understanding that women must not be regarded as objects of sexual violence. In addition, various seminars and pamphlets had been issued on enhancing women's legal knowledge and literacy on the subject. There had also been numerous bulletins of non-governmental organizations, gender training, including of health personnel, radio broadcasts and textbooks containing material on gender sociology.

She said that the increase in violence against women had been caused primarily by socio-economic difficulties encountered by the Kyrgyz population during the transition period. That higher incidence of violence, moreover, had been accompanied by increased unemployment, alcoholism, internal migration and a general weakening of the nation's moral fibre. To combat age-old stereotypes within the traditional Kyrgyz family, the national programme, "Ayalzat" adopted in 1996 and modelled after the Beijing Platform for Action, contained measures to increase the access of young girls to higher education, improve literacy and strengthen the overall situation of rural women.

A draft law on the mass media, which contained a separate article on achieving gender equality, was also being considered, she said. Specialists in the media would be obliged to ensure equal access to information and equal opportunity for using new technologies. Material which was derogatory towards

women would be prohibited. Further, the law would ensure that women were not

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portrayed as sexual merchandise.

To another question, she said the Health Ministry was carrying out a programme to help young girls and teenagers in the area of reproductive health. The State Committee on the Family, Women and Youth was planning a draft law on the reproductive health of the population. It had recently opened up a gynaecological department for young women and planned to establish teenage networks for birth control services and advice.

Regarding questions on article 6, concerning trafficking and prostitution, she said that no specific data was available on trade in women. However, there were cases of women being taken abroad on the premise of obtaining employment. In some cases, their passports were seized and they were sexually exploited. In order to help Kyrgyz nationals that found themselves in those situations, the Interpol National Bureau was cooperating with the Kyrgyz Government in monitoring the situation. The Criminal Code now had an article providing for the punishment of people involved in such activities. In addition, measures had been taken to halt the involvement of tourism, and preventive action was being sought to ensure that no criminal elements were present.

Polygamy was not new to Kyrgyz society, she said. The economic dependence of women was the main reason for that practice. The Criminal Code sanctioned polygamy, and Kyrgyz society condemned it. At the same time, however, there had been attempts by women in Parliament to provide a legislation basis for it.

Replying to questions on article 7, on political and public life, she said that in order to promote the participation of women in decision-making positions, educational opportunities had been established under the "Ayalzat" programme. There was also a training programme for women wishing to participate in the upcoming Parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, many women were still overwhelmingly convinced that politics was not their domain; recent studies had shown that they did not consider political power to be of paramount importance. They did support reforms aimed at stabilizing the economy, however, and ways in which free choice could be implemented

She said that under the Constitution, everyone had equal access to employment, and the Labour Code reinforced those rights. Victims of such discrimination could appeal to the courts, and once recognized, the court would decide how to remove that discrimination and compensate the victim for material and legal losses. Trade unions also had the right to settle labour disputes and provide legal assistance to nationals, both men and women. A special legislative committee had been set up to review outdated laws. Its recent consideration of the Labour Code had been attended by more than 30

independent gender experts, representing a broad range of social, governmental

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and non-governmental organizations.

She said the Criminal Code punished illegal abortions, when they were reported by the women suffering from them, or by relatives and friends. Moreover, abortions were deemed criminal when not carried out in clinics or under proper health conditions. Abortions were also carried out in rural areas, and were available everywhere at no cost. In other health-related legislation, a national tuberculosis programme had been established, and, from 1996 to 1998, 92 per cent of the population had been re-vaccinated against the disease. In addition, all sufferers of that infection were monitored.

Turning to article 13, on economic and social benefits, she said that at present, women were occupying a more and more important place in the rapidly growing informal-trade sector. The great "silk route" for centuries had developed trade among people from various countries. Kyrgyz women, in particular highly educated and easily adaptable women, were active participants in business as entrepreneurs. Indeed, they were entering the market economy at a quicker rate than men and were fast becoming the "avant garde" in the resurrection of the economy.

Small businesses were promoted by start-up capital in the form of micro- credit, she went on. At a national summit on micro-credit last year, it had been noted that more than 20,000 loans had been distributed among the poorest sectors of the Kyrgyz population -- of which 90 per cent were women. Unfortunately, however, access to micro-credit was limited, owing to the inadequate availability of funds. According to recent data of the World Bank, the need for credit in rural regions was estimated at $81 million for 1999 alone.

In order to resolve the unemployment problems, she said, the State employment service was implementing a policy of active measures to promote individual labour activity and domestic work, to organize studies and to provide courses in psychological adaptation for women. Social non- governmental organizations had also been established to promote employment, and clubs of women seeking work had been opened. To address the employment needs associated with internal migration, a mobile employment service had been created.

Despite changes in their status and the expansion of their roles, Kyrgyz women were still spending most of their time caring for their families and homes. In that connection, their daily burden was immeasurably greater than that of men. Unfortunately, alleviating their workload at home and creating appropriate conditions for their employment had remained a problem despite measures by the Government taken in accordance with the world development programme, due to a lack of necessary financing.

Starting in 1993, twice annually, a national statistical committee,

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together with a research centre in the United States, had been monitoring the poverty situation in her country, she said. The results of the last study had revealed that more than 50 per cent of the Kyrgyz population was living at poverty level, and of those, 15 per cent were living in extreme poverty. Measures to radically reduce poverty, and unemployment, and to socially protect vulnerable sectors had been set forth in another national programme. Also, in accordance with a presidential directive, an additional fund to overcome country-wide poverty had been established.

Concerning the ecological problems affecting women's health, particular attention should be given to mining and mineral reprocessing sectors, she said. In the context of numerous press reports about cyanide waste, those questions had been the subject of a special meeting of Parliament. Since the views of national and international experts assessing that situation were at odds with the public view, written answers to the questions would be presented to the Committee.

Comments by Experts

Several experts said they were pleased to learn about government efforts under way to improve the status of Kyrgyz women and familiarize the public with the provisions of international treaties, which Kyrgyzstan had ratified in such a short period. They emphasized, however, that those efforts needed to be strengthened and upgraded because of the long process of integration into a society's culture. Indeed, that was the biggest challenge faced by the Kyrgyz authorities at the present juncture.

Indeed, several experts said that enhancing the national machinery for women was of paramount importance. That tremendous task required greater concrete commitment by the State to implement the provisions of international treaties, as well as those of their own programmes. The process, moreover, needed adequate funding and personnel. Enhancing the role of Kyrgyz women was a priority that must be taken up with great vigour and dedication.

Another expert said it seemed that many people in eastern European countries -- and Kyrgyzstan might be one of them -- brought the old mindset to human rights treaty obligations. In the former Soviet Union and affiliated countries, there had been strong legislation outlawing discrimination of women in labour, for instance, but the issue of unintentional discrimination had never been completely understood. Thus, formal equality had existed, but there had been scant understanding of how equal provisions could also discriminate against women in practice.

Future seminars, therefore, should address that issue, she went on. Moreover, government representatives might avail themselves of the knowledge built up over the last 25 years in the United States and European countries of the meaning of unintentional or indirect discrimination. Reliance on the

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existence of a law was not enough; the problem went well beyond that. The various commissions and committees should also strive to change stereotypes, some of which had even found their way into the country's report to the Committee. For example, Committee members had been critical at the reference to husbands as the main breadwinners; there should be choice and a sharing of roles.

While she recognized that Kyrgyzstan was in the midst of a very difficult economic transition, that process could also lead to renewed efforts to root out discriminatory practices, she said. Although the representative had replied extensively to questions about a national machinery, a full picture remained elusive. Many efforts had been made, including designating a year of women, the President's expressed commitment, and the creation of a State commission and regional centres. However, that commitment might not endure unless it was integrated into the political and administrative structures of a government. How long could her Government rely on UNDP financing of regional centres, for example? "Gender-proofing" legislation and absorbing the basis of other countries' success would aid the integration of a national machinery with the political mechanisms.

Several experts expressed deep concern about the economic situation of Kyrgyz women. While they applauded efforts to issue micro-credit and promote women in business, some did not foresee a successful future redevelopment of the country's economy. In the long term, plans should be made to integrate women into the formal labour sectors. Another expert wanted to know whether those women were organized in some way. What happened to family members who worked in family-owned micro-industries -- were they also covered under the regulations of International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, thereby ensuring their access to social security, maternity leave, and so forth. She also sought information on the reported harassment of the informal sector by State and city officials who often complained that those businesses were disturbing the environment.

The expert from Bangladesh noted that micro-credit had been a most effective tool for alleviating poverty in her country; women, including rural women, could be rejuvenated and energized through its use. There was a serious problem, however, relating to the tendency to push women into traditional employment sectors, thereby denying them an opportunity to acquire the new skills needed in the modern sector. She also recommended the involvement of commercial banks, particularly of agricultural lending institutions. On the issue of trade unions, while the participation of women at the leadership level was very encouraging, did they put women's issues on the agenda?

Another expert noted that the country's poverty and its transitional economy had compounded women's burden in Kyrgyzstan. As a Central Asian country and a member of the CIS, Kyrgyzstan should have links with the European Union, which could support women's economic development. Also, as a developing country,

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it should establish strong links with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in creating a sustainable development programme for women. In addition, it should seek linkages in a South-South dialogue.

On the subject of polygamy, another expert noted that Kyrgyz society had remained silent. It was not a Muslim country, and it was, therefore, unclear how that practice was not considered illegal. If it was indeed legal, what kind of status did the additional wives enjoy, and was any kind of sanction being imposed? she asked. Even in Muslim countries, it was very difficult to obtain permission from a local authority, or written permission from a former wife, to take another wife. That disincentive, in a sense, had made polygamy illegal. Moreover, a second wife had no legal standing, particularly with regard to inheritance. What steps had been taken to review the law and reach a definite decision on polygamy? she asked, adding that it should not be part of the country's family law.

Another expert expressed surprise that no complaints whatsoever had been filed by women in any Kyrgyz courts with respect to discrimination. Yet, the report contained several admissions of the existence of practices that went against the very grain of the law. She wondered what made Kyrgyz women fail to pursue complaints in court -- was it because it was customary not to do so, or because there was a lack of knowledge of the availability of courts to help women in that regard? If there had not been any complaints by women, could the Government better inform women of their judicial rights?

The expert also acknowledged the representative's statement that the value of education had been inculcated in the former Soviet Union. She asked whether the Kyrgyz Government had encouraged education, and, if not, why not.

One expert said she wanted to know whether it was true that despite the general feeling against polygamy in the Republic, there had been attempts to revive a legal basis for it in the Parliament. If that was indeed the case, that was the sign of a dangerous development, which needed to be vigilantly addressed. Following an experience of radical secularism under Soviet rule, attempts to legitimize polygamy were difficult to understand. She urged Kyrgyzstan to be careful of notions of tradition, culture or religion creeping up in the form of human rights violations, particularly against women's rights.

With reference to the high number of children born out of wedlock, an expert said that not enough information had been provided on the obligation of men in that connection. It was an important concern, given the special pressures put on women within the context of a transition economy. What were the chances of women getting child support? she asked.

Ms. ISMAILOVA thanked the experts for their comments, particularly on

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developing micro-credit resources, which was one of the most effective ways to deal with poverty. The Republic was in the process of developing that service, and had established Grameen Bank branches in two areas of the country. The UNDP in Kyrgyzstan was also active in the area of micro-credit and had a programme on poverty alleviation. The Government, having felt the need for such schemes, had developed women's regional centres as a first step in the process of eventually establishing the women's credit home.

Regarding the improvement of legislative norms and rules on the family and marriage, she said that gender expertise had been provided in the formulation of the Family Code. Polygamy was prohibited under Kyrgyz law and remarriage could not take place unless the first marriage was dissolved. Kyrgyzstan was a secular State, not a Muslim one; however, there were some situations which were kept away from the justice system. She understood that a firm stand had to be taken to eliminate the practice of polygamy.

The Republic had produced a number of texts and pamphlets about human rights -- especially women's rights -- to be distributed among its citizens, she said. The understanding of discrimination, its definition, and women's reaction to it were inadequate. The Government had yet to define it clearly and people were not fully aware of the idea. It was true that more effort had to be made with regard to encouraging women to bring their cases to court. In conclusion, she said that the recommendations and comments of the experts would be conveyed to the Government, so that they could be used in future efforts to improve the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan. The initial report was a first attempt to sum up the country's experiences in the area of eliminating discrimination against women.

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For information media. Not an official record.