Uninterested in gender issues

Svetlana Shakirova
Centre for Gender Studies

Society continues to reject the idea of gender equity and tends to see the programmes which promote it as an inevitable part of international politics. Without the active participation of the President and the Government and without national laws in this area, it will be difficult to maintain the efforts of women’s NGOs.

Of the eight Millennium Development Goals, Kazakhstan is most likely to achieve Goal 3 (“Promote gender equality and empower women”), even though it is maybe one of the hardest to achieve.

Assessed against the universally accepted indicators, Goal 3 Target 4[1] has already been achieved in Kazakhstan: there is no quantitative gender disparity in primary and secondary education, and there are no access problems for girls to any level of education.

Another indicator, the proportion of women in Parliament, is far less encouraging since Kazakhstan ranks 85th among 185 countries.[2]

Kazakhstan has over 15 million inhabitants and there are over half a million more women than men in the country. Over 30% of the population, mostly men, do not live to the age of 60. Women constitute almost 70% of the population who receive pensions, and one in five women-pensioners is a mother of four or more children.[3] One fifth of youths (18 years and under and mostly male) have not completed their secondary education. One sixth of the population, predominantly families with many children, single pensioners and the rural unemployed, live in poverty.

One out of every 12 people in the country is unemployed, and there are more unemployed women than men. The salary gap is 0.6 and women’s contribution to GDP is 2.1 times less than men’s. The average size of a state pension paid through the unified solidarity system is KZT 7,575 (about USD 57) for women, which is less than men’s and 7.6% less than the national average, KZT 8,198 (USD 62).[4] The gap between women’s and men’s savings in the pension funds is much larger and amounts to 30%.

Low women’s participation in politics and public administration

Women are insufficiently represented at high levels of decision-making. There are 11 women in Parliament, that is, only 9.5% of the total number of members of Parliament. Women constitute 17.1% of regional delegates. At the decision-making level, women make up 18.3% of people holding political appointments in the central management structure, which is two times higher than the 2001 figure.

Currently, women are not represented in the highest level of political leadership: no woman holds the position of president, prime minister, vice-prime minister, governor or national bank chairperson.

Of the 15 ministers in the Government, four (27%) are women. This is below the level of Scandinavian countries but higher than Russia (where there are no women among 17 ministers) and other countries in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Women are not sufficiently involved either in the activities of political parties, especially in terms of leadership. During recent elections to the House of Representatives, women were placed fifth or below on most party lists. The proportion of women employed in state executive bodies is 58.5%. Women lead 24% of all enterprises and organizations.

Table 1. Human development indicators disaggregated by sex







Average life expectancy (years)


















Gender gap in years






Proportion of employed women among wage workers (%)






Ratio of women wages to men wages (%)






GDP per capita (USD)


















Gender gap (USD)






Source: Living Standards and Poverty in Kazakhstan. Statistical Monitoring. Almaty, 2004.

Gender-related Development Index (GDI)

Although there is no gender disparity in access to education, there is significant disparity in life expectancy at birth and GDP per capita.

During 1999-2003, there was positive growth in the GDI in all three dimensions - life expectancy, access to education and GDP per capita.

In the index, a gap in life expectancy in favour of women is compensated for by an even larger gap in income levels in favour of men. In 2003, life expectancy for men was 11 years less than for women (60.5 and 71.5 years, respectively), while the average nominal wage of women in all branches of the economy was only 60.8% of men’s, and GDP per capita was 2.1 times less for women (USD 4,200 and USD 9,000, respectively).

The Human Development Index and GDI both improved during the same period (1999-2003) indicating progress in the human development indicators for both women and men.

Social and economic changes during the past decade were characterized by two opposite views of the roles of men and women in the society - the conservative and pro-equality views. The transition period from the communist regime delivered a hard and as yet uncompensated blow to women’s status in society and the labour market by significantly changing the gender composition of leadership, political posts, wage employment, unemployment, etc. Women have lost the social protection and the social status they enjoyed during the previous regime, and have become responsible for the economic survival and socio-psychological preservation of the family. This however has not led to changes in gender ideology in society.

But it would be wrong to say that men benefited from the historical change in the structure of society. Men’s conditions deteriorated in health status, life expectancy, mortality from cardio-vascular disease, education potential, employment opportunities for people over 40-45, labour migration from rural to urban areas, and uncertainty about the future. Every third man and almost half of women have incomes below the subsistence minimum (33.2% and 44.9%, respectively).[5]

The social price of the transition has been very high for both men and women and will hardly be compensated for soon.

Regional disparities

Economic growth in Kazakhstan is gender-imbalanced. Women’s access to and control over economic resources is still minimal. Rapid development of the mining industry and the financial sector has primarily benefited men.

The gap in men’s and women’s wages is widest in regions with high gross regional product per capita, mainly where the mining industry is concentrated. In regions dominated by oil-and-gas industrial activities, there are significant disparities between the proportion of people below the subsistence minimum in urban and rural areas. In high-income regions, there is also a large gap between female and male unemployment, in favour of men. In Astana, the figures are 13.0% and 4.25%; in Aktobe, 13.3% and 6.0%; and in Atyrau, 12.2% and 7.1%. In Astana, women’s prevalence among the unemployed is due to the high demand for men in construction, transport, communications and service industries. Men benefit more from economic growth in dynamically developing regions.

It is not clear what the impact is of foreign direct investment (FDI) on women’s status, quality and stability of employment, re-training, income growth, social protection and labour conditions. Forty-six per cent of FDI is in oil and gas extraction, and only 10% is invested in the processing industry, half of which in metallurgy. This industry is dominated by men. The female-dominated clothing manufacturing and food industries and other female sectors are recovering more slowly.

Regional aspects of poverty are closely related to gender. High rates of economic growth in oil-rich regions only widen the gender gap in income levels and unemployment with respect to rural areas. Men and cities benefit from economic growth while women and villages are left behind.

A national plan without funding

During the transition period the Government demonstrated its commitment to gender equality. The former Family and Women’s Affairs and Demographic Policy Council was established under the President of Kazakhstan in 1993 and women’s empowerment has been gradually evolving since then. In 1998 the National Commission on Family and Women’s Affairs was created.

To implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Government adopted the National Action Plan on Improving Status of Women (1999). The Government estimates that 80% of the plan had been implemented by 2002. The Concept of Gender Policy in Kazakhstan adopted in 2003 for the achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), continues the ideology of previous National Action Plans and has no targeted financing.

Since 2004 the Commission has been developing the Gender Equality Strategy for 2005-2015. It includes measures for achieving gender equality in the areas of legislation, social policy, political and social life, economy, health protection, information policy, culture, education and science, as well as counteracting trafficking and violence against women and children.

An unresponsive government

At the executive level however there is still a lack of understanding or only a formal acknowledgement of the importance of a gender-oriented approach to development programmes.

The first attempt to introduce gender planning was made in the Perspective Plan of the Government for 2001-2005, in a section called The Participation of Women in Development. Gender indicators are also included in the Strategic Development Plan up to 2010[6] as well as in the Concept of Gender Policy (2003) developed for the achievement of the MDGs. The wording of the latter, however, is vague: “Special programmes that take into account women interests will be integrated in the national and regional investment programmes”.

Attempts by the donor community to help introduce gender analysis and assessment into the country’s large-scale development projects has gradually started to yield results by expanding the political field of ideology and gender equality policy.

Experts note that official acknowledgement of the importance of gender policy is often met with unconscious resistance on the part of people who implement national programmes such as civil servants and managers. Official government documents and addresses often contain concepts such as “woman-mother” and “hearth-keeper,” which emphasize the traditional domestic and reproductive roles of women in society. Gender policy is imposed from above and is still perceived as an unavoidable aspect of international policy. It is seen as an obligation the country holds as a UN member and as a “democratic, secular, law-abiding and social state”,[7] rather than a concept relevant to Kazakhstan.

For example, Kazakhstan was the last CIS country to ratify the Convention on Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1998, but the first to ratify its Optional Protocol in 2001. Although fast to join numerous international conventions and agreements, the Government is not quick to adopt national laws. Without national laws the political promotion of the gender concept is highly problematic.

Pending legislative projects

In the past years, the Government has resisted the introduction of two laws: On Equal Rights of Women and Men in Kazakhstanand On Counteracting and Preventing Domestic Violence. Both draft laws have passed an international peer review and were repeatedly discussed at the meetings between the Government, international organizations and experts, and women’s NGOs.

To date the efforts of the Commission in promoting new and amending existing laws have been insufficient. The status of the Commission and its weak influence on the country’s policy provide no grounds for optimism. As pointed out in a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe “without active involvement of the President and the Government, it is very hard to raise interest in gender issues”.[8]

The main gender policy initiatives and decisions stem from the President, while the Commission only undertakes their implementation with the help of international funding and expertise, regional administrative resources and ideological support from the women’s movement. Without international funding and the human capital of women’s NGOs, the State’s gender policy would become economically and ideologically bankrupt.

To explain the slow progress in the status of women, the Government points to a “lack of understanding of the nature and importance of gender issues among the general public”.[9] The Government and the Commission also remain undecided about their stand on gender quotas recommended by Article 4 of the CEDAW. Concealed aversion to gender equality on the part of the executive branch, inhibition of vitally important laws, lack of support of gender quotas, weak institutional status of the National Commission, absence of direct financing of gender programmes are all factors that hamper the achievement of gender equality in the country.

Gender inequality is one of the structural socio-cultural causes hampering development in Kazakhstan. This inequality stems from the legacy of past historic periods along with factors such as a traditional culture with weak democratic values, paternalistic relations in society, peculiarities of economic activity, dependence on mining industries, weak infrastructure, regional disparities, and unsustainable use of environmental resources. These causes lead to insufficient participation of women in different sectors of society, their exposure to various risks, and a growth in discrimination and sexism.[10]

Kazakhstan has the potential to achieve gender equality by 2015. The issue now is how this potential will be developed and used, how deep the institutional and cultural changes in the society will go, and whether new threats to equality might arise.


[1] Goal 3, Target 4: “Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015”.
[2] Inter-Parliamentary Union, www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
[3] Living Standards and Poverty in Kazakhstan. Statistical Monitoring. Almaty, 2004, p. 21.
[5] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). National Human Development Report 2000 Kazakhstan. 2001, p. 24.
[6]Second Periodical Report of the Republic of Kazakhstan. “On implementing the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women”. Draft. September 2004, p. 14.
[7] Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Article 1, p. 1.
[8] Gatterer, E. Gender Analysis of Parliamentary elections to Mazhilis (House of Representatives) in Kazakhstan.Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) (unpublished). 19 September 2004 p. 17.
[9] Second Periodical Report of the Republic of Kazakhstan, op cit, p. 10.
[10]Kazakhstan: Achievement, Issues and Prospects. A Perspective by the United Nations. 2004, p. 50.