By Maira Zeinilova, PhD researcher, Dublin City University
This policy brief advances an earlier discussion concerning how main stakeholders promote women’s participation in institutional politics in Central Asia. Specifically, it focuses on the measures undertaken by the state institutions aimed at ensuring women’s greater representation and participation in political offices in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a post-Soviet country with a strong presidential regime. The party system is weak, dominated by a ruling party headed by the president and other pro-presidential parties.
Women’s representation in the Kazakh parliament has increased without the introduction of legal quotas. In the 2012 elections, women’s representation reached 27 percent and remains at the same level in the 2016 Majilis – higher than the 23 percent global average. However, in the Senate, women’s representation has decreased twice in recent years. In the current Senate, there are only 3 women out of 47 male senators: two of them were appointed directly by the president and one was elected by the local representative body. Women representatives at the local level are 22.2 percent on average. However, there is a significant difference across regions – from 0 to 35 percent. Since the majority of parliamentary seats in the current Majilis are taken by the ruling party “Nurotan” (87 out of the total 99 parliamentary seats allocated for the party representatives), the majority of women parliamentarians are elected via the ruling party.
State’s consideration of the women’s political participation
The state recognised that there is a disparity in the representation of women in the legislative and executive branches of power, which is reflected in the 2006-2016 Gender Equality Strategy and the 2017-2030 Concept on Family and Gender Policy. Based on the solutions proposed in the Action plan to the gender policies, a lack of capacity of women as politicians is considered as the main reason of women’s under-representation in the political institutions. These findings are different from those presented by international organisations, which highlight the reluctance of political institutions to promote women in office. Both documents (2006-2016 Gender Equality Strategy and the 2017-2030 Concept on Family and Gender Policy) set the target to achieve a 30 percent level of female representation at decision-making offices. The measures include the nomination of women for different positions in state institutions, non-discrimination of women, possible consideration of quota, and cooperation with the civil society. The document fails to set any obligations for political parties to increase their recruitment of women, the only reference to the matter in the document being that political parties should “work in observation of the gender equality principle” at the time of creating their party lists.
Gender policy in Kazakhstan is designed and implemented by the separate national women machinery integrated in the executive system, the National Commission of Women and Family Demographic Affairs (1995). The Commission does not have a separate budget and organisational structure, and depends financially on local authorities. The Commission defined two controversial targets: on the one hand, comprehensive women’s empowerment, which requires women’s greater engagement in the public sphere; on the other hand, enhancement of family traditions, which demands women to stay home. This controversial approach to the problem of low women’s political participation causes inconsistency of the measures undertaken to implement the policy. In addition, each region has its own specificity in the way the local authorities approach the issue of women’s under-representation.
Measures undertaken by the state to advance women’s political participation
The activities proposed by the state mainly focus on leadership training for women. For this purpose each region runs training called School of Women’s Leadership. In the late 1990s when the School was created, leadership was understood mainly in the political context, i.e. the purpose of the training was to equip women with skills necessary to run for political office. These training were run by invited trainers from well-developed democracies with a long history of party system and different political contexts. They based their training programmes on the realities typical of democracies and did not consider the specificity of the political regime of Kazakhstan.
Later, as the political system changed to adopt a stricter control over political recruitment, the training became less political. Starting from the late 2000s, the training organisations were handed over to the local NGOs, which prioritised women’s role in the private sphere of the family. The revised training programme now targets the construction of the positive image of female politician in a suit, married with children, in order to serve as a symbolic representative for other women potential politicians.
Almost every region’s local government established the Club of Women Politicians to promote women’s political participation consisting of the local female executives, businesswomen, NGO leaders, local governance, and representatives of political parties. The goal is “to contribute to the development of women’s political leadership through dealing with social issues as well as through the training of women leaders to develop management and competitiveness skills based on the experience of the leading women politicians of Kazakhstan”, as well as creating a reserve list of potential female candidates for inclusion in the party list. Between the years 2011 and 2015, around 12 Clubs in different regions were created, consisting of female executives, businesswomen, NGO leaders, local governance, and representatives of political parties.
Despite the common goal, each region chooses its own methods for achieving this goal. For example, in most regions, the Club offices apply individual coaching mentorship method, meaning that each member of the Club has to take one potential candidate, guide her individually and promote her by recommending her to decision-makers. Such activity is questionable in terms of its effectiveness for the promotion of women’s political participation=-. Most importantly, by promoting the establishment of personal ties between a woman who is currently in power and a woman who is trained to enter political institution, this approach enhances patron-client relationship in politics and cultivates informal practices in political recruitment. A more institutionalised approach was advanced in the Karaganda region. The essence of this approach was that the system of training on leadership at all levels – region, city, district, village – was integrated to the official party recruitment system. The list of the trained and selected women is signed by the head of branch office of the School, the regional head of the national commission and the head of the regional party office. This means that the reserve list is mandatory for consideration during the general and by elections at each level.
Women’s experience in entering into politics
These findings are based on interviews held with 40 women political representatives from both the Majilis and local government institutions between March and November 2016 in the selected regions of Kazakhstan. The interviewees were asked about their experience of the political recruitment process, their views on their role as politicians and their experience of programmes to promote women’s political participation. Furthermore, the questions concerned their evaluation of the state training on political leadership.
The results can be summarised as follows:
- None of the women mentioned training on political leadership as a factor which helped them to be visible to the local decision makers, facilitating their selection.
- The participants reported the hosting of sessions on proper female behaviour at receptions, how to enhance women’s profiles in photographs etc. In addition, the programme promote the message that women’s participation in politics served to ensure that the specific experience of women and vulnerable groups were represented and taken into account at the policy-making level. Yet, the sort of experiences sought by women and vulnerable groups concerned predominantly the social domain, i.e., healthcare, education, social issues.
- The respondents pointed to an existing discrepancy between the training programme and the realities of the recruitment process. In addition, they raised concerns about the personalised character of political recruitment.
Conclusion and recommendations
Given the findings of the interviews with women politicians, the state policy on the promotion of women in political office presents certain gaps and inconsistencies, which do not produce positive effect on women’s political activity. First, the purpose of the gender policy in terms of women’s promotion in institutional politics is expressed in a delusive way. The shift from political leadership to the leadership in the household contradicts to the original purpose of the gender policy. Second, there is a lack of implementation mechanisms which ensure the link between trained women and political parties as the main institution responsible for political promotion. The Karaganda experience can be considered as a model for cautious replication in other regions. The recruitment mechanism should be more attuned to the local realities, especially in the light of the changes in the political system, i.e., the growing importance of political parties in political recruitment. Finally, the use of leadership trainings as the measure to close the gap of women’s under-representation in political decision-making offices should be reconsidered given the changing political situation and the role of women in society, as compared to the late 1990s. The present situation is that the state measures on women’s promotion in institutional politics and the women’s representation in these institutions are two parallel processes.
This research was supported by a Marie Curie Initial Training Network within the H2020-EU.1.3.1. – Fostering new skills by means of excellent initial training of researchers [project ID: 642709].
The Concept of Family and Gender Policy in Kazakhstan till 2030 (presidential order №384, 6 December 2016, para 1.2
The National Commission on Women and Family Demographic Affairs, 2006. The Gender Equality Strategy 2006-2016, p.13
Government of Kazakhstan, 2011. Combined 3rd and 4th report to CEDAW, p.29
Action Plan on women’s promotion at decision making level out of the most suitable women involved in the government and other social field positions till 2016, 2011. Signed by the head of presidential administration
The National Commission on Women and Family Demographic Affairs, 2006. The Gender Equality Strategy 2006-2016, p.15
 For example, in 1998 the Association of business women supported by the British foundation, UNDP and other international organisations conducted another seminar called “Strategies of women political leadership in democratic societies” which was attended by 30 participants, all of whom run for 1999 elections. However, none of them won.
 Association of Business Women of Kazakhstan, information on the training is available here http://businesswomen.kz/zavershennye-proekty/zhenshchina-i-politika/
Interview with participants of the women’s leadership training and the coachers in Uralsk, Atyrau, October-November 2016. The participants expressed confidence that the main criteria for their success in getting the votes of the local community members was their marital status and the presence of children.
The Association of Businesswomen of Kazakhstan, 2016. Ongoing projects, available at: http://www.businesswomen.kz/home/dejstvuyushchie-proekty/94-klub-zhenshchin-politikov.html
Department of Internal Policy, Karaganda Local Government, 2016. Guideline on implementation of the Gender Equality Strategy, Organisation of the Schools of Women’s Leadership in Karaganda region
The respondents shared not only personal experience but also the general situation on their female colleagues