By Ginger Adams Otis
Sunday, January 18, 2004
A coalition of women's rights organizations in Kyrgyzstan submitted a report to the United Nations this week countering what they expected to be a too-rosy official depiction of the status of women in the former Soviet country.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Seven Kyrgyz nongovernmental organizations this week submitted a report describing the former Soviet country's lack of official commitment to protect and promote women's rights.
Toktokan Boronbaeva, a representative of the political party Elmuras, presented the report on Monday afternoon to a five-person United Nations committee that periodically convenes to assesshow much progress is being made toward genderequality in individual countries.
As five stone-faced representatives of Kyrgyz officials looked on, Boronbaeva contended that the government had shown a "surface and ad-hoc approach" to implementing measures recommended by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the document adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 that serves as an international bill of rights for women. The government, she said, only started compiling its report a few months ago, even though it had four years in which to monitor, research and prepare.
The country's official delegation submitted its report two days later on Wednesday, one of eight that will be presented by CEDAW member countries during the 30th CEDAW session, running through Jan. 30. Countries that sign on to CEDAW agree to pursue a national agenda to end gender discrimination and every four years they report on their progress to a CEDAW committee.
Angela King, an assistant secretary-general at the U.N. and a special adviser on gender issues and the advancement of women, says committee members rely heavily on shadow reports like the one from the Kyrgyz coalition to assess government accounts.
"The committee speaks frankly to official delegates when they have questions about report findings, for example a statistic or fact that looks inaccurate," King told Women's eNews. "But the process is a collaborative one, designed to help states better implement CEDAW articles and not punish them."
The report presented last week by the official Kyrgyz delegation said that the basic rights and interests of women in Kyrgyzstan are being protected by the country's constitution and other national legal codes. The official report states that "discrimination on the grounds of sex, religion or ethnic background is prohibited in Kyrgyzstan under the Constitution, that legal protection exists for women in the areas of personal life, labor relations, and family and social relations and that there is provision for criminal liability for crimes infringing upon the life, health, freedom and dignity of women."
Representatives from the legal clinic Adilet, the Association of Crisis Centers, the political party Elmuras, the Gender Research Center, the Reproductive Health Alliance, the Women Entrepreneurs Support Association and the Women's Support Center stood by their colleague Boronbaeva as she offered examples to dispute the government's claims. Their shadow report said that the Kyrgyz government has made little or no concrete effort to change cultural norms that make it difficult for women to own land, inherit property or money, assert their reproductive rights and live free of violence and sexual harassment in the home and work place. And even though laws protecting women from gender discrimination are on the books, the authors say, the government is doing very little to enforce them.
"The situation has improved in terms of greater awareness," said Gulnara Sheishekeeva, a senior lawyer with the Adilet legal clinic. She added that no real measurable improvements have been made, although there are more nongovernmental organizations involved in women's issues. "This shows an overall lack of commitment," on the part of the government, she said.
In 1927, the Soviet Union launched an offensive against traditional, patriarchal practices deemed oppressive to women, contributing to a variety of gains for women. Before Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991, 34 percent of the seats in Parliament were held by women. Today that figure is down to 6.7 percent, or 7 seats out of 105.
"The biggest women's issue today is to see more women in the decision making level of government that has real impact," said Rosa Aitmatova, president of the Women's Support Center in Bishkek.
Another recommendation in the coalition's shadow CEDAW report is to reduce the money required to register as a political candidate, which currently stands at about $700.
"This is especially difficult in a county where the average monthly salary for a woman is about $34," said Aitmatova. "Profound reform is needed to ensure greater participation by women in the elections process." The report also mentioned that in a recent addendum to the country's constitution, President Askar Akayev outlawed "party lists," which made it illegal to use quotas to obtain gender parity in the political arena.
The authors also described harrowing reports of widespread domestic violence. The coalition called on the government to conduct public-awareness campaigns about the problem and to enforce laws protecting women. Currently, the report claimed, men can be arrested and prosecuted for abusing their wives, but few police do so.
"According to a study done by one NGO, 873 domestic incidents were reported to the police during a seven-month period in 2003," said Boronbaeva. "But 4,000 women come to NGO's annually looking for help with an abusive partner or family member. That indicates there's a big problem with law enforcement officials."
The report also says that so-called bride-stealing (when a young woman is kidnapped by her future husband or sometimes with his family's help and forced to marry) and arranged marriages have been on the increase since 1991, along with sexual violence and harassment. The coalition is asking for increased legislation protecting women from sexual violence and harassment and for more aggressive prosecution of perpetrators.
"Women cannot have equal economic position in a family and are not protected by the law in matters of property division," the shadow report stated. Women's land holdings are not protected in common-law marriages and current law gives land management rights to husbands, the report said. The coalition is recommending changes in law regarding land management and inheritance rights.
The coalition also wants female refugees to be granted equal and independent legal status. Currently female refugees are listed anonymously, as the spouse of a head of the family applying for refugee status.
The coalition is also pushing for more government support for establishing public information campaigns about using contraceptives, avoiding sexually transmitted diseases--including HIV/AIDS--and accessing prenatal care. In particular, it wants these campaigns to extend to low-income and rural women, particularly those infected with HIV.
Coalition members hope their report will lead to the passage and enforcement of laws protecting women from various forms of discrimination. "What we want to see this time is more commitment from the government in the passage of more reforms and laws as well as greater implementation and enforcement," said Sheishekeeva.
But the women aren't letting their hopes get too high.
"I doubt government leaders will react positively to our second report," said Aitmatova, adding the government often ignores organizations like hers.
But that doesn't mean she's giving up. "It will take time," she says, "one step at a time."
Ginger Adams Otis is a writer living in New York City.
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