Article appeared in The Guardian, 26 March 2015
"When Guliaim Aiylchy opened her cafe-bar in Bishkek two years ago, it wasn’t just because she wanted to run her own business or make money. The 31-year-old also wanted to support other women in the city.
Sitting at a wooden table in the Chocolate Bar in Erkindik Boulevard – by day a cafe serving food and coffees, by night a cocktail bar – Aiylchy explains why she only employs women.
“Women are better to work with. If women want to work in restaurants, they’re only taken on as waitresses, not bar workers, which is seen as man’s work,” she says through an interpreter.
“I don’t know why that is. I teach women to make cocktails and work the bar so they can take that skill somewhere else. It’s seen as more prestigious working in a bar than waitressing.”
She also sells crafts produced by women, who sometimes work from the cafe, and allocates a percentage of her profits to support women who want to set up new businesses.
“I support women opening businesses. I try to train them to be economically independent.”
Her motivation to support women comes from what she sees as a slow erosion of women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. She noticed a change five years ago, when she returned from a four-year stint in Turkey.
For her, the sign of shifting sands was the increasing number of women in the capital wearing hijabs. “There were a lot more women in headscarves when I came back,” says Aiylchy, the single mother of a five-year-old daughter.
She sees male influence behind the trend. Although not from a Muslim family, two of her sisters began wearing hijabs when they married Muslim men; one of them later removed hers when she got a divorce. Aiylchy has seen something similar happen with friends, too.
“It feels like things are going backwards,” she says. “In my family, I grew up believing that men and women are equal. I was surprised to find other families are not like that.”
She worries that, by agreeing to wear the headscarf, the women of today will have a negative impact on those of tomorrow. “It will be even easier to take away the rights of the next generation. Our daughters and granddaughters will have fewer and fewer rights,” says Aiylchy.
A report published by the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, which represents more than 85 organisations, said the influence of religious ideology – both Islamic and Christian – “substantially contributes to discrimination against women”, especially in rural areas. The study suggested such influence had gradually increased in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country’s independence in 1991.
“Islam has a strong influence on women, how to dress and act and it’s now being discussed widely, in mosques and on television, that women should live moral lives,” says Bermet Stakeeva, programme officer at the forum.
On paper, though, the country looks progressive. Over the past 25 years, Kyrgyzstan has ratified more than 30 international conventions upholding women’s rights and empowerment. The country also signed up to the Beijing platform for action to advance women’s rights in 1995, and the Cairo agreement a year earlier promising to uphold women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. It promised to meet the UN millennium development goals. Gender equality is enshrined in the country’s constitution, gender action plans have been drawn up, and parliament has 30% quotas for women. Kyrgyzstan also has legislation protecting women from domestic violence, liberal abortion laws, and has set the legal age of marriage at 18.
However, a lack of funds and political will, and religious conservatism that casts women as inferior to men, means high ideals have rarely been translated into action.
The latest World Bank figures show that Kyrgyzstan has the highest number of maternal deaths in the region, and the country will not meet the millennium development target to reduce maternal mortality rates by three-quarters. The number of women who die from pregnancy-related causes stands at 75 for every 100,000 live births, which is about three times higher than neighbouring Kazakhstan, where the population is significantly bigger.
The number of married women using contraception has dropped from 60% in 1997 to about 36% in 2012, partly because of the influence of religious leaders, partly due to the prohibitive cost of modern family planning methods, which is pushing some women towards abortion as a cheaper option. The Reproductive Health Alliance of Kyrgyzstan (RHAK), a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, estimates the monthly cost of oral contraception is $5.The average basic salary for a doctor is less than $80 a month.
Sex is still a taboo subject, and sex education in schools is rare or non-existent, making the large youth population – more than 30% of people are aged 10-24 – particularly vulnerable to sexual transmitted diseases.
Violence against women remains common and is carried out with relative impunity. And while the official age of marriage is 18, this can be reduced by a year if local authorities deem there to be a “good reason”. Many marriages go unregistered, particularly in rural areas, and the practice of bride kidnapping remains widespread, despite being illegal.
Rising poverty levels over the past five years have also complicated the picture for women. Roughly 38% of the population still lives below the national poverty line of $1.50 a day.
Galina Chirkina, executive director of RHAK, said the government’s support for women’s rights lacked both funding and clear strategies.
For example, there is provision in law to teach sex education in school but it’s not being implemented, she says. “There is no funding or support, and teachers don’t have the skills. No one made a programme. There was no specific training for teachers, no manuals to teach children in the school system. And nobody told them they had to teach it. There are also cultural barriers … and the influence of religious groups, who were very aggressive and negative about it.”
The RHAK was called before a parliamentary hearing in 2013 over complaints that sex education booklets it produced for young people ran counter to cultural beliefs. The complaints were made by members of the Russian Orthodox church, Muslim leaders and conservative MPs.
But women’s groups are pushing back.
Earlier this month, Bishkek staged Kyrgyzstan’s first national women’s forum, attracting representatives from more than 1,000 groups nationwide, as well as politicians and female ministers. Ahead of November’s parliamentary elections, there were calls for a specific government ministry to address gender equality and for the reproductive health bill currently being debated by parliament to be beefed up.
Local women’s groups, supported by the forum of women NGOs, are developing their own policies that have women at the centre.
For the moment, Ailychy plans to stay in Bishkek, to support women and fight from the inside. “I want to believe it will be good,” she says."
Picture: Galina Chirkina, Executive Director of the Reproductive Health Alliance of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Liz Ford for the Guardian.