Challenges and opportunities to stand up for gender equality

Women and girls in Central Asia still face deeply entrenched inequalities, according to a group of Fellows from the John Smith Trust network who met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 5-6 March.

Sixteen Fellows – both women and men – from six countries in the region came together for an Ideas Exchange to discuss the most pressing challenges affecting women and girls in the region. A further 12 joined remotely. Fellows also shared their learning, expertise and successful approaches to tackling gender inequality.

Regina Sokolova from Tajikistan and Aigul Adzhieva from Kyrgyzstan, both John Smith Fellows since 2018, proposed the topic. They then worked with Kate Nevens and Ellie Hutchinson from Scotland-based organisation the Collective to plan the workshop. They drew on their recent work on Zero Tolerance, a project which explores what works to change attitudes towards gender equality in Scotland.

Barriers to empowerment

Fellows discussed their lived experiences and research of societal norms and stereotypes about women, girls, men and boys. Together, they explored how these perpetuate barriers to women’s safety, leadership and participation.

Obstacles to women’s empowerment fell into three broad areas: sexual and gender-based violence, leadership and education. As these issues are inter-connected, policy and legal changes are not enough on their own to tackle inequality and violence but must be backed up by social and economic reforms, as well as changes in attitude.

The scale of the challenge calls for governments to develop a long-term strategic vision and involve leaders from both government and civil society in implementing it. One way of doing this could be through national action plans.

Too few women in politics

As women are best placed to understand the issues that affect them, they need to be included in decision-making processes. Despite this, there are still very few senior female politicians in Central Asia. Bella Gazdiyeva said: “For instance, there is only one female minister in the Kazakh government. Such appointments appear tokenistic rather than representing real progress.” And Tajikistan currently has just two female ministers in its cabinet of 18: the Minister of Labour, Employment and Migration, and the Minister of Culture.

Some of the women Fellows reflected on their own difficulties in pursuing careers traditionally reserved for men. They were familiar with the expression “women have long hair but a short brain”, reflecting a widely held belief that men are better decision-makers.

“It feels risky to be promoted before the age of 30. People assume you must have had help or be someone’s mistress, rather than that you are smart and have relevant experience,” Bella said. “Conversely, a woman might consider it ‘safer’ to build her career in her fifties, but then employers do not want her because she is considered old.”

Tackling gender-based violence

Fellows identified the need to focus on long-term, incremental changes in attitudes to challenge gender stereotypes and the consequences of such stereotypes. Domestic violence and sexual harassment (online and in public, including in the workplace) are partly a consequence of attitudes engrained by long-held traditions and education. In Central Asian societies, religion plays an important role in shaping morals and Fellows discussed how religious leaders could help embed the type of morality that condemns violence in the home.

“To be effective, legal changes and community support must be backed up by economic reforms,” said Umida Usmonova, from Uzbekistan. “Changing domestic violence law and enforcing it to better support women is a step in the right direction. But if a woman must still rely on her husband for money to feed herself and her children, she may not be able to access these rights.”

Fellows also noted the growing role social media plays in holding people accountable for sexual and gender-based violence. In some Central Asian countries, women who are harassed in the street can post their experiences on social media and government institutions will follow-up. But as Shahla Ismayilova, from Azerbaijan, said: “Many women are reluctant to share their experiences so publicly. There is still little protection from harassment in the workplace and very few measures to tackle online aggression towards women.”

Involving men in the conversation

Engrained stereotypes also put pressure on men. The man continues to be seen as the breadwinner and head of the household. He can feel ashamed if he does not provide for his family, even if his wife is earning well. Malika Sharipova, from Uzbekistan, said: “Even when I bought a car with my own money, others wanted to believe that my husband had bought it.”

The importance of including men in conversations about tackling gender inequality is something all Fellows agree on. Ainur Kanafina, from Kazakhstan, said: “Promoting gender equality means discussing issues faced by both women and men. Men need to have a space to discuss the gender norms that they are facing. As for female empowerment, it is important to include men in the conversation too, as they also can be agents of change.”

Shamshod Yunusov, from Uzbekistan, reflected: “This discussion has really opened my eyes. Considering these norms and stereotypes is making me realise how my own behaviour is perpetuating barriers for my daughter. I’m thinking about how girls are expected to have limited interests and a limited voice. They are pushed into studying different things to boys and then working in different things, often careers which earn a lot less.”

Educating girls and boys

From their own experiences, Fellows said stereotypes were reinforced from a young age, particularly through education and family structures. “There was an expectation for me to do well at school, but not to be ‘smart’,” said Regina. “This meant that I was not supposed to show that I knew all the answers and was better than the boys.”

Fellows noted that boys too face a huge amount of pressure to behave in certain ways. For example, they are expected to be strong, brave, and not to show their emotions. This can also be harmful for how they cope with challenges in later life.

One of the longer-term goals from the workshop was a focus on changing attitudes among the next generation. The group want to organise a programme of events to educate girls and boys. They also want to involve parents in the conversation and break down taboos around sex education. This is crucial to tackling gender-based violence and high teenage pregnancy rates.

Future collaboration

Fellows have created a Telegram channel where they’ve started mapping their expertise and needs so they can support one another in gender-related projects across the region.

Bella said: “I sincerely hope that through our efforts my daughter won’t face the problems which I have faced, and my granddaughter won’t face the problems faced by either two generations.”


Find out more about the John Smith Trust fellowship programmes