New law marks watershed for women in Kazakhstan

On 15 April, Kazakhstan passed a new law that criminalises domestic violence and strengthens measures to protect women and children. Civil servant Naila Mukhtarova explains why this is an important moment for Kazakh society.

Naila Mukhtarova, a John Smith Fellow (Kazakhstan, 2017), is Deputy Chairwoman of the Committee on Youth and Family Affairs in the Kazakh Ministry of Culture and Information. Her department has been working towards this law and is responsible for some of its provisions, including an emergency contact centre and family support centres.

“The law on ensuring women’s rights and children’s safety aims to strengthen the institution of the family, tighten responsibility for manifestations of violence against women and children, and ensure the safety of minors,” she says.

Family support centres

The law identifies an authorised body in the field of family policy, whose functions are assigned to the Ministry of Culture and Information. It also creates a legal foundation for a 111 emergency contact centre and a network of family support centres. These centres will have an important role to play in supporting families going through difficult times.

Naila says: “Today, 68 family support centres operate in the regions to provide comprehensive assistance to families. Our Ministry is transforming the activities of these centres to make their work more effective. They will provide psychological, social and legal assistance to families in need – and we plan to increase their number to 200.”

Criminalising domestic violence

All acts of domestic violence, which previously came under Kazakhstan’s administrative code, are now covered by its criminal code. There’s a new focus on prevention and behaviour change through psychological support for the perpetrators of violence. And, in exceptional cases, courts can ban the perpetrator from living with their family for a period.

Naila says: “Strengthening responsibility has a preventative value, forming in potential aggressors an understanding of the necessity of punishment and motivating them to abandon violent actions. Criminalisation is also a necessary measure to ensure justice and protect the rights of victims of violence.”

The law has strengthened penalties for the rape or murder of a child, specifying life imprisonment for these crimes. It also criminalises propaganda, inducement and assistance in committing suicide.

Changing social attitudes

It’s taken more than five years to get the law through parliament, due opposition from certain sections of society. But according to Naila, “Kazakh society is ready for this law now. It’s showing zero tolerance towards any kind of violence. I’m convinced that high-profile cases of domestic violence in Kazakhstan means the population is prepared to accept the law. Our task now is to educate and inform the public.”

She adds: “In Kazakh society, as in other Central Asian countries, there’s a problem with stigmatisation and stereotyping of women. But we shouldn’t confuse our traditions with stereotypes. The role of women in the history of Kazakhstan has always been high – we’ve had females in the military, female academics. Gender equality has never been an alien concept to our society.”

Despite this, in Kazakhstan today, only a few women are in political leadership positions. in 2020, the president set a quota of 30% women candidates on party lists, giving women more opportunities to be elected to parliament. But currently only 18% of MPs are female, when women make up 52% of the population.

Belief in gender equality

Naila says: “The issue of gender equality is ongoing and there’s more work to do to dismantle stereotypes and stigmas in society. Perhaps this belief is pushing me forward. My name translates from Persian as “achiever”. And I’m deeply convinced that your name plays a big role in your fate.”

Naila’s parents, who worked in a school, instilled a love of reading and learning and she was an excellent student. Now a mother herself, Naila is instilling similar values in her two young children.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in the capital of Kazakhstan, she won the Bolashak presidential scholarship to study for a master’s degree at Charles University in Prague. “I’m a political scientist and a demographer,” she says “I’m currently completing my PhD in political science. And since 2011, my work has been related to public administration in the social sphere.”

John Smith Trust Fellowship

When Naila undertook her John Smith Trust Fellowship in 2017, she was working in employment policy. Her action plan was to create a roadmap for the employment of workers who had been made redundant.

“During the programme, I was able not only to develop an action plan, but also to establish contacts with stakeholders, and study the UK’s experience in employment issues,” she says. “It was during a time when Kazakhstan was introducing tools to transfer some functions of the state in the field of employment to private employment agencies. And in this regard, I gained considerable experience and knowledge.”

Career progression

When Naila returned to Kazakhstan, she helped develop a memorandum on the employment of redundant employees between the Government and large enterprises. This ensures that each worker has an individual plan for reemployment either through retraining, moving to a related company or receiving a government grant to start their own enterprise. The programme is still going strong.

Now Naila works on family policy at the Ministry of Culture and Information. “It wasn’t a very big career transition for me as it’s still in the social policy sphere,” she says. “Many families have economic problems, so I use employment policies and work with public employment centres and the Ministry of Labour in this field.

“In fact, economic violence is one type of violence against women and girls. It directly correlates with employment issues as many girls, especially in the south of Kazakhstan, don’t finish their education. They get married and their lack of qualifications leads to a lack of economic power. This leaves them vulnerable to economic, physical and psychological violence.”

Believe in yourself

Naila keeps in touch with John Smith Fellows from Kazakhstan and across Central Asia, a professional network which she values highly. “We have worked on some mutual projects with social entrepreneurship and the sustainable development goals,” she says. “Some of my cohort in 2017 worked on women’s empowerment. Now my work directly relates to gender policy, sometimes I refer to their reports and can ask them questions.”

So, what advice does she have for future John Smith Fellows who want to bring about social change?  “I have a favourite movie, In Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith. As the main character of this film says, ‘Always believe in yourself. And no one can convince you that you will not be able to achieve success.’