Women fight for occupational gender equality in Kazakhstan

How do you change a law that’s almost a century old and based on gender inequality?

This month John Smith Fellow Aigerim Kamidola published Women That Are Free to Choose, which documents the ongoing campaign for equal labour rights and opportunities for women in Kazakhstan.

The publication marks the one-year anniversary of Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev signing a set of amendments to the Labour Code of Kazakhstan repealing a list of jobs prohibited for women to undertake that had existed in Kazakhstan since 1930. This was the result of a campaign by working women and grassroots advocates, led by Aigerim, an expert in international human rights law, gender and multidisciplinary research and practices.

Prior to the 2021 amendments, women were banned by law from occupations deemed “harmful and hazardous”. Like many post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan inherited in 1990 a Soviet-era law which contained a list of prohibited jobs, ostensibly to “ensure protection of maternity and women’s reproductive health”. Despite occasional reductions made to the list, 229 occupational bans for women remained in 2018. These included profitable jobs in sectors such as transportation and resulted in lower wages for women, who are paid 32.2% less than men in Kazakhstan.

Women That Are Free to Choose

Aigerim, a John Smith Fellow, was front and centre in leading the advocacy campaign to repeal the occupational ban. To document this momentous step towards gender equality in Kazakhstan and highlight the years long, hard-fought campaign and the visible and often-invisible work women have contributed to it, Aigerim wrote Women That Are Free to Choose: How the List of Jobs Banned for Women Has Been Repealed in Kazakhstan (Also available in Russian). It is a beautifully illustrated booklet made in collaboration with illustrator Lena Nemik and designer Malika Kolesova.

Aigerim says: “When I started working on the repeal of the ban on women’s employment in 2018, there was little public awareness about its existence, even in seemingly professional circles of civil society organisations, practising lawyers, and representatives of state authorities alike.” The ban was dismissed by many as a “surprising historical anachronism”, one that had little real impact as women were believed to have left the workforce of these banned occupations long ago.

However, through extensive advocacy work, Aigerim discovered the opposite to be true. Women had been working at banned jobs, albeit informally. This meant lower pay and no social security benefits or labour safeguards.

Gender discrimination

Women That Are Free to Choose centres on the story of Almagul Kabylbekova, a female heavy-duty truck driver from Temiratu and an active participant in the advocacy campaign. Aigerim met Almagul after she was harassed and fired from her job in June 2019 for posting a video of her at work on YouTube.

Almagul was unaware of the list which prohibited her from having this job, she said: “They [security officers] interrogated me about why I posted the video and told me I was not allowed to perform this job because of the list. That I can work “quietly” but not put my work on public display. That was when I learned about its existence.”

She was forced into ‘voluntary resignation’ and Almagul’s employer also backdated records of her as a driver of a lighter vehicle. Almagul had no choice but to take on a series of informal lower-paid jobs without social security benefits or labour safeguards until eventually getting employed as a heavy-truck driver abroad where it was legal.

Advocacy and awareness-raising campaign

Almagul’s story and active participation in the advocacy campaign was crucial to its success, providing a personal, human narrative for advocacy efforts.

Aigerim highlighted Almagul’s case to run a far-reaching, successful campaign which gathered momentum. She submitted reports to the UN Human Rights Council, CEDAW, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and communicated with the International Labour Organisation and World Bank. All unanimously recommended that Kazakhstan revoke the ban.

In early August 2021, the advocacy campaign resulted in Elvira Azimova, commissioner for human rights in Kazakhstan, writing to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, proposing to repeal the norm that restricted women from heavy and hazardous jobs from Kazakhstan’s Labour Code. By the run up to the parliamentary elections in January 2021, the issue had become an objective in the Nur Otan ruling party’s 2025 election programme. In May 2021, the bill on repealing the ban went to parliament and, by mid-June, to the government’s Human Rights Priority Action Plan.

Entrenched gender inequality

However, as Aigerim’s booklet highlights, while the list of prohibited occupations has been abolished, it is only the first crucial step towards ensuring equal labour rights and opportunities for women. Almagul, the heavy-duty truck driver, said: “I am happy that it has been revoked, but it has not affected my career in any way.”

The repeal of the ban is symbolic in shifting away from a paternalistic approach to women as mothers and individuals in need of guardianship to a substantive equality – one based on women’s agency, freedom to exercise their reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. However, in practice, the imperative to tackle these deeply entrenched norms and to take further measures to facilitate women’s access to these occupations remains.

In February 2022 the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women highlighted “the lack of information on any measures taken to facilitate access for women to such occupations.” In response, Women That Are Free to Choose sets out the measures needed to facilitate women’s access, including the adoption of temporary special measures to encourage recruitment, as well as educational and media campaigns to raise awareness and change perceptions. The booklet asserts that although the repeal is a “significant step that deserves recognition and credit”, the work on implementing the repeal in practice and advocating for women’s equal labour opportunities has just begun.

How we support change-makers

As a John Smith Fellow, Aigerim is part of our collaborative community of change-makers across Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, who work on governance, social justice and climate action to improve the well-being of their societies.

In 2019, she joined our fellowship programme, which gives exceptional young professionals the chance to gain detailed insights into the values, ways of working and challenges faced by people and institutions in the UK.

We also create ongoing opportunities for Fellows in our network to connect with and learn from the experiences of counterparts working in the public, private and civil society sectors, as well as high-level leaders, in the UK and across the region. Through our programmes, we support our Fellows to achieve their vision for fairer, more sustainable and inclusive societies.

Find out more about our programmes