Unnoticed by many, Kazakhstan now ranks ahead of some of its EU partners according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report for 2010. Kazakhstan is in 41st place with Slovenia in 42nd, France in 46th, Italy in 74th and Hungary in 79th.
This ranking is undoubtedly a major achievement for a country that has only been independent for 19 years. Of course, we are helped by Kazakhstan's history as part of the USSR, a country that deliberately emancipated women in its effort to remake society, including giving them the right to vote as early as 1924. Of course, this right to vote did not translate into greater democracy in Soviet conditions since, as Stalin observed, “the people who count votes matter more than those who cast them”.
Why is gender equality important for Kazakhstan? Firstly, unlike the USSR, we see the issue as an essential component of real democracy. Kazakhstan is committed to developing its democratic system. Not surprisingly, given its age, Kazakhstan still has a very long way to go to bring many of its democratic standards in line with those of mature democracies.
We believe that raising the status of women and safeguarding their and their children's position in society is vital to the strengthening of our society and state. Bringing women into productive roles in the economy will also help strengthen our democracy. We also start with the premise that there can be no effective democracy without a strong economic foundation.
Women are already playing an important role in Kazakhstan's economy, and we are sure this will grow as we introduce greater innovation and reduce our dependence on raw materials. We are already seeing some of our policies bear fruit. We have been promoting the role of women in business, particularly, small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The proportion of women in this increasingly important sector of our economy and its future engine of growth is nearly 50%.
We are encouraging the development of “distance working” and freelance working arrangements that can bring women into the economy in non-traditional ways. At the same time, it is important that women spend enough time caring for their families. In this respect, we have to ensure that our policies do not promote unhealthy living. One worrying example of gender inequality in Kazakhstan is the fact that women live on average more than eleven years longer than men. Male life expectancy is around 62. In France, by comparison, the figures are nearly 78 for males and 84 for women. We are working hard to improve medical provision throughout society and actively promoting healthy living practices so that we can make up the ground.
At the same time, Kazakhstan is a leader among post-Soviet countries in establishing dedicated structures to protect women from violence. Across the country, there are now over 20 crisis centres offering assistance to women exposed to domestic violence.
Global experience shows that women invariably have stronger intuition than men. They are also generally more adaptable to changing conditions. These are important qualities during a time of rapid change in a country's economy, particularly when the goal is to introduce greater innovation. One of Kazakhstan's challenges, together with many other states both in Central Asia and beyond, is to capitalise on women's creative potential and to encourage it to be put to the benefit of the economy and the country as a whole.
Kazakhstan is still at the start of the road to democracy. We are keen to learn from the experience of others and to integrate different approaches from the East, the West, the South and the North. This also applies to gender issues and is consistent with our overall approach of developing dialogue between different civilisations, cultures and religions.
During Kazakhstan's Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe this year, we initiated the first ever supplementary meeting as part of the OSCE's human dimension of security on “Promoting Gender Balance and Participation of Women in Political and Public Life”. A total of 53 countries participated in the largest ever meeting of this kind that focused on promoting gender equality and improving gender balance at decision-making levels.
While Kazakhstan has made progress on gender issues, we are still very far from achieving our goal of real gender equality. Only 14% of MPs are women as against an average of 22% in OSCE countries. At the decision-making level in our civil service, the proportion of women is only 9.5%. However, our results to date are an important start and we encourage those people who care about democratic progress in Kazakhstan not to overlook our gender promotion efforts.