Challenging gender norms as a mother and activist in Kyrgyzstan

Community leadership roles in Kyrgyzstan can seem unattainable for many women, who face discrimination in public life and are expected to stay at home to look after their families. Shahsanam Akmatalieva is one mother of four challenging perceptions by becoming a leading youth activist in her community.

Suzak, in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, has a rich history of women leaders. Kurmanjan Datka ruled over the region during the turbulent years of Russian annexation in the 19th century, while Urkuya Salieva was a revolutionary who led collectivisation efforts under Soviet rule. In contrast, women today face discrimination when seeking leadership positions.  

According to Suzak society, a woman’s role – especially a young woman – is often limited to obedient wife, homemaker, daughter-in-law or caring mother. Women are considered the property of male family members  – with young women and girls at risk of bride-kidnapping, or being burdened with disproportionate chores in their husband’s households. Women’s opinions on public matters are generally valued less, with men taking responsibility for decision-making and community leadership roles. This can lead to conflict and tension at home, particularly between wives and husbands if the wife is seen to challenge or question the decisions made by the husband or goes against the role she is prescribed. A revival of increasingly fundamental interpretations of religion, culture and tradition is also used to justify violence as a way to re-inforce discriminatory gender norms and further push women from leadership roles.

Saferworld and partners have been working to develop and support youth leaders to tackle security and social issues affecting communities, including those relating to gender norms. Shahsanam Akmatalieva, 25, signed up for a Saferworld-supported youth programme (youth is defined in Kyrgyzstan as between 14-28 years) to learn about tackling security challenges facing young people. As part of the programme, she participated in trainings that outlined practical ways to address these challenges, developed her leadership skills, and outlined conflict prevention concepts. Following the trainings, Shahsanam worked with local police and other residents of the community to develop action plans that would address some of the problems that they had identified, in particular those related to gender norms in society that can cause or perpetuate violence, including gender-based and domestic violence.

Together with other participants of the youth programme, she also visited The Hague to learn about the work of major international organisations, including the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and the United Nations Organization for Prevention of Chemical Weapons. As part of the programme, Shahsanam presented her research on domestic violence in Suzak, looking at how women report incidents to the police. “The project has given me a path to new knowledge and skills”, she said. “I learnt how to spend my time in a productive way, to participate in the life of the community I live in. The important thing is that my dream came true. I always wanted to combine work, study, career, family and travels.”

Despite pressure from her family and her community to conform, Shahsanam continues to be both a mother and a youth activist. She became a member of the local crime prevention centre – the community-police platform where security problems are identified and addressed – where she represents young women and offers ideas for joint solutions.  Her example has stirred a lot of opinions in the community, both positive and negative. But Shahsanam is proud of being able to both carry on with her family life in addition to her activism.

When asked about her influence on the community, Shahsanam feels that she contributed to positively changing community members’ perceptions about women’s roles. “Recently I heard from a woman who sells milk,” she said. “My example helped her change her attitudes towards her daughter-in-law. Before, she had wanted her to stop her studies at the medical department of the local university, and only focus on her family. But later, after seeing my work in the community, she changed her mind and decided to allow her to continue studying. Women used to think of ‘active women’ just as those who are not financially supported by their husbands and therefore need to lead active lives outside the home – but now I think my example helped them understand why I am a community activist and what I am trying to achieve.”

Saferworld works with 24 communities in the south of Kyrgyzstan to promote youth leadership and cooperation between people of different ethnic groups in order to address local safety and security issues. Together with police and other security providers, these young people develop initiatives that tackle issues relating to conflict, insecurity and discrimination.

Learn more about our work on gender in Kyrgyzstan here.