When times were difficult during the years following independence, the men felt sorry for themselves and the women carried on with the business of providing for the family.
– a Georgian friend explaining the situation there during the early 1990s.
Although the quote above is from Georgia, we heard it echoed by women throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. When we traveled throughout this region, we got the distinct impression that women do much of the work – not only by caring for their families, but providing for them financially as well. Witness a typical scene: groups of men sitting and whiling away the daylight hours on the streets or in cafes, playing backgammon, drinking tea, and eating sunflower seeds. Of course, this stereotype doesn’t apply to every man in the region, but travel in the area for any length of time and you’ll likely notice a pattern.
Yet in spite of the critical economic and social roles women play, men still occupy most of the leadership posts in politics and business. Although the situation appears to be changing slowly in this region, leadership is still considered the domain of men.
Audrey will be the first to admit that we also have a long way to go in the United States on this front. However, our conversations and observations in Central Asia and the Caucasus suggest that a woman’s challenge to “break through” there is much greater than in the West.
This backdrop and contrast is what makes the women we met in the town of Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan so inspiring.
Campaign Season in Karakol
The first evening of our visit to Karakol found us having dinner with our host and her friend and fellow candidate for local office. Banura and Marhaba were two of eight women running in an election coalition called Women Can Do It. Based on their personal and professional experiences, these women could offer local politics a lot. They both obviously knew how to accomplish a great deal while juggling commitments and keeping family first priority.
Between forkfuls, they drafted campaign slogans and augmented their existing campaign strategy to cover critical neighborhoods. They asked us if we had any ideas or lessons based on how campaigns were run and managed in small town America.
We’ve talked about Banura, our host in Karakol in a previous post, so you know a bit about her already. Sixteen years ago, Banura launched Leader, a non-governmental organization (NGO) and volunteer school leadership program whose focus was to encourage students to interact more with the outdoors and their environment. Today, the organization is the largest NGO in town and has expanded its programs into the areas of NGO development, women’s leadership advocacy, NGO legal support, and community public policy dialogue. Its reach is so broad that a microcredit agency is now also loosely affiliated with it.
Banura is always trying to apply to Leader and to Karakol what she’s learned on training programs abroad. As we were departing, she had just applied for a Japanese visa that would enable her to attend a month-long training program there. If you ask her what her husband thinks of all her activities, she’ll reply with a smile that her husband is not a typical Kyrgyz man. Having met him, we can vouch for that. Likewise, Banura is not your typical wife and mother.
Marhaba is a Tatar woman whose family moved to Karakol several generations ago. Though she’s not ethnic Kyrgyz, she happily calls Kyrgyzstan her home. She started her business seven years ago by drying and salting fish in her house and selling her products at the local market.
Since then, her business has grown substantially. She now employs over 60 people and has a large factory complex that not only processes fish imported from places like Scandinavia and Siberia, but her business also dries local fruit and herbs for use in packaged food products. Most of her products cater to hotel restaurants and spas that line the northern shore of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul.
Marhaba’s business success story is impressive anywhere. However, in eastern Kyrgyzstan’s challenging business environment, it is an exceptional achievement.
Election Results and Kyrgyzstan’s Future
A month after our visit to Karakol, we were in touch with Banura about the elections. How had she and Marhaba done?
Unfortunately, neither of them won a seat in the local government, but two other women from the Women Can Do It coalition were successfully elected. Not a bad result considering that this was the group’s first active year in politics. Banura was far from discouraged. She followed up this local political news with the fact that three women from Bishkek and Osh were set to run for seats in the Kyrgyz national parliament. Woman Can Do It planned to support them.
We only spent a short time with Banura and Marhaba, but their dedication and commitment to their families and their community left an impression on us. Their energy not only contributes to Karakol’s development today, but it also serves as a role model for other communities and for future generations.