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13.07.2017

LET’S TALK with Elaine M. Conkievich

Elaine M. Conkievich, UN Women Representative in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Elaine M. Conkievich, UN Women Representative in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Head of UN Women Multi-Country Office for Central Asia in Kazakhstan, talks about why gender equality is not just about promoting women’s rights

Elaine M. Conkievich, Head of the UN Women Multi-Country Office in Central Asia, talks about her mission in Central Asia and Kazakhstan, how UN Women helps the Government of Kazakhstan to improve gender equality and why gender equality is not just about promoting women's rights. Today, KIMEP student -  Aiganym Seitkazina, Bachelor of Social Sciences and International Relations at KIMEP university , speaks with Ms. Conkievich. 

As far as I know, you participated in the Model United Nations, which is the simulation of the real UN. Can you say that participation in the Model UN affected your choice of your profession?

I participated in the Model UN as a high school student, and it definitely influenced my desire to work for the UN. Actually, I was interested in math and science, but after Model UN my career changed and I became involved in international politics. I even went on to write my Masters thesis about the UN and preventive diplomacy.

When did you come to Kazakhstan?

In this current position, I came 2,5 years ago. However, I had the pleasure to come to Kazakhstan before, as I had worked with Central Asia in previous positions during my career, as I was engaging with Kazakhstan quite intensively. I also came to Kazakhstan during the Soviet period as a tourist in 1990.

What is your mission in Central Asia and Kazakhstan?

UN Women is the newest of the UN agencies. It was created due to the importance that the global community places on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Our office has been there for quite some time, as there was UNIFEM, which worked on similar issues, so we are the outgrowth of UNIFEM. However, our mission and the mandate that we have is to help the governments of Central Asia to live up to their international commitments in the area of gender equality. As part of this, we work with the governments to promote women’s economic empowerment, to end violence against women, and in the areas of women’s role in peace and security as well as gender responsive national planning and budgeting. 

Are UN Women offices in all the countries or in particular ones?

UN Women is present in over 80 countries. We also have a global mandate to track and follow what all the countries are doing. We are present in those countries, where the government has an interest and shows commitment, and where there are possibilities to implement programs from a financial point of view.

Are you involved in the normative structure? Do you help the Government of Kazakhstan to improve the legal basis of gender equality?

Most definitely, this is the work we do. This is one of the six impact areas UN Women works on. We do assessments of current legislation: weaknesses and areas needed to be improved. For example in Kazakhstan, we are doing this particularly regarding domestic violence and are working with the General Prosecutor’s office and National Commission on Women, Family and Demographic Policy. We provide suggestions, and we have experts working on the analysis of the legislation and implementation, emphasizing not only what is on the paper but also what is in practice, because problems come with the implementation of the laws. We are also in regular contact with the government. Input is given in oral as well as in written forms, such as assessments and suggestions on areas that need improvement.

Do you keep track of legal changes?

Yes, of course. When they have changes or drafts, the government might send it to us, and we give feedback on the regular basis. For example, last year when the Concept of Family and Gender Policy was drafted, we were heavily engaged in that, receiving drafts and providing feedback. Now, this policy was signed by the President last year in December.

Gender equality is a very extensive topic, but what do you personally imply by gender equality?

Gender equality means that men and women, boys and girls are equal in terms of opportunities and equal access to opportunities. That means that it is not that men and women are the same. They are obviously biologically different. However, equality means that they have equal opportunities when it comes to employment. If a woman decides to do hard physical labor, become an engineer or a miner, she should not be forbidden from that. Also, we imply equal educational opportunities, as well as domestically, that the burden of work in the household is shared among men and women.

If women are not allowed to do certain jobs in practice, although it is legally possible, what can be done?

We work on the prevention of discrimination and address issues in a more overarching way. We do not consult individual women. We want to work on achieving transformative changes. This means that overall policies and approach of the government do not in any way discriminate or restrict women from what they aspire to do. We know that women are not restricted from education, but the issue comes after getting an education, as they do not always pursue their career. Therefore, what we want to ensure that there are no blockages on the way. It requires change in the mentality of the population and encouragement for women to pursue less traditional careers. This can be done through the educational system that helps women pursue careers they want after their education, for example, in engineering and computer science. 

Do I understand correctly that in Kazakhstan gender inequality still exists and it shall be regulated?

No country in the world has yet achieved gender equality. In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, a deadline of 2030 has been set for achieving gender equality around the world. In Kazakhstan, one big gap is women in decision making, particularly in the political and governmental sector. In the parliament, the situation is not so bad, as in the lower house you have 27,1% of females, but in the senate there are only 8,4% women, and thus more women should be appointed there. Also at the ministerial level, there is no gender balance as only one minister is female. At the local level in some regions, women’s participation is high. But overall for women in decision making, at the global level Kazakhstan could have a higher ranking with some changes in this area. Health issues shall also be addressed, not only for women but also for men.

What can be done at the government level to decrease this disparity?

One way is through placing quotas and setting minimal requirement of at least 30%, although 40% is of course better. More programs shall be put in place to encourage women to move into decision-making roles, so they have education, skills and training they need for management positions. Also in the business sector, in the big businesses number of women on boards is in the single digits.

Do you have a global strategy in terms of gender equality, or are there separate strategies for each country?

UN Women has a global strategy endorsed by its Executive Board. We are in the last year of our four-year strategy. Now a new Strategic Plan is being developed for the period 2018-2021, and the draft is ready and is being discussed. The current global strategy is centered on six priority areas, which we call “impact areas”. Those are priorities of how we work in countries. Those six areas are concerned with normative work, such as legislation, the implementation of international commitments, women’s role in decision-making, ending violence against women, women’s economic empowerment, women’s role in peace and security and gender responsive national planning and budgeting. When it comes to the regional level, here in Kazakhstan, we develop our own strategic note based on those six areas. We consider the six areas and see which of those areas are most relevant for us to be involved in. In Kazakhstan we focus most on ending violence against women and gender responsive national planning and budgeting, which also includes women’s economic empowerment with a focus specifically on socially vulnerable women, because these women are not captured by the work of other agencies.

What is the hardest and most exciting parts of your job?

I do not view the work as hard at all, but I can say it might be challenging. In Kazakhstan in particular, the engagement we have with the the government is very good and encouraging. They are open to discussing sensitive topics. Of course, things take time, because results do not come overnight, as it is a systematic process. Overall, we have a good team here and we enjoy what we do. We are busy now as we are involved in EXPO and we have a kiosk in the international pavilion there. As EXPO is a very good initiative, and it is about the energy of the future and the future is everybody, men and women. Our purpose is to raise awareness on the role of women in sustainable energy. 

How big is your team?

We have about 20 people. We have colleagues in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan as well. We have only five men working for us, but we encourage men to apply and work for us, they will be equally considered. 

Besides gender inequality, do you also deal with protection of women? Now there are 34 crisis centers. How many women come to the centers to ask for help?

UN Women does not have crisis centers; they are mainly operated by non-government organizations throughout the country. Our job is to help them support themselves. Unfortunately, demand is more than the number of crisis centers or shelters. According to official statistics, roughly 40 000 women applied to the Ministry of the Interior last year, which is police and law enforcement bodies. Nevertheless, to consider that the vast majority of females may not feel comfortable to go to the authorities, so that is probably not the full picture. In the crisis centers around 9 000 women appealed for help last year. What we have done from our side was, for example, we produced brochures with the list and contact numbers of crisis centers and they were distributed to the population last year in the framework of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

How did the issue of gender equality get its shape after the independence of Kazakhstan? How would you assess the current status?

Well some things have changed, but other things have gone backwards. I did Soviet studies and worked in several post-Soviet countries. In the Soviet period, there were some very good things, such as work opportunities and better system of child care (kindergartens) to support women who work, and approach to that was more balanced to gender equality. Now it has regressed. In the last ten years, Kazakhstan has had a gender strategy and policy document to guide it, laws on domestic violence and a gender equality  were implemented. All these things support gender equality, and we can see improvements in the educational sector and in the area of health provision. Still, more needs to be done in terms of reproductive health of both men and women. Overall, positive steps are taken, and Kazakhstan wants to have progress and advancement. 

Do you remember any significant project you managed in Central Asia or Kazakhstan that brought salient results?

A couple of things we have done very well. One is in advocacy and communicating, raising awareness about women’s rights and gender equality. Globally UN Women has very good campaigns, for example, HeForShe campaign, which engages men and boys in the discussion and action for gender equality. That has been a good campaign and it was launched here in Kazakhstan as well, involving fathers. We also focused on women rights in business. Last year the first company in Kazakhstan, AB restaurants signed the Women’s Empowerment Principles, in which they committed to gender equality. As one of their projects to support gender equality, AB restaurants and UN Women jointly implemented the HeForShe campaign to raise awareness of the gender wage gap. In addition, we have 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign that takes place every year from 25 of November to 10 of December to raise awareness and take action to end violence against women. We also worked with women who are HIV positive, to help them become leaders and experts. I would say these were the most significant actions we have done. 

Let us talk about Kazakhstan in general. What is your first memory when you came here and what did strike you most?

Kazakhstan has a lot to offer to tourists, such a beautiful nature. Kazakhstan is doing good to promote itself as a tourism destination and the development of Astana is quite remarkable as well. EXPO is also helping to attract tourists. It is quite impressive the goals that Kazakhstan puts for itself, and what it can really achieve in quite a short timeframe. 

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