Population of women: 8,256,700/15,753,500
Life expectancy of women (at birth): 72
School life expectancy for women: 16
Women's adult literacy: 100
Unemployment of women: 9.8%
Women engaged in economic activity: 66%
Source: U.N. Statistics Division, Social Indicators, updated June 2011
last updated July 21, 2010
The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan provides for equality before the law and courts, and prohibits discrimination based on several grounds, including sex (Article 14). Kazakhstan has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which obliges it to take broad based efforts to equalize gender relations in the country, and the Kazakh family code is facially non-discriminatory regarding gender. Kazakhstan has a nationally coordinated gender equality Action Plan, and passed a new Law on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women in early 2010. The minimum age for marriage is eighteen (although earlier marriages occur approximately 7% of the time), polygamy is illegal and men and women are officially guaranteed equal inheritance rights. The Social Institutions and Gender Index, developed by the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, has ranked Kazakhstan third among the world’s developing nations on a scale of gender equality and opportunity.
In practice however, the U.S. Department of State and many Kazakh groups note that despite legal and constitutional prohibitions of some forms of discrimination and sexual harassment, the problems facing women remain widespread in the country. Kazakhstan’s anti-discrimination laws have failed to produce any prosecutions, and Kazakh NGOs have long called them insufficient to address gender inequality. Banned under Soviet rule (although never fully wiped out), post-independence years have seen a resurgence of non-consensual “bride kidnapping,” especially in rural Kazakhstan. This practice, in which a man kidnaps and forces into marriage a non-consenting woman, is likely buoyed by renewed interest and support for “traditional” forms of Kazakh culture.
The Kazakh Government itself, through its Human Rights Ombudsman and Presidential Human Rights Commission, has echoed these gender equality concerns. The Ombudsman’s office has drawn particular attention to the gender disparity challenges faced by rural Kazakh women. These include traditional patriarchal attitudes, higher levels of “bride kidnapping”, uneven patterns of economic growth, and a general decline in Kazakh agriculture. Additionally, rural women, facing greater poverty and fewer opportunities, are disproportionately victimized by human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The national Action Plan for gender equality addresses the employment needs of rural Kazakh women, although it is silent on other issues.
Some attitudes about gender roles may be changing. In 2007, for example, Kazakh NGOs described a “growing awareness of legal rights among women”, and recent domestic violence legislation may indicate an increased willingness by the state to modernize gender relations in society. Kazakh women currently have unrestricted access to higher education, but post graduation will only earn 61.1% of the average male salary. This situation may also be improving, however. The U.S. State Department reports that women’s salaries are increasing, and Kazakh government statistics claim that between 2003 and 2005 that increase may be as high as 147.1%. In submissions to the CEDAW committee, Kazakhstan described its use of “positive discrimination” (affirmative action in the U.S.) to increase the presence of women in the “upper echelons” of society, and noted that women make up 44.6% of the Kazakh judiciary, including 16 out of 46 seats on the supreme court.
Post-independence Kazakhstan was slow to adopt specific domestic violence legislation, leaving such crimes for prosecution under the assault and battery provisions of the general Criminal Code. This has failed to adequately address the problem of domestic violence in society, with a Ministry of the Interior report indicating that at least 52% of Kazakh women had been victimized by domestic abuse. Kazakhstan has only recently begun tracking statistics for violence in a gender neutral manner, making reliable figures difficult to come by, however, police reports show that in the first 9-months of 2006, law enforcement reviewed over 10,000 domestic violence complaints, opened 1,157 criminal investigations and imposed 4,700 administrative penalties to perpetrators, mostly fines. Local NGOs and the U.S. State Department note that actual levels of domestic violence in Kazakhstan almost certainly exceed these numbers of reported incidents.
Kazakhstan has taken steps to improve policing in domestic violence cases, with special training for a police subdivision charged with responding to domestic abuse cases. As of 2010, this was the only such special domestic violence police unit in the Common-Wealth of Independent States, according to a Beijing Platform reporting document. Kazakhstan’s second periodic report to the CEDAW documents the effectiveness of this domestic violence unit (which operates in all regions of the country), but as a monitoring report explains, the unit faces budgetary challenges, unclear procedures, and conflicting lines of bureaucratic control which hamper its effectiveness and impartiality.
Legal and social options available to victims of domestic abuse are also limited. Economic dependence on the perpetrators of violence limits many victims’ ability to follow through with criminal complaints, and police often take an attitude that domestic violence is a “family matter” unworthy of intervention except in extreme cases. Services for victims of violence do exist, but in limited form. The U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report’s 2006 estimate found NGOs in Kazakhstan operating 22 domestic violence crisis centers, but only four of which were able to provide temporary shelter for victims. A monitoring report suggests that only a single shelter is currently able to operate in a stable way. The government has in the past provided funding for additional shelters, but budgetary constraints and unclear lines of bureaucratic authority undercut their ability to function reliably. While social attitudes may be changing, especially in the cities, many Kazakhs retain traditional attitudes that both downplay the impact of domestic violence and stigmatize its victims. In such a situation, many abused Kazakh women feel they have no alternative but to respond to domestic abuse with violent acts of their own. As a result, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women reports that perhaps 68% of female inmates in Kazakh prisons are imprisoned on charges stemming from domestic violence.
However, Kazakhstan is currently in the midst of a major transformation of its domestic violence laws. Spurred on by the international scrutiny surrounding its 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Kazakhstan has announced a series of legal initiatives ostensibly aimed at advancing human rights, guaranteeing press freedoms, and liberalizing of the political process. Human Rights Watch has documented these reforms with approval, although sharply criticizing aspects of their implementation.
Among Kazakhstan’s reform efforts is legislation addressing domestic violence. The legal project, which has been in gestation for many years, loosely replicates the legal tools and framework of the U.S. and European nations. This project of laws includes both the creation of a new legal code for domestic violence, as well as amendments to the existing criminal code. International organizations, including the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and The Advocates for Human Rights, worked with Kazakh lawmakers and NGOs to revise the draft legislation, issuing two opinions of suggested modifications. The legislation, partially modified to reflect the OSCE/ODIHR’s and The Advocate’s suggestions, was passed by the Parliament and received President Nazarbayev’s signature in January 2010.
The new legislation adopts several important mechanisms for combating domestic violence, including court-ordered “protection orders” restricting perpetrators’ contact with victims, and establishing in victims a legal right to psychological, legal and medical assistance. Perpetrators who violate a protective order face administrative penalties (the equivalent of misdemeanor charges) in addition to any prosecution under the general criminal code. In other ways, however, the new domestic law falls short of international model legislation, particularly by allowing “preventative interviews” with offenders in which they are “warned about the need to stop his/her unlawful actions” but otherwise go unpunished.
According to the U.S. State Department, the Kazakh government reported 892 criminal rape investigations in the first 7 months of 2006 (or an average of 1529 for the year). This is an increase of 7% from the previous year, and up from 948 reported rapes (and 138 attempted rapes) in 2001, as documented in the report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. Rape is illegal in Kazakhstan, being defined by Article 120 of the Criminal Code as sexual intercourse with a female, by physical violence, threats, or exploiting the helplessness of the victim, and prescribes punishment of three to five years' imprisonment. Punishment by imprisonment increases incrementally up to fifteen years under aggravating circumstances, such as rape of a juvenile, gang rape, or if the rape results in bodily injuries, venereal disease or victim's suicide. Unless the victim files a complaint, or unless aggravating circumstances exist, prosecutors are unable to initiate rape cases. Once initiated, however (and in contrast to non-rape domestic violence), a victim no longer has the power to withdraw her complaint. This is intended to prevent subsequent threats from intimidating women into withdrawing complaints.
The statistics show that rape investigations, prosecutions and convictions are increasing in Kazakhstan. Kazakh NGOs have linked these upward numbers to a growing willingness by Kazakh women to assert legal rights, despite facing a lingering police reluctance to act on such cases. While marital rape is not specifically addressed under existing Kazakh criminal law, both the OSCE/ODIHR and The Advocates for Human Rights have recommended that the draft domestic violence legislation be expanded to expressly criminalize this form of rape. Although “bride kidnapping” could likely be considered a form of rape, social stigma often prevents kidnapped women from filing complaints, and it is unknown if Kazakh authorities have undertaken any prosecutions of kidnappers.
Kazakhstan is a source, transit and destination country for victims of trafficking. According to the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women's report, victims were trafficked from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Israel, Albania and Western Europe. A 2003 U.S. Department of State report documented shortcomings in the Kazakh government’s response to human trafficking, noting that the state provided no assistance to returning Kazakh victims, and often fined, imprisoned, or deported foreign trafficking victims who had entered Kazakhstan illegally. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report pointed to corruption by border and customs agents as a factor enabling human trafficking in an atmosphere of impunity. Kazakhstan has not ratified the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol.
By 2008, however, the U.S. Department of State observed marked improvements in Kazakh anti-trafficking activities. In the department’s report on human trafficking, it acknowledged Kazakhstan’s “significant efforts” to comply with anti-trafficking standards, and noted with approval the government’s increasingly aggressive prosecution of traffickers. In 2003, for instance, President Nazarbayev signed legislation toughening anti-trafficking measures by adding several anti-trafficking provisions to Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code. These include sections which criminalize recruiting of persons for sexual or other exploitation (Article 128); facilitating illicit migration (Article 330); operating a tourist agency for purposes of illegal migration (Article 330); the sale of children (Article 133); the illegal involvement in prostitution (Article 270); prostitution in connection with organized crime (Articl