On December 13, the Eurasia Foundation awarded Roza Otunbayeva, the former President of Kyrgyzstan, the 2012 Bill Maynes Award for demonstrating visionary leadership throughout Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional transition and providing a lifelong example of public service.
President Otunbayeva held the office of the Presidency after the 2010 April uprising, and voluntarily stepped down from office following elections in 2011. She was the first leader of a state in Central Asia to leave office at the end of a designated term. President Otunbayeva has had a long political career in Kyrgyzstan, serving in a number of roles since 1981.
Following the ceremony, Central Eurasia Standard was able to briefly chat with President Otunbayeva about her role as a leader in Kyrgyzstan and her goals to empower a new generation of female leaders in Kyrgyzstan. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What professional and personal hurdles do you encounter when trying to empower women in leadership roles in Kyrgyzstan?
President Otunbayeva: These days women have a lot of advantages and certainly disadvantages. Advantages are that the world is open to us, we can travel, we have role models and we can communicate with many people in the world, but the disadvantages are clear: there is aggression from religious forces and traditionalism. [Seeing women] having to wear scarves, it irritates me a bit, because it was never like that in Soviet days.
Now, of course we have a democracy and pluralism and people can go as they feel comfortable, but look, [I am] for progress, progress of mind and knowledge, whereas they are sitting at home and conforming to some man’s pleasure. I don’t like [seeing] that. The generation of women of my age have been very active, striving for education and working alongside men. I don’t like that the generation of my daughter sits at home and are the fourth or third wife of someone because of Sharia law permits that and makes that happen. This is very sad news for us.
In this regard, I feel that we have an obligation and duty to work with young women and explain our perspective. The progress within the country depends very much on their stance. If a woman is [handicapped socially and economically], then her daughter will be handicapped economically, socially and so on.
With regard to the programs run by President Otunbayeva’s Initiative:
President Otunbayeva: I don’t run ‘women’s projects’ in my country. I do projects with early childhood, immigration and some cultural projects, [such as] exposing children to classical music. It is important because there is so much popular ethnic music, and this is good. [We should] search for [the] authentic, but without forgetting about what we have learned and what made us competitive in the modern world. So I’m trying to give, especially to the disadvantaged, access to this high-class music, which will make a difference to them. For example, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks all of them go to work in Russia. So if my compatriots will know Tchaikovsky, Stravinksy, etc, [those who they work with] will understand that this is an educated guy, and this is important. This is not just for pleasure, this is for competitiveness.
One of the more public cultural issues that Kyrgyzstan struggles with is bride kidnapping, in which thousands of girls are kidnapped each year into forced marriage. Bride kidnapping has persisted in Kyrgyzstan over centuries and is reported to be increasing in frequency. Women are often encouraged to stay with the new family after being kidnapped, no matter the circumstances there.
What do you think can be done about the problem of bride kidnapping, and do you feel that it is an issue that can’t be addressed by the government?
President Otunbayeva: It should be addressed, we feel this is wild, this is shameful, this is what you should overcome. Its time for active resistance to this, not for it to slide away and to be left for another generation. It’s getting worse. More than 10,000 girls were kidnapped [in the past year].
If I find the time in my schedule, I’m going to go to big villages at the end of the school year to address girls and their moms because part of this tradition are women. They convince girls to stay in the place [to which] they are taken. This is absolutely ridiculous.
I can tell you even more, kids who are born from such a ‘love’ are not kids of love, real love. They are part of the population who is [marginalized]. This has generations-long consequences and we should address this issue. It is not just the deformed mentality, but it impacts on the quality of the nation as well.
When I started to deal with early childhood [issues], I realized why these guys are kidnapping sometimes, because within the nation, children are not getting together, they are not going to kindergartens at all. Only five percent of children in rural areas go to kindergarten and in my country, 70% of people still live in rural areas. It means the majority of children are being raised in their homes and do not communicate with each other. Boys and girls are also raised apart, and when boys grow up this way, they don’t know how to find a girl and communicate with her.
So they are socially isolated by this rural setting?
President Otunbayeva: Exactly, and [we] should bring them together. We would be more than happy to have more kindergartens but we don’t have the infrastructure so this is a big socioeconomic issue.
Our thanks to President Otunbayeva for taking the time to chat with us, and the Eurasia Foundation for coordinating the interview.