Women of Central Asia Unite in Avaza
As the five Central Asian presidents descended on the Caspian Sea resort of Avaza in Turkmenistan for their third regional summit, the Central Asian Women Leaders’ Caucus held their inaugural conference. Avaza marks the thirdconsultative meeting between regional heads of state, yet it is the first time that the presidential meeting was accompanied by a concurrent women’s rights forum. High-profile attention to advancing gender equality through regional cooperation signifies a positive trend in Central Asia’s commitment to unleashing the full potential of half its population.
Founded in December 2020 during an online forum with women leaders from Central Asian states organized by the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) and the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and CIS States, the Central Asian Women Leaders’ Caucus aims to promote women into prominent political, economic, and social roles across the region. “As important women leaders in your home countries, each of you has the unique ability to rally political support around common objectives and to serve as role models to influence and drive change,” saidNatalia Gherman, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of UNRCCA, at the Caucus’ launch. In a region with a precarious track record of cooperation, a transnational mechanism to coordinate gender-inclusive policies is a welcomed development.
Yet, Central Asia is no stranger to multilateral forums or cursory declarations of support for various causes. Founded in the midst of a global pandemic, the Central Asian Women Leaders’ Caucus faced an uncertain road in developing into an authority on women’s empowerment with consequential actions.
From the view at Avaza, the road ahead is more certain. The summit on the Turkmen coast marks the first time that leaders of the Caucus gathered together for a full-fledged forum. The fact that the meeting took place within the framework of the presidential summit indicates high-level support for the group’s agenda.
On August 6, leaders from all five Central Asian countries and the UN participated in the Caucus’ inaugural in-person conference, or the “Dialogue of Women in Central Asian States.” Tanzila Narbayeva, Chairperson of the Senate of Uzbekistan, led the forum as the Caucus’ 2020-2021 chair. Also in attendance was Gulshat Mammedova, Chairperson of the Mejlis of the National Council of Turkmenistan; Aigul Kuspan, Chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Security of Mazhilis of the Parliament of Kazakhstan; Aida Kasymalieva, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan; Khilolbi Kurbonzoda, Chairperson of the Committee on Affairs of Women and Families under the Government of Tajikistan; and Natalia Gherman, who also met with the Central Asian presidents.
As expected, a theme of collaboration framed the summit. Narbayeva’s appeal for greater “regional interactions between women in all areas of cooperation” in her opening speech carried over to the plenary session, in which participants agreed to fortify inter-parliamentary ties and discussed projects related to women’s empowerment being implemented within their respective countries. With Central Asian states specializing in different fields related to women’s access to markets and social capital, like e-commerce infrastructure in Kazakhstan and inclusive labor laws in Tajikistan, knowledge sharing is key to accelerating gender equality domestically as countries build on their neighbors’ experiences. Yet, unlike the issue-specific councils and regular meetings with ministers set up in the statement of the concurrent presidential consultative meeting, details on how inter-parliamentary bodies will communicate moving forward is unclear.
The conference concluded with the signing of a joint declaration. Topics covered in the nine-point document included actualizing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, supporting women entrepreneurs, realizing women’s role in combatting climate change, and addressing the gendered-consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to the joint statement of the meeting of the region’s presidents, the Central Asian Women Leaders’ Caucus highlighted relations with Afghanistan, specifically the need to integrate Afghan women entrepreneurs into regional trade projects.
While the content of the dialogue was nothing new, its format was. For the last five years, Central Asian countries have independently pursued domestic projects, sometimes with regional components, devoted to attaining women’s full participation in decision-making spheres. For instance, since 2015, Tajikistan has hosted an annual Women’s Business Forum and Expo, which connects female Central Asian and Afghan entrepreneurs in fields like tourism and handicrafts across the rural-urban spectrum. Uzbekistan held a similar international women’s business forum in June 2021. Unlike Avaza, these initiatives were primarily organized by local actors, like governments and U.S. embassies, instead of a multinational body.
The Central Asian Women Leaders’ Caucus is unique in that it has the potential to centralize domestic projects within an overarching organization, leading to enhanced consistency and accountability amongst these plentiful, but often disjointed, women’s empowerment initiatives.
Potential is not a guarantor of success. The Dialogue of Women in Central Asian States was one of a handful of concurrent conferences to occur at Avaza, with topics ranging from national cuisine to the economy. While the women’s empowerment summit received more press coverage than the others, there is still a lot of work ahead to turn high-profile coverage into concrete results. An initial step towards this goal would be to buttress calls to narrow gender gaps in Central Asian societies with a joint statement outlining specific steps during the Caucus’ next conference.
Image Sources are The Press Office of the Government of Armenia and UNRCCA