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November 26, 2023

Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Legislative Reform in Central Asia

In April of 2023, the Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) program, “National Women’s Business Agendas for Central Asia” came to a close. Implemented by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) in partnership with the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) and Search for Common Ground (Search), the program worked to successfully build and support country-level and regional alliances of women’s organizations to improve the ability of Central Asian women to engage in economic activity. Over a two-year period, CIPE, ABA ROLI, and Search supported the development of four country-level Coalitions in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, uniting 113 women civil society organizations, women’s business associations, and other key stakeholders.
Throughout the program, WAGE provided the Coalitions with capacity building to establish a strong foundation and successfully implement advocacy campaigns promoting women’s economic empowerment in each country. The Coalitions’ advocacy under the program cultivated unprecedented trust between the government and private sector, which resulted in government officials in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan inviting the Coalitions to advise on women’s economic empowerment policies. The Coalitions were also invited to join male-led mainstream chambers in the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan that recognized their leadership and impact, providing the Coalitions with a new level of influence over the direction of legislative reform. These political and legislative developments catalyzed by the Coalitions signal that the Central Asian Republics are becoming more willing to collaborate with the business community and civil society to enact further reform supporting the development of women’s entrepreneurship.

Barriers to Women’s Participation in Economy and Society

Across Central Asia, women face systemic legislative, cultural, and societal barriers to reaching their full economic potential, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The World Bank’s “Women, Business, and the Law 2023” report gave the region an average gender equality score of 75.475 out of 100, with Uzbekistan receiving the lowest score of 70.6. While the report shows that countries in Central Asia have been enacting reforms in the last few years to increase women’s participation in the economy, much remains to be done.

According to respondents engaged by WAGE through consultative meetings and rapid needs assessments conducted with over 2,300 women from across Central Asia, women still face many obstacles when entering the economy. These challenges include restricted access to finance due to lack of collateral and lack of gender sensitivity in the banking sector; lack of access to quality information on state support programs for women entrepreneurs; low financial literacy; and widespread gender-based violence (GBV) in addition to a culture of silence. Respondents also mentioned the negative effects of sanctions on Russia on the Central Asian economies and their businesses, since rising inflation rates and logistical costs have led to many women closing their businesses.

These factors have in turn further weakened women’s business associations, which already struggle to maintain financial sustainability. Without financial support from membership fees, these associations are unable to support their members and engage in effective advocacy to improve the environment for women in business. Women’s civil society organizations have also struggled to thrive in the challenging operating environment in Central Asia, which has resulted in economic dependence on international donors.

WAGE’s response to these barriers

To address these legal and societal barriers to women’s participation in the Central Asian economies, the WAGE consortium launched the “National Women’s Business Agendas for Central Asia” (WAGE Central Asia) regional program in April 2021 with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). The program had two goals: to strengthen the capacity of women’s business associations (WBAs), women’s civil society organizations (WCSOs), and other key stakeholders in the private sector and civil society to identify and address barriers to women’s economic empowerment in Central Asian countries and to foster collaboration among WBAs, WCSOs, and other key stakeholders to develop and advocate National Women’s Business Agendas (NWBAs), an advocacy tool that supports women in the business community and civil society to advocate for market-oriented reforms through collective action.

Key achievements

Building on newfound knowledge and skills gained through a capacity building program, WAGE partner WBAs and WCSOs established advocacy coalitions at the country level, that coalesced around a set of shared legislative and policy priorities that were distilled and synthesized into an NWBA. The capacity building program was designed to support the coalition members to develop NWBAs as an advocacy tool to drive their collective action. The NWBA is methodology developed by the US Chamber of Commerce and adapted by CIPE to utilize within development context. Comprised of 35 training sessions developed and led by CIPE, ABA ROLI, and Search, the capacity building program covered topics ranging from advocacy, stakeholder engagement, organization, public-private dialogue, the digital economy, strategic communications, and GBV prevention.

From the moment I became a member of the Coalition, I met successful women who are interested in developing not only their own personal brand but also the business community for women, as well as implement socially significant projects. The program enabled me to improve my skills, study and use specific tools to promote women's entrepreneurship and my community."

WAGE Kazakhstan Coalition member

The resulting NWBAs in each country focused on a myriad of topics including the above-mentioned barriers to women’s economic empowerment in Central Asia, including capacity development for women entrepreneurs, improved public-private dialogue, combatting GBV and negative gender stereotypes, and increasing access to finance. A key accomplishment across all four countries in which WAGE implemented was the establishment of the coalitions. Historically, the women’s business community and civil society have not partnered to address their shared interest to empower women generally and specifically within the economy. A total of 48,000 women were represented within the coalitions that emerged under the WAGE program. The sheer size of this constituent group gained them significant visibility and access to political decision-making processes and in a way that had not been seen in the region before. This speaks volumes to the value of bringing women together who represent different stakeholder groups. The WAGE program demonstrated that together these women can become a formidable bargaining group.

In Kazakhstan, the Coalition brought the issue of sexual harassment into the national discourse garnering the coalition notable visibility. To accomplish this, the coalition leveraged several political entry points including inserting dialogue/debate on sexual harassment into the lawmaking proceedings around the draft law to “Strengthen the Institution of the Family.” Additionally, the coalition held working meetings with key government agencies and negotiated with the Federation of Trade Unions and Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of Population that sexual harassment provisions be included in labor contracts. A set of amendments reflecting the coalition’s recommendations were then submitted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of Population in April 2023.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, through the advocacy campaign, the Coalition leveraged its membership to the Investment Council under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Kyrgyz Republic to promote the implementation of the National Program for Developing and Supporting Women’s Entrepreneurship 2022-2026 (DSWE). For instance, the Coalition developed a concept for a “women's entrepreneurship index”, which they presented on January 25, 2023 at an event attended by key government agencies and representatives of UN Women. The Coalition’s efforts gained positive recognition from the government, providing them with additional opportunities to impact legislative reform, including the establishment of a Coalition-led advisory council under the Ministry of Economy and Commerce of the Kyrgyz Republic. 

In Tajikistan, the Network was invited to be a member of the national “Development of Women, Youth, and Disabled Entrepreneurship” task force, under the State Investment Committee, to ensure the successful implementation of its advocacy campaign. The Network used this space to significantly influence decision making. One of the Network’s most substantial achievements was the inclusion of 10 out of 12 recommendations from the NWBA in the “State Program for the Development of Women's Entrepreneurship for 2023-2030." On March 17, 2023, the Network participated in a roundtable with representatives from 10 different government agencies to finalize indicators for monitoring program implementation and its action plan. The NWBA recommendations were also included in a report on implementation of the National Action Plan for the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, thereby attracting international attention to the Network’s achievements.

In Uzbekistan, the Expert Council successfully advocated for the inclusion of its recommended amendments on GBV to the national Criminal and Administrative Responsibility Codes. These recommendations led to the passage of the first law criminalizing domestic violence in the country in April 2023.  “The WAGE program has changed my life in many ways. I learned that by joining forces with other women champions we can amplify the voices of people in regions, voices of women who struggle to start their own business or suffer from GBV. I gained confidence in myself by speaking, as the Expert Council representative, to high level government officials and gaining their understanding of the priorities we raised. WAGE also helped me to make my wish come true - I registered my own NGO which will be helping women on many levels, from business and financial advice to psychological support. I wouldn't be able to do this without the support of my peers in the Expert Council.”   (WAGE Uzbekistan Expert Council member)

WAGE Central Asia also looked for ways to raise awareness on key issues affecting women’s entrepreneurship beyond the Coalition’s advocacy efforts. To address the lack of understanding of the intersection of GBV and WEE, particularly among the business community, the Coalitions developed resources for the private sector on how to address GBV, including manuals for businesses on sexual harassment in the workplace. The WAGE Central Asia team also invited media to Coalition events to raise the media’s awareness of the NWBAs and the barriers that women entrepreneurs face. This increased visibility of the NWBAs, but also inspired some media outlets to start columns related to gender issues.
The program’s media component drew significant success reaching over 5 million people over social media including Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram and 2.5 million people across the region through traditional media including radio and television. Led by WAGE Consortium partner Search for Common Ground, the media campaign developed a range of media products including interviews, flash mobs, skits, videos, among other products. WAGE was intentional about featuring women as leaders in business/commerce and showcasing men’s support for women’s leadership. Prevailing socio-cultural norms relegate women in the role of primary caretaker and responsible for household chores. Leadership is not a quality ascribed to women rather they are expected to take on subordinate roles across various facets of society. Young people between the age of 15-35 were the highest demographic that consumed the media campaign’s content—the majority of whom were women. Our research indicates a notable shift in women’s individual perceptions of gender norms and the prescribed roles given to women. Many of the respondents noted that they were more accepting of women as leaders in business. Men were more likely to engage with the content when they saw themselves reflected in it. WAGE research indicates significant opportunity exists to further shift older and young men’s perceptions of women as business leaders.

Sustainable Change

While the WAGE Central Asia program has ended, the coalitions’ work continues. Before the end of the program, each Coalition held strategic planning sessions to map their continued advocacy. The Coalition members also reiterated their commitment to working together toward common priorities. Given their positions in government councils and taskforces, the Coalitions will remain vital changemakers as they continue to advocate for women’s economic empowerment in their countries and region. 

Published on November 27, 2023.

    *Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government. 
    Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) is a global consortium to advance the status of women and girls, led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in close partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise, Grameen Foundation, and Search for Common Ground. WAGE works to strengthen the capacity of private sector organizations (PSOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in target countries to improve the prevention of and response to gender-based violence (GBV); advance the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda; and support women’s economic empowerment (WEE). In this context, WAGE provides direct assistance to women and girls, including information, resources, and services they need to succeed as active and equal participants in the global economy. WAGE also engages in collaborative research and learning to build a body of evidence on relevant promising practices in these thematic areas. To account for the deeply interconnected nature of women’s and girls’ experiences, WAGE’s initiatives employ approaches that are highly collaborative, integrated, and inclusive. WAGE is funded by the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

    The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.