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Central Asian Women Still Struggle for Political Rights Years After Soviet Rule

In most of Central Asia women are still struggling to find their place in the political arena. Despite the Soviet legacy of gender equality, women are still underrepresented in the highest levels of government. VOA's Navbahor Imamova looks at the political situation for women in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In many parts of Central Asia gender stereotypes continue to hinder women's opportunities to pursue some careers outside the home.

While women are increasingly active in healthcare, education, culture and non-governmental organizations, in politics there are more suits than skirts. Finance, policy-making, and legislating are still controlled by men.

The highest political position held by a woman in recent years in the region has been in Kyrgyzstan where Roza Otunbayeva served as foreign minister. But today Kyrgyzstan - described by Freedom House as the most democratic in Central Asia - has no female parliamentarians.

Societal challenges are just some of the obstacles Kyrgyz women face in breaking into politics. Erica Marat, a Kyrgyz analyst based in Washington, D.C., says the cost of campaigns has also been a barrier. "(The) Kyrgyz constitution, adopted two years ago, was based on the majoritarian electoral system in which only wealthy and those with informal networks got elected. And they usually tend to be men. Now, with the newly amended constitution we will have an electoral system based on party lists. So there is hope that women who were squeezed out from the political process will be able to gain some support."

In neighboring Uzbekistan, where women represent 45 percent of the work force, only 10 women serve in the 100 member Senate and slightly more are members of the lower chamber.

Uzbek gender issues expert Marfua Tokhtakhojayeva worries that these politicians are not doing enough for Uzbek women. "We need women policymakers and lawmakers who truly represent their people by talking to them, by listening to them. Our parliamentarians and public servants do not serve the public. We do not know them. We get to see them only before the elections. We could have a 100 percent women representation but if they do not care about the people, then it is irrelevant."

Some observers believe progress is being made, as Dilorom Tashmukhamedova - a pro-government politician - becomes Uzbekistan's first female presidential candidate. However, with little chance of winning, political analysts do not expect major political gains for women.

One of the greatest obstacles facing women across Central Asia is the lack of economic opportunity. Nazima Nurmukhamedova, an international aid specialist from Tajikistan, says women in her country have little time for politics because they are generally just trying to survive. "Men have left the country seeking jobs abroad. Women do everything in rural areas. Farming is mainly women's work today. They are not paid well. Gender inequality is rampant. Women do not own much. They have no financial security," she said.

Women are often regarded as the agents of change, especially in transitional political environments. But in Central Asia, many experts believe change will take time and require strong support by the international community to create opportunities for women in the political process.