Imagine an hour and a half panel with 12 speakers—most who will make their presentations in Russian, which will then have to be translated! Can this work? Can it possibly be an interesting space with enough time for everyone to speak and for the audience to engage? And why do it this way? Why have 12 speakers on one panel?
Those are the questions that ran through my mind moments before the session on Women’s Empowerment in Central Asia and Movement Building began. I was among the 12 panelists invited to speak at this session during the 54th CSW in New York facilitated by our Global Fund for Women board member Nurgul Djanaeva, President of the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan.
As I sat there in the packed room filled with people who came to hear the voices of women representing Central Asia, I realized that having 12 women speak can and did work, and that there was a reason to do it that way. I spoke about the situation of women in Uzbekistan, and although I am not actually from Uzbekistan anymore, I was the only person on the panel who could speak about that because no one else from Uzbekistan could be there. Right now it’s not safe for activists from Uzbekistan to travel outside of their country and speak about the reality there. Simply having the voice and the space to talk about how women were faring in Central Asia was the most empowering experience for all of us on the panel. And as I listened to the women from Kyrgyzstan who traveled outside of their country for the first time in their lives, not to mention speaking in front of such an audience for the first time in their lives, I realized that this in itself is the empowerment of women from Central Asia. This in itself is the movement building: Twelve women talking about the situation of women in Central Asia.
Asipa Musaeva, one of the oldest and strongest disability activists from Kyrgyzstan from the Republican Independent Association of Women with Disabilities, opened the panel by sharing the situation of women living with disabilities in her country. She talked about the various ways women with disabilities experience violations of their human rights, from the right to free movement (accessibility) to the rights for their bodily integrity (sex, marriage, childbearing). She demanded the inclusion of women with disabilities into the broader women’s rights agenda. “Do not isolate us and treat us as if we are not women. We have the same desires and needs as the rest of you, and we must be included into all women’s rights discourse.”
Then several women from rural Kyrgyzstan described the harsh economic situation facing their regions. They also shared powerful examples of work being done by resilient women in maintaining the dignity of women in those conditions. Rural women are agents of small change, providing crucial services for other women, but they are also strong political figures in local governments influencing decisions on budgeting and social programs in their communities.
What was also so powerful was the direct connection between these women’s work and their personal lives. Every problem and issue they described reflected what they themselves lived through and transformed in their personal and professional lives. We heard directly from an activist living with disabilities who fights on a daily basis for simple access to public buildings, but also for all women with disabilities in her country. She knows both the problems and solutions from that perspective.
For the first time at CSW, women from Central Asia shared the stories of women from Central Asia. An activist and mother, whose daughter was kidnapped, was the one who shared her story in a deeply personal way of the so-called “traditional” practice of bridal kidnapping, where men steal young women and girls for marriage.
Following these stories, the panel then moved to Global Fund Advisor Yevgenia Kozyreva, leader and founder of the Feminist League of Kazakhstan who was able to draw connections between the direct challenges faced by women to the regional and international policy level including legal frameworks such as CEDAW and the Beijing Platform. The local, national, and international connections made the twelve persons’ panel rich and diverse in portraying an accurate and full picture of women’s rights organizing and their challenges in Central Asia.
The perfect ending was the last speaker Maksuda Aitieva, a journalist from Kyrgyzstan, who connected all the issues described by everyone before her to the power of media, in particular a gender sensitive media, to bring the true voices of all these women to the general public to influence the masses and challenge the stereotypes.