Fellowship for Women Changemakers: A Conversation with Khalida Azhigulova

April 28, 2022
Khalida Azhigulova is a scholar and activist in public international law and human rights

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of Eurasia Foundation’s Women Changemakers Forum, we sat down with legal expert and 2021 Fellowship for Women Changemakers recipient Khalida Azhigulova.

Azhigulova is a scholar and activist in public international law and human rights. In 2020, she participated in Eurasia Foundation’s Social Innovation in Central Asia Policy Research School. She presently serves as Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Research of Human Rights, Inclusion, and Civil Society at Eurasian Technological University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She holds a Ph.D. in Law from the University of Leicester, UK, and a Magister Juris from the University of Oxford, UK. She is a tireless advocate for the rights of all people to live in a world free of violence.

Azhigulova updates us on her efforts to reform domestic violence law in Kazakhstan, to see women represented in government decision-making, and to equip people of all ages to defend their rights.

Tell us about your ongoing and recent activities to address violence against women in Kazakhstan. 

I currently have several ongoing projects. Over the last two years, I have been working with several UN agencies to help their implementing partners to develop internal policies and procedures on prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA). This is an important mechanism to improve vulnerable peoples’ protection from sexualized violence in target countries, where legal protection is insufficient or absent. For example, in Kazakhstan there is no law prohibiting sexualized harassment, stalking, and statutory rape. But PSEA policies and procedures require UN partners to treat such incidents seriously. They ensure that UN beneficiaries are fully protected from any form of violence on behalf of their personnel. Thus, development and humanitarian workers learn why we must combat sexualized violence and how to do it.  

This experience has helped me promote PSEA policies and procedures in other institutions in Kazakhstan, like schools, colleges and universities, and hospitals. For example, I recently received a complaint from students at a regional medical college in northern Kazakhstan. The physical education teacher was sexually harassing students. The college administration condoned the incidents and did nothing to protect students.  

As a child protection expert, I transferred this complaint to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Healthcare of Kazakhstan. I offered my pro bono assistance to develop PSEA policies and procedures for Kazakhstani educational institutions to protect our students from violence. The ministries immediately agreed to support my proposal. Now I am working with local educational and medical departments to implement this initiative.

Khalida Azhigulova speaks out against cyberbullying and violence online.

My second major project is an advocacy campaign to criminalize domestic violence in Kazakhstan. I have been advocating for this change since 2019. Domestic violence used to be a criminal offence. In 2017, however, the Ministry of Interior pushed for its decriminalization and now it is treated as an administrative offence. Domestic abusers get only a written warning as punishment for assault and battery—not even a fine or mandatory community service.  

Unfortunately, I and other women’s rights activists face much resistance from the Ministry of Interior and the Prosecutor General’s Office. They invent unfounded arguments to claim that no criminalization of domestic violence is needed. Recently, I sent a letter to the president with my research-based arguments on why domestic violence should be criminalized.  In response, the Vice-Minister of Interior argued that domestic violence should not be criminalized because “criminalization will lead to an increase in criminal cases by 20,000 cases per year and will lead to a rise in divorces.” I was honestly shocked to get this reply in writing. But it tells us a lot about police and prosecutors’ attitudes toward domestic violence, from which women and children suffer the most. Now, I use this official letter from the Ministry of Interior to publicly refute their arguments and further promote my advocacy campaign for criminalization. 

What approaches to combat violence against women have been effective in recent years? In what areas do you see room for improvement? 

The most effective approach to combat violence against women in Kazakhstan right now is ‘naming and shaming’ abusers on social media. For a long time, women felt ashamed to share their experiences of violence because the victim-blaming culture was and is strong. Even some police officers and doctors blame the victims of violence. Social media helps educate the population about the problem of violence against women and its negative consequences for society at large. It does take time, but gradually I see more support and solidarity from people, including journalists, media personalities, and public figures, together calling on the government and the president to take more efficient measures to combat violence against women.  

Unfortunately, however, this type of mobilization typically happens in the aftermath of some appalling incident, such as when a beaten woman commits suicide, or an abuser eventually kills his wife or ex-wife despite her numerous calls to the police. The existing laws are very weak and do not effectively prevent violence against women. 

Abusers don’t like it when information about them and what they did is published on social media and becomes known to everyone in the country and beyond. That is the only thing that abusers in Kazakhstan are afraid of.  

There are a few areas in which improvements can be made. The first thing is to adopt effective legislation. We need legislation to ban forced marriages, early marriages, statutory rape against minors, sexualized harassment and stalking—including online harassment—and bride kidnapping. Right now, none of these crimes are outlawed in Kazakhstan.  

Second, all police officers, prosecutors, and judges need to pass training on gender, gender equality, gender mainstreaming, and gender sensitivity. Unfortunately, victims of violence are subjected to double victimization and trauma during the investigation process because the police officers and prosecutors are not trained in how to interact with survivors of violence. That is why some victims prefer not to report to police, or they drop charges because the investigation process exacerbates their trauma. 

What are the causes and consequences of violence against women in Kazakhstan? 

In my view, the main causes of violence against women in Kazakhstan are the patriarchal culture, widely spread discrimination against women, and lack of rule of law and respect for human rights. Women and children are affected by the negative consequences of violence the most. According to UNICEF, 75% of parents in Kazakhstan support corporal punishment of children. In turn, children copy the abusive behavior of their parents, and view violence as normal. Even a sizeable portion of teachers believe that beating children is okay and should be accepted without complaint.  

When violence is seen as a norm, it means that no one can feel safe in society. If people live in constant fear of and anticipation of attack, it means that they cannot enjoy their life and contribute to their communities. 

It also means that some people will be compelled to leave for other countries, where their human rights are better protected. Thus, the country is losing its human capital. These are the arguments I always mention in my advocacy with the government. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be far from gender neutral, with violence against women often described as a “shadow pandemic.” Can you describe the situation in Kazakhstan? 

The COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected the victims of domestic violence in Kazakhstan. Because of the lockdown-related restrictions, crisis shelters were not accepting new survivors of violence. It meant that victims of domestic violence were locked with their abusers in the same house. As a result, according to the official statistics, the domestic violence rate increased by over 40% during the lockdown period. 

Khalida Azhigulova delivers a presentation about combatting violence.

How can the Kazakhstani government address domestic violence? What are some examples of governmental structures that need to be in place?

First, the government must adopt important amendments to the 2009 Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence. I personally worked on these amendments as part of a parliamentary working group in 2020. The amendments are based on the global best practices in prevention and response to domestic violence, including the experience of the United States. Unfortunately, in 2020 when these amendments entered parliament for voting, alt-right groups used false information to attack the bill and its goals. These groups managed to cancel the bill without offering any alternative protection for survivors of violence.

Right now, the new bill with the same amendments is once again under consideration by members of parliament. And again, the same alt-right groups are attacking the bill and the members of parliament and women’s rights activists who support it.

The government must demonstrate its political will and adopt a new bill against domestic violence. 

The government can also budget for anger management and resocialization programs for domestic abusers. Leaders should increase the budget for complex assistance to survivors of violence to help them become more self-sufficient and decrease their financial and emotional dependence on abusive partners. 

Finally, the government should introduce human rights classes in primary and secondary schools. Children must learn about their human rights, including their right to dignity and to be protected from any form of violence, and how to protect these rights. Unfortunately, human rights education is hardly present in Kazakhstan. This is another initiative that I have been advocating for since 2019. Finally, this year, the Ministry of Education agreed to incorporate human rights education into state curriculum, and I am currently advising the Ministry on the content of a new course. 

Azhigulova shares her expertise at an international conference.

How can individuals and communities in Kazakhstan better support survivors of domestic violence? 

I think individuals and communities can support the survivors of violence by publicly supporting them, naming and shaming abusers, and shaming violence. Gradually, this will help eradicate the culture of victim blaming, and promote a culture of zero tolerance to any form of violence. 

Your recent activism has focused on promoting women at the decision-making level in federal and local government. Tell us a little about this work. 

After facing continuous resistance from the Ministry of the Interior and the Prosecutor General’s Office to criminalize domestic violence and introduce punishment for other sexualized and gender-based violence, I realized that the people who make these decisionsmen in powerhave never been and never will be the survivors of such violence. Based on my research, I discovered that for the last 30 years, 100% of all central and local level decision-makers within law enforcement structures have been men. Basically, exclusively male police officers and prosecutors have been making decisions for and about women.  

My recent activism aims to change this systemic discrimination against women. Together with other women’s rights activists, we are pushing for inclusion of gender quotas at the decision-making level in all central state bodies and local municipalities.

Gender-based discrimination in high-level appointments is indeed serious. For example, according to official statistics, 56% of all civil servants are women, yet less than 10% of individuals at the decision-making level are women. When we raise this issue of low representation, some officials allege that “there are not enough suitable candidates among women.” Of course, the main reason is systemic discrimination.  

To improve the situation, we sent a letter to the President of Kazakhstan to create a women’s professional roster. As part of the roster, selected female candidates will receive training on political leadership and then be recommended to fill gender quotas. Unfortunately, this proposal was yet again refused under the argument that it “would be seen as gender-based discrimination.” 

It is frustrating at times to face resistance from the government. But I don’t give up, and will continue mobilizing civil society and supporting other human rights activists to advocate for gender equality, women’s empowerment, and women’s rights in Kazakhstan.