“Where are all the women?” I asked my team after assuming the duties of the World Bank director for Central Asia in July 2021. In my introductory meetings with heads of state, governments, and major cities across the region, I and other World Bank officials were usually the only women in the room.
In more than two decades at the World Bank, I had never encountered such a glaring absence of women at the decision-making level. So, what are the main barriers that hinder women’s access to more and better jobs and more equal voice and agency in Central Asia?
The picture is complex. Political participation has improved and there has been progress toward gender parity at all levels of education across the region. For instance, in 2021, women made up 32% of representatives in the Legislative Chamber of Uzbekistan’s Parliament – a ratio that is far from ideal but exceeds that of the United States and other high-income countries.
Yet, undermining progress is the sobering reality that significant numbers of women fear for their lives at home.
In 2016, 315 women died by suicide in Kazakhstan, in most cases due to domestic violence, according to the country’s Prosecutor General. And those who did not die at their own hands were still at risk of being killed at home: the World Health Organization estimates that male partners are responsible for the death of some 400 women a year in Kazakhstan alone.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, airwaves across Central Asia and around the world were filled with stories of intensifying domestic violence, as women were trapped at home with abusive partners. In the Kyrgyz Republic, a UN Women survey conducted between May and June 2020 found that 32% of respondents knew of increased domestic abuse or had experienced it themselves. In Tajikistan, in 2017, 31% of ever-married women reported having experienced emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence at least once in their marriage and 24% experienced it within the past 12 months.
Women and girls who sought help found few places to which they could turn. Across the region, gender-based violence (GBV) response services are insufficient and poorly resourced. Some local service providers told our researchers they had to turn women away during the pandemic. We may never know the full scale of the violence at home as many cases went unreported. United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres called the increase in domestic violence a “shadow pandemic.”
Large numbers of women suffer in silence because violence is viewed as normal in the community, abuse victims are discouraged from raising the issue, and women are expected to maintain family unity at any cost – even if the price to pay is their own safety and well-being, and even their lives.
Time for urgent action
For this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the theme is: “UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls.” We must all work together—individuals, governments, the private sector, activists, UN agencies and others—to end violence against women and girls. We must also support local women’s rights organizations and activists who advocate for solutions to this issue tirelessly and have saved countless women’s lives, at times drawing on their own resources to do so.
In recent years, the World Bank has stepped up its efforts to address GBV risks through investments, research and learning, and collaboration with stakeholders. We want to step up our activities on GBV in Central Asia. For example, our South-West Roads project in Kazakhstan took steps to address potential risks for sexual exploitation and abuse. With the World Bank’s assistance, the government introduced a policy to protect women, even in the most remote construction sites of the project.
Our financial support helped the government of Uzbekistan implement a law protecting women and girls from violence and oppression. It enables the respective state agencies to provide police protection and free legal, economic, social, psychological, medical, and other services to victims of GBV. We are proud that our assistance improved the efficiency of the mechanisms protecting and supporting those in need. In 2021, over 39,000 victims benefited from their work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the paucity of legal redress options for women and the dangers of omissions and gaps in current legal frameworks. It has also highlighted the social beliefs that drive gender-based violence and the urgent need to strengthen laws to protect women and girls. Only then can we end the shadow pandemic, once and for all.
Empowering women and girls is the right thing to do, and Central Asia cannot achieve its development goals without it. The economic costs of domestic violence can range from 1.2 to 2% of GDP, and in some countries, it reaches 3.7%.
We must redouble our efforts to challenge the social attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that normalize violence.
The World Bank is committed to working with all our stakeholders to end GBV in all its forms. The time has come to break the silence surrounding GBV in Central Asia, increase awareness, and work together towards deep and long-lasting change for all women and girls.