Human Rights Defenders share their struggle to advocate for women in Kazakhstan

Two activists behind the Feminista organisation talk about fighting for the rights of all women in the country.

Two women sitting in a bare room speak to an interviewer
The activists have been subject to attacks and intimidation by far right groups, while the Kazakhstan Government has repeatedly refused to register their organisation with the excuse that it does not align with the country’s “spiritual and moral values”.

The pair were interviewed as part of the United Nations video campaignDiversity in Adversity, which highlights and celebrates queer human rights defenders and activists around the globe and shares the incredible work they do.

Their interview, Sekerbayeva describes, “Women’s rights are not only about heterosexual women…Here at our meetings we talk about a diverse circle of women…we show that these groups intersect in different ways, have overlapping examples of discrimination. For example, a girl lives in a village, she is in a wheelchair and she is a lesbian, can you imagine how many layers of discrimination she has?”

The bravery of the pair is highlighted in an article by the United Nations which details the danger involved in going up against the authorities in Kazakhstan on behalf of others. It describes, “On 29 May 2021, an event organised by Feminita on gender equality and women’s rights was set to take place… The event was initially due to be held at a co-working centre in Shymkent, however, it was moved to the conference room of a city-centre hotel after the centre’s administration cancelled the event.

“While awaiting the beginning of the event in a café near the hotel, Mses Serzhan and Sekerbayeva were approached by a group of three unknown men, one of whom identified himself as a police officer. They informed them that an anti-LGBT protest was taking place nearby and that the event planned by Feminita should be cancelled…While at the café, the event’s attendees were confronted by a group of approximately 30 unknown men, who surrounded, insulted and threatened Mses Serzhan and Sekerbayeva.”

The pair were subsequently and violently arrested, assisted by men from the group, with Sekerbayeva being physically assaulted by one of the men. Kazakhstan authorities later claimed they had been arrested for their own safety. Their phones were confiscated and they were interrogated, being held in detention for eight hours.

The UN article continues, “While detained by the police, Ms Sekerbayeva was informed that she would be charged with insulting state representatives… yet no such prosecution was initiated. In response to a complaint filed by Ms Sekerbayeva, an investigation has reportedly been opened into the unknown men who attacked those attending the event. No investigation has been launched into the actions of the policeman involved in the arrest of the two human rights defenders.”

Despite this uphill struggle, there have been seismic victories for the group – “We have advocated against a list of prohibited professions (for women) that we managed to suspend.

“This list directly discriminated against women because it was called The List of Prohibited Professions For Women. After the advocacy of Feminita and our allies, an attempt was made to replace the word ‘prohibition’ with ‘restriction’ in our system. They were trying to somehow cover it up by using different words but we have succeeded in cancelling the list altogether. No one needs this list, neither women, nor our state, nor our society.”

In a moving moment during the interview, Sekerbayeva explains, “We are engaged in human rights, and not some additional special rights. It is not that we are not Kazakhs. We got our education here as Kazakhs, we were born here, this is our land, we are engaged in activism because this is where we live.”

Follow the UN Diversity in Adversity campaign over the coming weeks and keep up-to-date by visiting the dedicated UN webpage here.

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