Women’s Leadership in Times of Political Transitions: Some Lessons from Kyrgyzstan
“I’ve learned from personal experience that the best way to pass laws that guarantee the rights of everyone is to get women seats at the decision making table. Women’s leadership is especially critical during times of political transition,” said The Honorable Jane Harman , Director, President and CEO of the Wilson Center, in her opening remarks for Her Excellency Roza Otunbayeva , former President of the Kyrgyz Republic, and current head of "The Initiative of Roza Otunbayeva” International Foundation.
Otunbaeyva’s lecture, “Women’s Leadership in Times of Political Transitions: Some Lessons from Kyrgyzstan,” was hosted at the Wilson Center on December 13, 2012 by the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative. Otunbayeva and Harman were joined by moderator and Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Wilson Center, Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis.
In her hour-long address, Otunbaeyva covered a wide range of challenges and opportunities that Kyrgyzstan has faced in recent decades. One of the most critical issues she cited for developing countries in general and Kyrgyzstan in particular is investment in human resources. “We need people to be trained and educated,” Otunbaeyva stated. Stressing the importance of early childhood education, Otunbaeyva expressed her belief that education needs to start before kindergarten, with one year of compulsory education in preschool. “We should prepare children to have an equal start to school…a compulsory year is a solution for developing countries” According to Otunbaeyva, all countries in the region should implement this practice in order to improve the state of education within their borders.
Otunbaeyva also shared her experience as a crisis manager for Kyrgyzstan in 2010, and the process of introducing a parliamentary democracy to the country. After the successful overthrow of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan was able to hold parliamentary and presidential elections under President Otunbaeyva’s leadership. Yet Kyrgyzstan has faced difficulties in being one of the only countries with a parliamentary country in the Central Asian region. When President Otunbaeyva assumed her position in June 2010, she had the task of building up her country’s government from scratch. This included creating a new court system and implementing elections of local governments based on proportional votes.
In pursuing these efforts of state and democracy-building, Otunbaeyva “relied very much on women.” Many of her important appointments to positions of great importance included women, such as Head of the National Bank, Chairwoman of the Supreme Court, Minister of Health, Minister of Finance, and Chair of the Accounting Chamber. “Women are very important during times of conflict and healing,” Otunbaeyva shared.
Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative, Rangita de Silva de Alwis ended the lecture by thanking President Otunbaeyva for her commitment to the developing women leaders worldwide. De Silva de Alwis said, “Your detractors have accused you of governing like a woman, and we cannot think of a greater badge of honor… You are very consciously a woman leader…You have said, ‘nothing can be more important and more moving than humans celebrating their freedom.’” Dr. de Silva then asked a question concerning how women in the Arab Spring can take the opportunity to advance women’s leadership: “How can they seize the mantle of change?” Otunbaeyva responded by saying that “Every country has its own problems. Women have been in front of the line of struggle in mine and many other Arab countries. Women have been active in promoting democracy. Most NGOs and press are led by women in Kyrgyzstan. . . Education is vital. All developing countries should pay attention; women are educators by nature.”
When asked a final question about the record of success of provisional governments, Otunbaeyva proudly stated that, “We are proud to succeed. It’s not easy…We thought we should get out from corruption and dictatorship... Development of new countries should have a vision. We want success immediately; it’s hard to wait.”
Biography: Roza Otunbayeva held the role of Deputy Head of Government and Foreign Minister of the Soviet Kyrgyz Republic before being invited to the Soviet Foreign Ministry in Moscow, and later worked as President of the Soviet National Commission of UNESCO. After 1991, Roza Otunbayeva returned to the newly independent Kyrgyzstan to serve as Vice-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. She was the first Kyrgyz Ambassador to the United States and Canada, and later to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. During 2002-2004 she worked as Deputy Head of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in a peacekeeping mission to Georgia before returning to Kyrgyzstan to take an active role in democratic changes of the country. In 2007, she was elected to the Kyrgyz Parliament and led the opposition faction until April 2010. After the revolution she became a Head of the Interim Government. From July 2010 to December 2011, Roza Otunbayeva served as President of the Kyrgyz Republic.