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Women’s organising in Kyrgyzstan serves as an example of the inseparable linkages between gender, environmental and economic justice.
The sheer scale of the challenges faced by our planet is difficult to comprehend, but there is now at least recognition of the fact that ecological and social crises must be tackled together.
In order to protect biodiversity and environments such as forests, the world must also protect women’s rights, traditional knowledge and sustainable livelihoods so that communities can co-exist with the ecosystems they depend on.
The Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 biodiversity framework therefore must be highly gender-responsive, with gender justice as a key element. Women’s organising in Kyrgyzstan serves as an example of the inseparable linkages between gender, environmental and economic justice.
Women in Kyrgyzstan face numerous threats, from economic and political marginalisation and forms of gender-based violence – from bride theft to mining and infrastructure developments that affect their health and ability to grow food.
With virtually no representation in local government and little power in household decision-making, civil society and women’s groups must organise to overcome the challenges they face.
Essential to the success of these initiatives is rooting the struggle for women’s rights in ecological conservation and the sharing of traditional knowledge, where solidarity between women from different places serves as the foundation for their power.
In the remote region of eastern Kyrgyzstan known as Issyk Kul Oblast, the village of Darkhan sits a few kilometres away from the giant Kumtor gold mine, the world’s second largest producer of gold.
The mine has had many impacts on local life, including changes in the landscape that exposed the community to high winds that are driving people away from the area.
To counter this, and to increase their climate resilience and preserve local varieties of apple, apricot and blackcurrants, women activists in the village have planted over 500 native trees and fruit bushes.
Planting takes time and care, but the women of Darkhan know that their efforts will benefit the whole community. By reducing winds and soil degradation and preserving native species, they are protecting the community’s ability to feed and care for itself.
In addition to providing wind breaks and supporting local food production, women in Darkhan are also using tree planting as an opportunity to strengthen the role of women in their village and raise the status of young women in particular.
“Gelinki”, or young daughters-in-law, have the lowest social status in traditional families and are often forced into marriage and denied an education.
Gender-based discrimination in many local communities means that young women are often economically dependent on men and excluded from decision-making. This also makes it difficult for women’s groups to support young women, as they are prevented from attending meetings or events and expected to manage their households and care for their families instead.
Being able to provide food for their families and sell their produce is therefore enormously important to women in Darkhan, and their collective action asserts their rights at the same time that it buffers the community from the impacts of resource extraction.
In the village of Saruu in Chuy Oblast in northernmost Kyrgyzstan, the local women’s group has been using skill-sharing and biodiversity conservation to tackle the patriarchal custom of bride theft, which some members of the group have experienced.
The women organise around their common interests–improving women’s health and economic well-being–to assert their rights to live without the threat of violence and to be economically independent.
To achieve this, members who are needleworkers have been sharing their craft. Needlework sessions have been organised in local schools, where a safe space is created for young women to discuss issues such as bride theft, forced marriage and other gender-based injustices faced by women and girls.
The group has also organised tree-planting sessions with boys and young men to create space to discuss ending gender-based violence in the community and integrating feminist and environmental discourses.
In the village of Shabdan, on the fringes of Chong-Kemin National Park in northern Kyrgyzstan, livestock rearing is the main economic activity. Most residents breed cattle and maintain pastures, and despite the fact that many shepherds are women, the local Pastures Committee is made up entirely of men.
The women shepherds are experts at maintaining healthy and diverse pastures, and the knowledge they possess was passed down to them by their parents and grandparents.
To make sure that their traditional knowledge is preserved and passed on to other women, a community-based women’s group has been sharing its skills with community members and students at the local secondary school.
The group has also been broadening its own skills by creating an ethnobotanical garden and an orchard with model irrigation systems at the local school.
Maevka Aiyl Okmoty is a group of settlements along the main highway linking Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, with China. Many residents are internally displaced and landless families from remote regions of the country.
Here, there is poor access to health care, education and public transport, and other amenities such as clean drinking water are also lacking. Moreover, there are significant issues with air pollution from the highway and dust and smoke from burning at nearby city rubbish dumps.
In the absence of support from local authorities, a women’s group in the village of Tendik has taken matters into its own hands. They are solving some of the problems they face by planting trees along the road to reduce air and noise pollution
The women’s initiative in Tendik has attracted the attention of officials from the state Sanitary Service who agree that landscaping through reforestation in the village will significantly reduce the harm caused by air pollution from the highway and burning at the landfill.
So far, more than 1,000 trees have been planted in the community and a poplar nursery has also been created for future planting. The aims of these women go beyond improving the lives of their own communities locally; their new organising and leadership skills will also be put to the test in local elections, when they hope to be the first women to win seats in their local government.
In the village of Krasnaya Rechka, east of Bishkek, women identify their economic empowerment as an urgent priority. A women’s group called “Jipar” is helping migrants integrate into the community and increase their economic independence through the sharing of traditional knowledge about the area’s ecological wealth.
The project involves young women from families that fled civil war in Tajikistan and have found it difficult to integrate, especially since traditional patriarchal norms are strong in their community. Women are often prevented from going to work by men in the community and have little say in household decision-making.
As part of the project, migrant women in Krasnaya Rechka were supported in planting over 100 fruit bushes and medicinal herbs, including blackcurrant, calendula, chamomile and mint.
The plants will be used to make traditional soaps and other home-made cosmetics containing only natural ingredients that have been grown in the women’s own gardens. These methods of production are based on traditional knowledge that has been preserved in the area for many generations.
In skill-sharing sessions, local women have passed on their traditional knowledge of cosmetic-making using natural products to migrant women. They made over 400 bars of soap as the first step in creating sustainable income generation for themselves, affirming their rights to work, earn a livelihood and live dignified lives.
Thanks to the success of this project, women’s groups from nearby places are now turning to Krasnaya Rechka for advice and to share experiences, as well as to share seeds and seedlings of the plants and medicinal herbs that the women have grown.
In learning a new skill, migrant women in Krasnaya Rechka were able to become more integrated into the community and local women were able to support them in defending their rights.
The additional income from the home-made cosmetics has allowed the women to feel more confident. Meanwhile, working together has increased the sense of solidarity between them.
Actions such as these strengthen the belief that much can be achieved by working together and also build the power of women’s groups to strive for gender, environmental and economic justice despite the challenges they face.
This article is based on trainings and events facilitated by BIOM, an organisation based in Kyrgyzstan and member of the Global Forest Coalition, as part of the Women2030 programme. The Women2030 Programme is a coalition of five women and gender network organisations collaborating to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a gender-equitable and climate-just way. Follow Women2030 on Facebook and Twitter. The Global Forest Coalition is a worldwide coalition of 99 NGOs and Indigenous peoples’ organisations from 62 different countries striving for rights-based, socially just forest conservation policies. Follow the Global Forest Coalition on Facebook and Twitter.