At a peaceful rally marking International Women’s Day on March 8, hundreds of people in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, held posters calling for respect for women, protection from violence, gender equality, and more women in political office.
It was significant that people gathered at all and without police interference: In early January, following nationwide protests, Kazakhstan security forces arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters and others, abusing and even torturing some detainees.
Kazakhstan officials have a history of banning demonstrations. In November 2021, Almaty’s city administration denied requests from feminist groups to hold an event yesterday. On February 7 this year, two Kazakh activists challenged this decision, submitting a new application to hold the International Women’s Day march and rally in Almaty. The city administration authorized a rally, but not a march, citing construction work on the proposed route. Organizers monitored the route yesterday and, except for a few metal fences in one area, no construction work appeared on the route.
While allowing the rally to take place is a half-step forward, refusing to grant permission to hold a march violates the right to peaceful assembly. Kazakhstan’s law on public assemblies falls far short of international standards and should be reformed.
Rally participants this week also highlighted the need for reforms on women’s rights. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has repeatedly acknowledged the importance of eliminating discrimination against women and the need to boost women’s rights.
One aspect is especially urgent: Domestic violence is a serious problem in Kazakhstan. Hundreds of women annually flee abusive partners, husbands, or other family members and seek help and refuge at the limited number of crisis centers and shelters throughout the country. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on Kazakhstan to criminalize domestic violence as a stand alone offence, ensure greater accountability for abusers, and to increase support and services for domestic violence survivors.
In an upcoming national address set for March 16, Tokayev will announce a new package of political and social reforms. Explicitly criminalizing domestic violence should be one of them, as should other measures to prevent domestic abuse and guarantee access to shelters as well as medical, mental health, and legal services. The International Women’s Day rally was a welcomed move. Now the government should heed participants’ calls to advance women’s rights.