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I am a role model: An Interview with Lyazzat Kaltayeva, Senator of Kazakhstan

"I understood that reality needed to be changed and that we must strive for a future that elects representatives of all genders, levels of ability, ages, etc."

- This story was first published in 2024

In many ways, certain things in my life were predetermined, such as the role of women in family and society. My mother was very progressive and active, but she passed away early. Many said she would surely have become a minister. Both of my grandmothers were also strong women, and people from other villages even came to seek their advice. I grew up surrounded by women who not only shaped their own lives and those of their loved ones but also society. With such role models to follow, my path in life couldn't have been any different. My father also always held up intelligent women as examples, like women chess players. He encouraged me whenever I expressed myself and supported me in the way I handled situations in my life, helping me to build the confidence to continue making decisions about my own life. When a girl grows up with such an attitude toward herself, she probably understands that she can and should make decisions in her life.

Regarding politics, it's interesting too. I remember having good acquaintances, friends, among people with disabilities who, for some reason, would say, "When you're in parliament...". And at that time, I was still young and didn't really understand when or why I would ever... But the idea was planted in my mind.

Perhaps because from the very beginning, when I was quite young, many things about how people with disabilities were treated didn't sit well with me. I remember vividly one of my own earliest encounters with mistreatment due to inaccessible infrastructure, in which I was berated by a doctor for asking to help residents get more fresh air. It was a formative experience for me, and I began to listen to those who said, “you need to push for this” - for our rights.

And so I did. In 2001, we founded the NGO 'Women with Disabilities (Shyrak)' and my first trip to Finland took place, where I realized that promoting women's rights systematically would only work when you engage in politics. That is why we decided to include the political participation of women with disabilities when we later outlined the vision of our NGO. In 2011, we conducted the first training on political participation for women with disabilities, inviting a trainer from Ukraine.

In January 2012, there were elections, and I also put myself forward.

Even then, I had ambitions to reach the Majilis (lower Chamber of the Parliament of Kazakhstan), but I decided to run for the Maslikhat (local representative body). It was my first election cycle process - campaigning, registration, the elections themselves, election day, headquarters, observers. It was very interesting. Going through this cycle myself as an independent candidate, not from a party, was a priceless experience. And I remember we thought we were doing everything so well. We secured funding, as we involved all the resources of our family, our organization, and all the volunteers. And until 3 p.m. on election day, we thought we were doing great. The headquarters was buzzing, calls were coming in from every precinct.

But we lost. That's when I understood the reality of the election process. The following morning, I pulled myself together, calmed down, and wrote a post thanking everyone who had supported me, who helped, campaigned, and even those who were against it. It was such a formative experience - one that you can't get from books or movies.

Then came 2016, the next local elections. I had a hard time making that decision, but ultimately, I decided to run again for Maslikhat. This time I ran with a party, and my previous experience came in handy. I already set a condition that if I run for elections, it's only to win - not just to check a box for having women with disabilities on the list. I remember the very first campaign events, 200 people in a sports hall, at a school. I came out, and they didn't look at me. I needed to draw attention to myself, I needed to change the situation. And the first 10 minutes were difficult. My voice trembled, I started to stutter, to get nervous. I needed to pull myself together. All these challenges were great lessons, with 2-3 meetings every day in different places, in basements of buildings, and on large playgrounds. Toughening up, gaining experience. They challenged me, saying that I wouldn’t be able to do anything. I held my ground, and shared the promises of my platform.

I was a deputy for five years, I don't know if it was good or bad. Probably, it's better to ask the voters. But, at least, I tried. You know, it goes from childhood. If I got straight “A’s” in childhood, I was always afraid that half of that “A” was because of my disability. It was always like that. I remember I got an A for one bad essay from a new teacher. I cried so much because I understood how ashamed I was. I definitely didn't deserve an “A” there.

And here too. I understood that reality needed to be changed and that we must strive for a future that elects representatives of all genders, levels of ability, ages, etc. - and is truly representative of our population, based on what they bring to the table. We work now so that when the next ones come, they come because they were chosen, not as a token just because they have a disability certificate.

And then suddenly, after spending five years as a politician, it seemed to me that it was time to pass it on to the youth. Honestly, at the end of 2021, I was planning my 2022, there was no plan to leave my organization, Shyrak, at all. I have a young daughter, I need to figure things out somehow. I remember I wrote - for some reason with a yellow marker that was not very visible - "to cut this, to delegate that". And with that yellow marker, it's written there: "Senate". I don't know how it happened, but apparently, something was in my head about the Senate. I think it was always there. Among organizations and communities of people with disabilities we constantly discussed the need for change and how to advocate for ourselves. We conducted research, roundtables, public political hours, and various mechanisms. With my experience, it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge and moved from activism into politics - I think the turning point may have been a speech at a civil forum, where I voiced the issue of our society’s patronizing approach towards people with disabilities, when what is needed is to develop their potential.

"It’s strange to talk about my work in parliament as an isolated event; I consider my political successes to be closely tied to our work in Shyrak. The women leaders who exist today, practically 100 percent of them are all graduates of Shyrak."

All the leaders who have gone through our school of independent living. They all lead social projects. I believe that this is the 'Leadership School' that we launched at the time.

Any bill that goes through me now is discussed in public scrutiny. For example, the recent Presidential Address regarding tourism. I, naturally, am already making inquiries about inclusive tourism today. I try to ensure that transportation, especially airports and train stations, are not forgotten. While I'm here, I work and put in effort. For example, scooters. There will now be amendments regarding scooters, so they are not left on sidewalks because blind people might stumble and fall.

"I just know one thing that I do there. I am a role model. This I know, should make it easier for others after me. Six more deputies have come now, they say, 'thanks to you, all this is happening.'"

Looking at Kazakhstan’s progress, if we compare historically, a lot has changed over the past 6-7 years, mainly in the areas of accessibility and social protection. Many services have become available, and information is mostly available, but physical accessibility has improved to a lesser extent, perhaps. Accessibility is a process, you need to constantly raise the bar and ensure it. Social security has also improved, allowances are increasing, for better or worse, but there is no deterioration. However, the quality of services needs to be tracked, monitored. People's dissatisfaction is growing, because people who used to think that nothing was ever possible now realize that they can demand their rights from the State.

"It is important to emphasize that for people to realize their rights, they must have equal opportunities."

This goes for all people experiencing some forms of vulnerabilities, including women, people with disabilities, minorities, etc. For example, access to digital information and technology. One major issue I raise in the Senate, which still needs attention, is the need to establish frameworks stating that information must be available everywhere: in mobile applications, programmes, and for people to work, access services, including digital financial services, and so on. Availability must be coupled with accessibility; it is not enough to say the information is there - everyone should be able to access it easily, regardless of type of disability - intellectual or physical - gender, language, anything. This is also a way to break down stereotypes across society, while improving quality of life for everyone.

Secondly, when people with disabilities have tasted freedom of mobility and participation in public life, they naturally begin to understand that they can consider themselves in relation to people without disabilities. Before, they compared themselves only to each other. One was better off, the other worse. Now they compare themselves just with people without disabilities, and that's very good.

Issues of violence against people with disabilities, women with disabilities are not discussed at all, because of stereotypes. That's why I believe the intersection between gender and disability is very important.

The projection of women’s perspectives is important in Kazakhstan because the majority of people believe that everything is fine and the role of women is only to support men, do household chores.

Gender equality, as an agenda, is not really present in the movement of people with disabilities. And women with disabilities don't really understand this well. So, I think this is something we need to work on.

Additionally, the sexual and reproductive rights of people with multiple disabilities, such as deafblind individuals, people with simultaneous hearing and visual impairments, and people of short stature, are crucial. Questions about deinstitutionalization and downsizing of medical-social institutions are also important and will continue to be raised. There are also issues of assigning and removing legal incapacity status and creating a system of professional guardianship because there is abuse by both relatives and directors of medical-social institutions; the removal of one’s agency for any reason is very dangerous. Similarly, although there are many women activists now, issues such as reproductive rights - for women of all levels of ability - have been put on hold, despite their importance.

It is also important to discuss the advocacy environment for people with disabilities. Non-profit organizations that support people with disabilities can be categorized into three main groups: first, those who provide services through state social contracts, and are quite stable as institutions. These organizations are the least likely to enact real change. Next, organizations like community centres, where people can come to socialize or receive some assistance - these help to break down social isolation and provide a sense of community and social circle. And finally, those that advocate for the rights of people with disabilities; unfortunately these are very few. I believe that we need to nurture their advocacy potential and provide grants, conduct needs assessments, and ensure that advocacy grants are given not only by the UN and international agencies but also by our Government.

It is also necessary to provide the opportunity for individuals to understand and feel that they also have the ability to change their lives, not just rely on others.

The opportunity to raise an issue, indicate the cause, who can solve it, and how, and suggest how to solve it. Not just for people with disabilities, but any group facing vulnerabilities, challenges or issues in society.

Currently, inclusivity in schools is a big question. Accessible infrastructure is understood in some places, and not in others. Standards vary everywhere. I couldn’t study in a regular school, for example. Things have improved since then, but we still have a long way to go - and women’s voices are crucial in making improvements. Where we see children excelling in school, we see mothers speaking up for them most. Promoting inclusivity and the rights of people with disabilities - and particularly women and women with disabilities remains a major need.

To effectively promote women’s rights and encourage active participation of women in politics, it is essential to prioritize the inclusion of women with disabilities.

Personally, I'm not fond of quotas, but I believe that they are necessary at this moment. The recent elections demonstrated that among independent candidates outside of party lists, predominantly men aged around 40-45 were elected. There were very few women represented. This indicates that our society is not yet prepared to promote and support women in politics. I believe there is a need for education on gender equality. What does gender equality entail? We must clearly define its components and address them directly, tailored to the needs of Kazakhstani society. Gender equality between men and women should not only be a top-down approach; it should also be evident in everyday life. However, I don't see this happening yet. Furthermore, I sense a certain regression in some aspects. That's why I advocate for a group within Parliament similar to the previous Otbasy group (An Otbasy group is a deputy group, a form of association of deputies in parliament. Deputies unite into groups based on common political goals). It played a significant role in establishing the National Commission on Women's Affairs and in drafting the Gender Equality Strategy. Nowadays, when examining recommendations from various local self-governance programmes, it's crucial to include advisors on gender issues, advisors for persons with disabilities, and so forth. When planning any programme or budget, ministries or local executive bodies should consult with the beneficiaries to ensure alignment with the interests of people with disabilities. This requires someone with personal life experience, knowledge and expertise not only about their own needs but also about those of the entire community.

"Ultimately, what I would like to say to any women who want to participate in politics, is to stay true to yourself. We are all humans first and foremost."

It's very important to know where you came from and not lose sight of the vision and connection with the non-governmental organization (NGO) that nominated you or supported you. After a person reaches a decision-making level, it's very easy to lose not just the connection, as work consumes you and so on, but also easy to lose sight of the vision. It seems like you start reasoning from the standpoint of the State, and then gradually you don't think the same way as you did when you were in the NGO.

I think this is very important. To women who are afraid to enter politics because they believe it's not a place for them, I want to say - it is a place for women. Their perspective is very important. But of course, one must prepare and understand where they are going. At the same time, as I said, women should support each other. Yes, sometimes it seems scary. It seems like everyone is smart, and I know nothing. But it's not true. In fact, every woman, especially if she understands that she wants to change something for the better, has her own idea, her own thought. Each comes with their unique experience.

"I think if you want to change lives, and you understand that you can change lives being a politician, then you should enter politics."