Gulaim and her daughter standing in the snow outside their home. Mark Pengelly/BRC

Gulaim and her daughter standing in the snow outside their home.
© Mark Pengelly/BRC

This year on International Women’s Day (8 March), the Red Cross is highlighting its work with women to create change from within communities, promoting gender equality and inclusion.

The Kyrgyzstan Red Crescent runs a fantastic women’s programme, supported by the British Red Cross, which is helping women redress economic, political and social inequalities. In a society which traditionally believes a woman’s place is in the home, the programme is changing mindsets, attitudes and behaviours within individuals, families and communities.

Gulaim’s story: no longer living in fear

After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, standards of living in Kyrgyzstan fell sharply as inflation reached 930 per cent in 1993 . Gulaim Kanatova is one of many people who moved to the capital, Bishkek, in search of work.

“When we arrived in Bishkek I started job hunting, but there was no work,” says Gulaim. “Also, we were staying in our relations’ home, so we couldn’t get our propiska.”

The ‘propiska’ is a registration card which is needed to access free health and education services, but when people move from one region to another getting re-registered can be a huge challenge.

Turned away from the doctors

When Gulaim gave birth to her daughter the family’s situation became even more difficult.

Gulaim says: “My daughter has problems walking and I asked the doctors many times to do an operation. But they would not help because we didn’t have the propiska. Also, I couldn’t get work to pay for the doctor so it was a vicious circle. I cried at the doctors so many times!

“One day I saw an advert for a free sewing course at the Kyrgyzstan Red Crescent Society. I was accepted on the course and we learned many things as well as sewing, such as how to make a business plan, and how to improve the health and lives of our families. We discussed a lot of issues and problems of our everyday life and now I’ve completely changed my world outlook.”

Setting up my business

Following the Red Crescent training Gulaim managed to set up her own sewing business with a loan from her relatives. After one year she paid back the loan and the business has been so successful she now employs 15 people.

“Last year, with the money I earned I bought some land to build a small house,” Gulaim says. “I now have a home for my family. It is a very big achievement for me to do all this in one year. I would like to thank you for supporting women such as me.

“As the sewing industry in Kyrgyzstan is developing women now have an opportunity to improve their economic position. Our customers say our product is successfully sold in many countries. It helps our business develop.”

Opportunities for women

Gulaim’s experience shows that attitudes to women are changing. She says: “In my family money is earned by the person who can do it, no matter if it’s a man or woman. Now many families have that tendency.

“There is an increasing need for seamstresses in Kyrgyzstan, however you have to pay for most sewing courses and not everybody can afford it. I am so thankful for the training I received.

“I suffered many problems, but now I have overcome them. We can afford food and clothes. I take my daughter to good doctors and she studies well. I believe in myself and I no longer live in fear of the future.”

Read more stories from women in Kyrgyzstan