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Students suffer sexual harassment in Kazakhstan

Both cultural change and awareness are fundamental in opposing sexual harassment in academia. After a string of widely publicised sexual harassment cases at several prestigious institutions of higher learning, Nazarbayev’s successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has the opportunity to spearhead the anti-sexual harassment campaign in Kazakhstan’s colleges and universities.

March 9, 2020 - Ararat L. Osipian - Articles and Commentary

Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts in Almaty, where Minister Mukhamediuly was rector. Photo: User 0100 (cc) wikimedia.org

Kazakhstan is a predominantly traditional Muslim society that features strong elements of Soviet and Russian influence. At the same time, the country struggles to modernise and embrace some European values. Despite the unusual mix of traditionalism and European modernism, Kazakhstan is not free of the problem of sexual harassment and consequently, sexual harassment scandals. One such scandal took place at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research, also known as KIMEP University. KIMEP University is a private university that offers North American-style curricula and instruction in Almaty, Kazakhstan. In 2010, some parents accused the university’s administration of silencing scandals when faculty members sexually harassed female students. According to the parents, one of the faculty members, a Canadian citizen, was allegedly sentenced in the United States for pedophilia in 2006. Ironically, he chaired the university’s disciplinary committee. Despite parents’ allegations, the university’s administration has refused to comment on the scandal.

In a more recent scandal, the Minister of Culture and Sport of Kazakhstan, Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, was accused of sexual harassment in 2016. Enlik Sydykova, a former student of the Kazakh National Academy of Arts, accused the minister of sexual harassment and published her statement on various social networks. Sydykova said that in 2011, when Minister Mukhamediuly served as the rector of the Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts, she was late for the entrance examination and tried to solve this problem with the help of the rector.

According to Sydykova, Minister Mukhamediuly invited her to be his guest, “drink wine, dance, socialise, and have fun,” but she refused. Sydykova was able to enroll in the Academy and complete her studies, although the rector allegedly tried to extort 3,000 US dollars from her for help with the positive admission decision. The Minister refutes all the accusations and calls them slander and provocation. However, the allegations stated by the student were confirmed by People’s Artist of Kazakhstan, Tungyshbai Zhamankulov. According to Zhamankulov, he was repeatedly approached by female students of the academy with similar complaints about Mukhamediuly while he held the post of rector.

In addition to sexual harassment, there were allegations of bribery and extortion. Film director Zhanybekov said that Minister Mukhamediuly had demanded money from him for supporting his film. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Kazakhstan has initiated proceedings in regard to the allegations against the minister. In response, Minister Mukhamediuly promised to sue a former student for libel. Just a few days later, the scandal around the Minister of Culture and Sport gained momentum when ten female students stepped out and alleged him of sexual harassment. According to the accusers, Minister Mukhamediuly offered them academic success or in some cases, money. There were those who agreed and those who refused. When the scandal became public, the main accuser, Enlik Sydykova, was moved by her parents to a distant village somewhere in the Kazakh steppe, away from the media attention and threats of reprisal.

Despite all the allegations and publicity that the sexual harassment scandal gained in the media, it had no negative impact on the career of Minister Mukhamediuly. Mukhamediuly left his ministerial office only in July 2019, and was immediately appointed as the Director of the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Such a reaction of the authorities is not surprising, nor are the sexual harassment incidences. From 2010 to 2015, there were over 17,000 sex-related crimes registered in Kazakhstan.

The culture of impunity around sexual abuse and other crimes against women and children, combined with the risks of reporting sexual harassment, explains the small number of reported and publicised cases. Not surprisingly, colleges and universities often share in this culture of sexual misconduct, gender violence, and traditional male domination. However, positive changes are possible. Kazakhstan’s national leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, pulled the country into the process of Europeanisation. Nazarbayev implemented a whole string of reforms in education that aimed at aligning the country’s higher and secondary education with western standards and practices. Nazarbayev University, despite all of its problems, is an unique academic endeavor – arguably one of a kind in the entire post-Soviet space. Nazarbayev’s successor, the newly elected President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, brings even more hope for positive changes. A well-educated career diplomat, Tokayev has the opportunity to spearhead the anti-sexual harassment campaign in Kazakhstan’s colleges and universities.

Ignorance of sexual harassment as a problem and silencing victims of sexual abuse will not help universities. At the same time, harsh punishment as a form of selective justice, even if widely publicised, will not necessarily bring about positive change. Both cultural change and awareness are fundamental in opposing sexual harassment in academia. A policy of zero tolerance in academic communities toward sexual misconduct, as well as timely administrative responses and investigations of allegations, is of key importance.

In January 2020, Kazakhstan joined GRECO, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body in charge of ensuring compliance with the Organization’s anti-corruption standards, as well as its effective implementation. This membership implies certain commitments on the side of Kazakhstan; it will help the country to identify deficiencies in its national anti-corruption policies while prompting the necessary legislative, institutional and practical reforms. This, in turn, may create a push for a better articulated anti-sexual harassment policy and its implementation, including at Kazakhstan’s colleges and universities.

Given the genuine effort of the state authorities to integrate Kazakhstan into the global community, universities in Kazakhstan have the ability to be successful in addressing the problem of sexual harassment. Proactive measures should form the backbone of the anti-sexual harassment campaign. Such measures need to include clearly outlining reporting requirements and procedures for reacting to cases of alleged sexual harassment. They should also offer multiple on-campus prevention-focused trainings, production of regular reports on university sexual harassment prevention efforts, and open access to the data from investigations on sexual harassment incidents. Kazakh universities would also benefit from borrowing on-line anti-sexual harassment courses from their American counterparts.

Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor and Scholar at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fellow of the Institute of International Education, and Fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA. His research interests include corruption and sexual harassment in education.

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