A practical visionary, helping her country evolve into a strong market economy
“I was very lucky that I grew up in the capital city and in a more or less progressive family,” Janara Chekirova says of her home in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan since the Soviet Union established it in 1925. Built virtually on the ruins of an ancient caravan stop on the Silk Road, Bishkek features Soviet era architecture and apartment complexes, set against the snow-covered peaks of the vast Kyrgyz Tian Shan Mountain Range.
The predominantly Muslim region has seen sweeping changes over the last few decades, including the rise of ethnic conflict, widespread corruption, ecological issues, inequality—and a woman president. Roza Otunbayeva served as an interim president during the power vacuum after the Soviets left. She used the words of the Koran, urging that “those who were earlier at enmity must forgive each other in the name of further peaceful coexistence.”
Kyrgyzstan became a parliamentary republic with an appointed prime minister, and stability has prevailed for the time being. New opportunities exist for women, however, Janara writes about the problems in post-Soviet states that must adapt from a planned to a market economy without basic knowledge of banking and financial institutions.
Employment opportunities in Kyrgyzstan dropped, and many people, mostly men, immigrated to Russia, Europe, and the US in hopes of earning money to send home. As a result, women and children were left behind in both rural and urban areas. Culturally conservative families still restrict women’s freedom to work outside the house, engage in social activities, or seek an education. These women depend entirely on remittances and face an uncertain future. “Particularly in Kyrgyzstan,” she says, “the empowerment of women is the most critical issue for our economic and social development as well as conflict prevention and resolution.”
Janara aims to be a part of that process. She knows that without the “tremendous amount of support” from her family, especially her mother, she might have experienced a life more like the women who concern her. Janara sees solutions in the study of mathematical economics, her major at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University of Bishkek. “It is my ultimate goal to see Kyrgyzstan as a place where girls and women can break free from conservative and oppressive norms and pursue education and entrepreneurship in the same way as our male counterparts without being judged or ridiculed.”
She believes that “if these women had access to micro-credit, training in financial literacy, and entrepreneurship, they could become less dependent on international political and economic fluctuations in Russia and support themselves and their children.” She cites research that women are more likely to invest in children’s welfare along with “hundreds of success stories” of micro-finance organizations in Kyrgyzstan that helped women climb out of poverty and send their children to school. She’s seen firsthand examples of this through her activities, training, and work.
Janara served as vice-president of her campus organization, the Women’s Leadership Association, and helped carry out several fund-raising events for books and school supplies for girls in rural villages and for clothing appropriate for job interviews for women. At the Bai Tushum Microfinance Institution, she managed a team of interns in setting up workshops and seminars on financial literacy for the urban poor so they could access micro-loans to advance their small enterprises. Her supervisor says Janara’s input, presentations, handout materials, and consultations have been “tremendous.”
In observing volunteers and their recipients, Janara concludes that it is women who will strengthen inter-ethnic community ties through engaging in entrepreneurial and social activities, thereby easing ethnic tensions. “They naturally facilitate inter-cultural dialogs around everyday problems, promoting the notion that we all share common goals and aspirations for peace and prosperity.”
In addition to her time commitments to classes and volunteering, Janara has also worked for the Ministry of Economics and Megacom Telecommunications Company, judged debates, won awards for academic excellence, and traveled, especially for dancing competitions.
“To create an environment of support for women and girls who need to know that they have everything it takes to be great and successful,” Janara is initiating an ongoing project to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills. “I was privileged to receive higher education in economics, and I have a good job at a financial firm,” she says, “but I feel the need to give back. I feel that I can make a difference.”