Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia where the number of female migrant workers exceeds that of men, with a sizeable proportion of the women under the age of 20.
But some politicians in the remittances-dependent nation want to impose restrictions on young, unmarried women traveling abroad alone for work.
The politicians have argued that young women often face exploitation and other hardships as migrant workers.
Last month, conservative lawmaker Nadira Narmatova suggested that women should not be permitted to go abroad for work until at least the age of 23.
Speaking at a discussion focused on women and migration on May 24, Narmatova criticized men, she said, who send their wives and daughters to work abroad while they stay at home.
Another conservative lawmaker, Shailoobek Atazov, told the parliament on May 26 that young women traveling abroad alone should first report to the authorities and explain why and where they intend to go.
Atazov came under fire last year when he suggested that unmarried women under 23 should be prevented from going abroad unless they are accompanied by their parents.
That proposal prompted protests by activists, who said the move would violate women’s rights and demanded that Atazov resign.
“When we said we need to take care of the safety of 18-year-old girls, you came to parliament in miniskirts to protest, saying that ‘We are 18, we know where to go,'” Atazov, referring to last year’s protests, told lawmakers on May 26.
The latest calls echo a controversial proposal made a decade ago by lawmaker Yrgal Kadyralieva, who suggested that women under 23 should not be allowed to leave the country without the permission of their parents.
The travel restrictions proposed by Kadyralieva would only apply to female migrant workers, not women who have received concrete offers to work or study abroad.
Kadyralieva said her proposal is aimed at preventing young Kyrgyz women from becoming the victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry on May 30 responded to Atazov and Narmatova’s calls by saying that such travel restrictions on women would violate the country’s constitution. The ministry said it was exploring ways to ensure the safety of Kyrgyz migrant workers.
Like in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, many households in impoverished Kyrgyzstan depend on remittances sent from the estimated 1.5 million Kyrgyz migrants who work abroad.
Kyrgyzstan’s Labor and Migration Minister Kudaibergan Bazarbaev said last year that the number of female Kyrgyz migrant workers has been steadily rising since 2014.
By some estimates, around 14 percent of Kyrgyz women who work abroad are under the age of 20.
Most of the estimated 30,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers in Turkey are women. Many of them work in the hospitality and services sector as well as in private homes, where they are employed as caregivers, maids, and babysitters.
Create Opportunities At Home
Kanykei, a Kyrgyz migrant worker who lives in the Russian city of Surgut, said the calls for “travel bans” on women would not stop people from leaving Kyrgyzstan in search of work.
“We seek jobs abroad because we don’t have better [alternatives] at home,” said the 28-year-old, who gave only her first name.
Kanykei left her homeland alone at 18 to join her aunt, who had settled in Russia. Kanykei’s father had stopped working full-time after he sustained a work-related injury.
Kanykei’s first job was cleaning the staircases and corridors at several high-rise apartment blocks. Her income enabled her to send around $150 per month to her parents in Kyrgyzstan. Now she works at a supermarket, stocking shelves with products.
“I don’t know what some [politicians] think of young migrant women, but what I see is that the Kyrgyz women working here are decent, hardworking people who just want to help their families,” said Kanykei, who is now married to a fellow Kyrgyz migrant.
“I just wanted my parents and younger siblings to be able to buy food. That’s why I came to Russia,” she said.
Kanykei said many migrants “would perhaps go back home” if there were opportunities in Kyrgyzstan.