Aizhan Alzhanova is a co-founder of Mama Pro, a center in Kazakhstan which supports the professional growth of women who are stay-at-home mothers, have had employment difficulties due to special needs of their children, or women who are victims of domestic violence.
They currently have centers in Almaty and Astana, but hope to one day have a center in every city in Kazakhstan. Previously, Aizhan studied at Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Education after her daughter, Zhanel, was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Aizhan considers Zhanel to be a massive inspiration in her work: she inspired Aizhan to change career paths, open these centres, and find herself in the right place and right time to help other women like her.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
My name is Aizhan Alzhanova and I am a cofounder of the “Mama Pro” NGO. I decided to dedicate myself to social projects because my daughter has special needs.
When she turned three, we couldn’t find any inclusive or special education kindergarten. I began to realise that there would be so many barriers for my daughter in life. That is why I decided to study at the Graduate School of Education at Nazarbayev University and obtained a master degree in Educational Leadership tracking Inclusive Education.
Not everyone notices, but mothers of children with special needs are socially vulnerable in Kazakhstan. As we still have a very patriarchal culture in Kazakhstan, mainly the mothers take maternity leave to take care of their children. And as I have experienced by myself, maternity leave for mothers of special needs children can last forever. The “special needs” of children make a barrier to living an inclusive social life and to work full time. In order to support women, we founded an NGO to advocate our rights and launched a training center.
The main goal of MamaPro is to support mothers with special needs children and to provide a series of trainings focused on entrepreneurship, computer literacy, copywriting and self-development. To date, 200 women have participated in MamaPro trainings resulting in jobs skills and new businesses for more than 50 women from six regions in Kazakhstan.
In 2018, our team became finalists of the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) among 1,000 applicants and received $18,870 from the State Department to support women’s empowerment.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I was always a career-oriented person, dreaming about working in international companies. But after I had kids, my plans smoothly shifted down another path.
Now I am involved in promoting equal rights and opportunities for socially vulnerable people.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
There were a lot of challenges over the last 10 years:
I faced huge challenges of finding a job when my maternity leave was over. I looked for a part-time job with flexible working hours that I could work around caring for my daughter, but I felt discriminated whenever I told them that I am a mother of a daughter with special needs. Failing with finding a job I started studying.
Another challenge was to combine studying in the best university in our country while being a mother of two small children. After classes I couldn’t stay at university to do group projects. That is why almost all university tasks were done at night.
I still encounter challenges now. My kids are at school giving me more time to work, however our NGO is still growing along with our workload.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
The biggest accomplishment was to be invited to represent women’s issues in Kazakhstan in an address to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women at The Commission on the Status of Women ’63 (CSW) held in the United Nations headquarters in New York in March 2019. It was a great honor to participate in such event and to represent the NGO sector of Kazakhstan supporting women.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
I think my daughter and her needs made me stronger. My life completely changed when she was born. I started to notice all the inequalities in our society, social expectations in Kazakhstan, inequal gender roles and improvements needed in children’s rights. The fear that my kids will live in such a society pushed me to do something, to learn a completely new discipline and to start raising a parental community of strong parents who will advocate for their children’s rights and feel empowered enough to stay on this track.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I wish I could mentor mothers in the future, but I am not ready yet. I need to mentor myself in many aspects, especially in running NGO and promoting equal rights.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
I wish I could change the innate feelings of many women in Kazakhstan, feeling that they have to live up to expectations of patriarchic standards. If I understood my rights as a person from childhood, I wouldn’t try to fulfill other’s expectation about my life and start listening to myself earlier.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
You are not silly or a loser when you fail; it is OK. Just keep going and don’t panic when things don’t go the way you planned.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I am finishing my research on parental rights in the labor market in Kazakhstan. I made recommendations to our government on how to decrease unemployment among mothers of children with special needs. When the study is complete, I need to promote my findings in order to make our government hear our needs. I hope to make changes in the Labor Code and in the legislative system to make the labor market more inclusive to parents of children with special needs.