Kyrgyzstan: The reality of child poverty
For the first time in the region, Kyrgyzstan has put child poverty at the centre of its national poverty debate and is planning to make it a part of the next National Poverty Reduction Strategy. A two-day national conference "Child Poverty: Effective Strategies towards its Elimination in Kyrgyzstan" was held on 6-7 December by the Government with support of UNICEF, UNDP, DFID and Meerim Foundation.
Maksat, who is 16 years old, prepared his speech for three days. He spoke on behalf of working children like him who live in and around Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Maksat was invited by UNICEF to the conference on child poverty. He felt excited to speak in the presence of the Prime Minister, the First Lady, Ministers, and heads of international organizations. The presence of 30 working children – his friends among the participants also gave him strength and courage. His speech could have an impact on their lives.
Maksat, who looks younger than his age, had to stand up on his chair, to be seen at the big table. He started his talk by reading his letter. The 150 conference participants listened intently; there was silence as he spoke. Many of the adults made notes. The Prime Minister, the First Lady, the UNICEF Deputy Regional Director on his left and the UNICEF Resident Representative in the Kyrgyz Republic on his right felt his compelling voice and caught the serious look in his eyes. He told the story of his family, how he had dropped out of school and come to Bishkek, how children start working at markets, how the military take advantage of their situations and take their hard earned money.
He ended his speech by saying: “We would like you to read some of our stories and letters. We have very many problems. We understand that it is impossible to solve them all, but I am asking you to solve some of them.”
"We have very many problems. We understand that it is impossible to solve them all, but I am asking you to solve some of them.” Maksat, aged 16The children looked excited, the adults looked moved. In their hands they held letters full of hope, simple drawings describing the life of a working child.
Seeing the reality
Following Maksat’s presentation, the First Lady, Vice Prime Minister, key ministers, the Mayor of Bishkek and representatives of international agencies went to the Kelechek District. It is one of 24 poor migrant settlements near Bishkek with a total population of about 300,000 people. There are no jobs for adults and often children become bread winners, working at the nearest market, pushing carts, selling seeds, cleaning shoes. It takes 30 minutes to go on foot, past the cemetery, to the nearest bus stop and school. The visitors were asked to discuss the present situation and try to better understand the needs of children. The conversation was uneasy at times. The adults were not expecting the children to be so articulate and critical. But the message was clear – our rights are being violated and you have obligations to assist.
Until very recently, children’s participation was limited to happy singing and dancing, smiling and thanks for charity gifts. It is still very uncommon for children to speak out in the presence of adults and demand their rights. For some adults it was a shock. The next day, one of the participants even accused children of being too negative: “They demand from the government and us many things, but they did not ask themselves what they can do to improve their own situation.” This phrase was left hanging in the air. But what can a child who has to earn a living and is denied the right to education do to change his or her situation?
Luckily, there were also those who thought in a different way. In his closing remarks at the Conference, the Prime Minister thanked all the children for their participation and pointed to the importance of their contributions. “I have read all your letters,” he said, “and I have already assigned people to address your problems”.
The Conference Resolution raised many issues and identified actions that are urgently needed to realize the rights of children like Maksat and his friends. Importantly, the Resolution specifically acknowledges the vital role of meaningful children’s participation in formulating policies and programmes to address their problems. To solve their problems we need to understand them. And who can better explain their problems than the children who experience them.
The conference was attended by some of the most senior government officials including the Prime Minister, the Vice Prime Minister, several key Ministers (Finance, Health, Education, Social Protection) as well as representatives of the key donors, international and non-governmental organizations. The First Lady actively participated in all the session of the Conference. Some children and young people from the Kelechek community, an urban settlement of internal migrants, had prepared for and participated in the Conference. These children work in the informal sector in the nearby Bazaar. Many have dropped out of school but some have gone back or take night classes. Their life stories and experiences of poverty were assembled in a brochure distributed at the Conference. A powerful message from one of the boys named Maksat was "To solve all these problems is impossible, but I am asking to solve some of them". The Prime Minister, in his closing remark, told that the Government would be looking into the problems (need for a school, employment for parents, school transport, stopping of informal payments for education, water an electricity for the settlement, etc) raised by these children.
Besides, DFID and UNDP, the IMF, the WB and USAID spoke positively about the importance of elimination of child poverty and their work in the area of poverty reduction. IMF was supportive of efforts for elimination of child poverty and encouraged the government to prepare quality social investment programmes for funding under the proceeds of some of its assets.
There was recognition that poverty reduction is wider than the three social sectors of health, education and social protection and that other actors including communication, environment and justice also needed to join the strategy. Decentralization and capacity building at local level emerged as priority focus, cutting across other areas, and the way administrative reform interact with this process. It was recognized that there could be a mismatch between the NPRS programme and the allocated budget. One area where more work is needed is for disaggregated budget analysis of social sectors especially, health, education, social protection/welfare and water and sanitation, so as to identify efficiency gains and redistribution of existing resources within each sector to the basic and primary service components of each, e.g. public health centres, early childhood development and primary education as opposed to tertiary services. There is also need for identifying and putting in place systematic mechanisms and processes for participation of children and young people.
At the end of the Conference the government agreed in principle to adoption of a resolution with agreed action points as a concrete follow-up to the meeting. The work on the resolution should be completed in the course of next 7-8 days. It would provide amongst other things for a comprehensive and multidimensional framework for addressing child poverty, establishment of a set of indicators for monitoring child poverty reduction, and development of creative and systematic processes for including the voice of children and young people in the planning, implementation and monitoring and assessment of child poverty programmes.
For more information:
Galina Solodunova, Communication Officer, UNICEF Kyrgyzstan
Tel: (+996 312) 611 211