July 2006, Kyrgyz communities unite to help children stay in school
Last year, 13 year old Askat was caught skipping school: “I worked in the fields, mowed the hay, and grazed the cattle. I want to help you and my sisters…” he explained to Aisha-apa, his grandmother, and a local group of village people who were waiting for him one day when he arrived home. Aisha-apa was especially distressed to learn that her grandson had missed at least a month of school, for she was once a very respected teacher in the village. She understood his reason, though, and was grateful for his sense of obligation and responsibility. Still, she desperately wanted to find a way to get him back into school, and thanks to others in her community who shared her desire and value for education, Askat is today a top student in his school.
Naryn Province, located in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, is not an easy place to live – it is isolated among the mountains and the harsh winter climate means that survival hinges on a productive spring and summer season of cattle herding and crop tending. For many, finding consistent work means migrating elsewhere, as Askat’s parents have done, leaving him and his sisters in the care of Aisha-apa, who has her own troubles. She is no longer able to work due to a devastating and debilitating accident. She collects a meager sum thanks to a disability and pension scheme, but it is certainly not enough for a family of four. Hence, the young but stoic Askat decided he must sacrifice his right to an education in order to help his family survive.
Askat’s choice is not unusual among the children Naryn Province, and when rates of school attendance began to fall several years ago, many took notice, including UNICEF. In 2002, UNICEF supported the launch of the Community Management of Education Project, a pilot programme aimed at helping local communities in this remote province boost their capacity to reach out and support the needs of children like Askat. “It was much more difficult at the beginning than one might think. It took us a long time to understand the aim of the project and the philosophy of reaching out. We first had to come to an understanding of our own roles in getting children back to school and then of how to impress upon families that poor school attendance was damaging to their children and their futures. We had to learn how to inspire others and get them to understand. We rejoiced over every little victory and finally managed to organize ourselves into a very solid and persuasive team united by a common goal,” recalls Satyndiev Mirbek, a teacher from Naryn Province.
The village education groups use hand drawn maps to track school attendance house-by-house. A red mark above a home on the map means that in that household, there is at least one child whose attendance at school is faltering. The group then visits these homes and considers ways in which they can assist: for some children this means finding appropriate school clothes; for others it can be rather complicated matters, including applying for a birth certificate or residency papers. For many families, like Askat’s, the group must even find a way to help balance school attendance with a work schedule.
“It did not take us long to talk to Aisha-apa and Askat – they did not need to be convinced that education is the most important right of a child and is critical for his future. After our visit, we wrote a collective letter of request to the local administration asking for more financial assistance for Aisha-apa, which was approved,” says Muhamidinov Sultan, a member of the village education group. While Askat still needs to work a bit to support the needs of the family, his grandmother makes sure that this does not interfere with his school schedule. By the end of that last summer, he actually overtook his peers in his studies and entered 7th form. His teachers were duly impressed by his regular attendance and his peers began to look up to him, electing Askat to serve on the School Parliament. Today he is also a member of the very same village education group that helped him to re-enter school.
Askat’s story is only one example of success: currently, the UNICEF-supported Community Management of Education Project reaches 80 per cent of Naryn Province and monitoring in 14 villages shows striking results – 100 per cent school attendance. There remains an issue of irregular attendance for some, which is why the education groups continue to find innovative ways of reaching out to communities and families. In one village, a group convinced a respected elder celebrated for his musical prowess to take teach music classes for school children; in another village, a local video salon was persuaded to shift from showing thrillers to playing more educational films and cartoons.
Local authorities and community leaders from a neighboring province, Batken, were so impressed that they are now working to organize their own project to get children back in school and help families to keep them there. It is early stages yet in Batken, but ultimately, if success continues as it has in Naryn and for children like Askat, maybe thousands more nationwide can finally realize their right to an education and forgo the assumption of adult responsibilities in the midst of their childhood.