September 2004, A kindergarten in Batken broke a barrier by accepting a mentally impaired child
Children playing at the Mother's School
When Gulzada was born, nobody could have foreseen any clouds in the future for her young and happy family. But three years later, Gulzada had an accident that left her mentally impaired. Then her parents divorced, leaving the girl with her grandmother, Mairam-apa.
Children like Gulzada with even slight disabilities are not accepted by kindergartens or schools in the Batken province of Kyrgyzstan – or in fact in those in other parts of this Central Asian country. Families who have children with disabilities try to put them in institutions, or keep them hidden at home, terrified of the stigma that might hurt their other children or relatives. Neighbours of Gulzada's grandmother urged the elderly woman to put Gulzada, who is now eight years old, in an institution, but Mairam-apa refused: "Any child needs a family and if this is a sick child, it is even more important," she says. "To place her in an institution means to betray her and imprison her to high walls that would separate her from life forever."
Instead, she worked all day long baking bread and selling it at the market to make both ends meet, with Gulzada constantly by her side.
In 2003, Mariam-apa brought Gulzada to the new Mother's School at Batken Kindergarten No.2. The school, supported by UNICEF, aims to help families who cannot afford kindergarten services to prepare their children for school. When Mairam-apa went to the school, Gulzada humbly approached a five-year-old boy and stood still, watching his small finger as its stumbled through the pages of a book. She was enchanted as she listened to him spell out the words. "I want to learn how to read. Please teach me," she whispered coming closer to her grandmother.
"In fact, why not?" decided the School Director Maripa Babaeva. "Gulzada does no harm to other children, so why should we deprive her of a right to be like other children?" Gulzada was accepted. The Mother's School, opened last year, became the first educational institution to break a rock-hard stereotype and proclaim inclusive education and equal rights for every child in Batken.
Mairam-apa shares the joy of her granddaughter: "She waits for these hours all week long. She keeps telling me about animals, letters and figures that she learns at the school. She is fond of playing with other children and they also like her. I myself also learn many things to better respond to her special needs while at home."
On New Years Eve, Gulzada danced and sang alongside the other children in the town square for the first time in her life.
The Mother's School goes beyond education for children and their parents. It creates a base for community participation in the lives of children. The School Director speaks of the main challenge to which she and her staff must respond:
"It requires much energy and personal communication skills. At UNICEF's trainings we have grasped useful methods and ideas that help us to translate our scarce material resources, our will and rich national customs into benefits for every child. We still feel like pioneers and there is much to learn".
Next year, the UNICEF Early Childhood Development Programme will replicate the model in other provinces, paying particular attention to the development of inclusive education approaches and the dissemination of teaching methods that enable pre-schooling staff to better stimulate children's development potentialities, especially children from the most vulnerable families.
Funding needs: The UNICEF Office in Kyrgyzstan seeks US$35,000 to address the above components of the ECD programme.