2001, Radio waves supporting girls: FM education in Kyrgyzstan
By Marianne Ohlers, UNICEF Kyrgyzstan with the staff of Radio Salam, a UNICEF-supported youth radio station in Batken town, who conducted the interviews quoted in this story.
"…My name is Meerim... I'm a grade 11 pupil, and I always listen to Radio Salam… I really like your thematic and educational programmes and all the shows that increase our knowledge... It would also be great to have programmes that inform people about how to behave, talking to each other without fighting… It would also be good to educate people so they don't quarrel in the bus and at the bazaar, so they talk to each other in an educated way... We are neighbours with the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, so I think you should also make programmes about what tolerance is, and include complex issues like preventing war, working together, cooperation instead of conflict... I think these themes help solve ethnic problems..."
Most of the world associates the collapse of the Soviet Union with happy people leaping over the Berlin wall, fireworks and democracy reborn. But for many in the former Soviet republics, those events heralded nothing but trauma and a rapid deterioration of their personal situation. A recent poll by the Preventive Development Centre in Batken, a United Nations Development Programme-supported project suggested that around 70 per cent of the population experienced social tensions within their family and/or communities since the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. The evidence is all around – ravaging poverty and spiralling unemployment, poor education and poorer medical services.
Batken is the capital of Kyrgyz province, located in the heart of the Ferghana valley in the south of the country, bordering both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This is one of the most critical areas for conflict potential in Kyrgyzstan, and has been threatened by seasonal violence since the first serious military conflict in the summer of 1999, when guerrillas from the IMU22 Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an underground armed group in the Ferghana Valley promoting a strict Islamic regime to replace the Governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan crossed the border from Tajikistan into Batken. Little wonder then that 17-year-old Meerim wishes for good neighbourly relations.
Batken is also a young town: around 50 per cent of the population are under 25. But when these young people look around, all they see is poverty, mounting crime rates, rampant substance abuse, inadequate infrastructure and telecommunications, slim educational opportunities and high youth unemployment – as high as 80 per cent in most villages in the area. Higher education or on-the-job training opportunities are also almost non-existent, with an average of less than 50 per cent of school graduates going on to further studies. Girls find themselves in an even more precarious situation in such an environment and opportunities for them are particularly lacking. Their educational needs are now all too often sacrificed first when economic constraints are felt.
No illusions about the future
Akkinai, 16, has no illusions about the future in store for her. She attends Bokonbaeva School in Batken and dreams of becoming a paediatrician. "I will finish school and then try to get a place at the medical institute. If I make the 'budget group', I should be able to study while earning some money at the same time. But if I have to pay tuition fees, that would be the end of my studying. My parents cannot afford it and where else am I going to find money? Many girls have left Batken to study but say they've gone into prostitution to pay for their schooling… I don't want to become a prostitute… I'd rather stay at home in that case."
But despite all the gloom, the young of Batken are quite fortunate compared to their peers in the more remote villages of the province. The town is the administrative centre of the province and, as such, not totally cut off from the rest of the world. Better still, it is the home of Radio Salam, a non-commercial FM radio station targeting young people, it is also the only radio station in the whole of Batken province.
Radio Salam, or 'Radio Hello', is the product of a three-way partnership involving UNICEF Kyrgyzstan, Internews and a local non-governmental organization, Foundation for Tolerance International. The fundamental common purpose here is the training of young people in radio skills that can help them generate socially responsive broadcasting, while also proving the economic viability of local radio.
Socially responsive broadcasting
The station's high profile underscores its value as a means of actively including young people in the life of the community and improving their chances of entering and contributing to adult life in a sound way. From its very first murmur at 6.00 a.m. to its sign-off tune at midnight, Radio Salam's daily 18 hours offer a cascade of links and programmes, covering everything from out-of-school education, to local news and entertainment, by way of phone-ins about what it's like to be young in Batekan. In between, good music is woven in and out, fusing the content together. The station's young staffers are in tune with their target audience and constantly seek to involve them in developing programmes and subsequent evaluations. Young volunteers do most of this legwork, interfacing between radio staff and listeners, gathering feedback and new ideas for programming.
Bearing in mind their specifically challenging situation in the province, it should come as no surprise that several of Radio Salam's programmes target teenage girls: 'The Hour Before Midnight' offers a platform to discuss relationship troubles and such like; 'Cooking Advice' speaks for itself, while 'Three nuts for Cinderella' deals with fashion trends and tips, complemented by 'Be Healthy', which zooms in on hygiene and healthy living.
While much of the above would not seem out of place on the schedule of many a radio station the world over, 'darker' issues specific to Kyrgyz life are also tackled. The pitfalls of drugs and other substance abuse are the heart of 'Two Roads', while an overview of advice on HIV/AIDS prevention was covered in a ready-made series of programmes. 'My Unknown Friends' crosses unseen borders, offering comparative views of the lives of young people in other regions, towns and countries, while nearer to home, 'The School Bench' takes a look at teacher-student relations, and 'Batken: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' reviews the social, economic and cultural life of Batken.
The music is faded out and the voice of another of Radio Salam's many faithful listeners glides over the airwaves: "My name is Aiperi, I'm an 8th grader in secondary school... I like many of the thematic shows like ''Two Roads', 'The School Bench', 'Health', and 'The History of the World', and many other educational programmes… I like them because they teach me things I did not know before… I would like to have more programmes about students from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, about how they live and study... It would be nice to get to know them, to build friendships and write to each other..."
Hundreds of radios and transistors all over Batken simultaneously pick up the music; some kids will hum along, others will tap a foot to the beat, then they will be all ears as another young recorded voice comes on, this particular one belonging to Aida… "Radio Salam is the most fantastic radio station… there are many different programmes, for example 'On the School Bench', 'The Hour before midnight' and 'Refugees, who are they?'" And, while Aida is most happy with what's on offer, she, like many teenage girls in the world, is troubled about one fundamental thing – how to act in front of boys… "I would like the radio to make more programmes for young people about falling in love... So you can tell us how to conquer the hearts of young guys."
Batken's youngsters are fortunate enough to have the impetus that Radio Salam's frequency modulations offer on a daily basis; other young people in more remote parts of the province are denied this for the time being. But UNICEF is now working to raise the necessary funds that would allow the radio's footprint to extend way beyond the current one covering the town and a few of the surrounding villages. The funds will be used to relocate the transmission antenna from its present location in the town to one of the nearby mountains. This would provide the station with coverage of the entire province, as well as enough spill-over into the border regions of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to enable the non-Kyrgyz youth to come together with their peers across the frontiers. This, after all, is what Radio Salam is all about.