Building inclusive Tajikistan despite the challenges posed by COVID-19

Disability Day in 2020 is all about ‘Building Back Better’, toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world.

Farzona and her son
UNICEF Tajikistan/2019/U. Fazylova
03 December 2020

Living with a disability is challenging anywhere in the world, but some places are more challenging than others. At this very moment in Tajikistan, thousands of children with disabilities are being hidden away from social life and excluded from basic education, social security, and healthcare services. Facing these extreme obstacles, it is unsurprising that the vast majority are left behind, unable to thrive or reach their potential.

Tajikistan signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2018 and in close consultation with all stakeholders, including UNICEF, developed and approved a roadmap to ratification and implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2020.

Sign language
USAID Read With Me Project / 2020

Stigma stands in the way of progress for children in Tajikistan who live with disabilities. Due to culturally ingrained preconceptions surrounding disability, many children are kept behind closed doors and prohibited from socialising or attending school. To address this issue, UNICEF has been supporting an ongoing national awareness-raising campaign reaching over 3 million people through TV, radio and social Media and community mobilisation interventions. This is just a first step to challenge existing stereotypes about people living with disabilities and promote their social inclusion in society and enrolment into mainstream schools. Recently completed Study on Knowledge, Attitudes, Behaviour, Practices and Social Norms and Social Inclusion of Children and Women with Disabilities paves the way for addressing remaining issues related to inclusion of children with disabilities in all services, including attending mainstream schools.

While 2020 has worsened outcomes for all children, including those living with disabilities, new opportunities have also emerged to promote inclusive services, particularly in education. After the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Tajikistan in April, children were sent home from school with no clear indication of when they would be able to return. 13 boarding schools for children with disabilities remained empty for over three months. In the meantime - with the country’s limited Internet access in mind - UNICEF, government actors and development partners began working on several initiatives to address the immediate educational needs of all children, including children living with disabilities. These efforts were to bring about a series of video lessons broadcast over national TV networks and the development of a new digital platform “Maktab Mobile” with financial support of the European Union.

To ensure that these lessons were accessible to as many children as possible, UNICEF provided guidance throughout the development process to ensure the videos included sign language translation. Disability-friendly content, such as information on inclusive Early Childhood Development and video materials with adaptations for children with disabilities, was also added.

It can take many actors and a lot of collaboration to make a discernible difference in the everyday lives of children living with disabilities. One such partnership, between UNICEF and the USAID-funded project “Read with Me”, has made educational content more accessible for children with hearing impairments. Through this partnership, the television programmes ‘I Can Read Fluently’ and ‘Time to Read’ were further developed with sign language as part of a greater initiative to develop distance learning opportunities, particularly in support of reading, for children during the pandemic.

Every child deserves a fair chance in life. UNICEF Tajikistan addresses the rights of children with disabilities in a holistic way with both sectoral and cross-sectoral interventions, including infrastructural rehabilitation and disability inclusive WASH at schools as well as support to the establishment of proper referral systems possessing the knowledge and capacity to serve children with disabilities and their families. The continuous advocacy at policy level has also opened new doors to ensure long term reforms in Tajikistan, including the development of new National Concept on Inclusive Education meant to pave the way for a transformative and inclusive school environment.   

We also work at community level, engaging families, tackling discrimination and stigma, and encouraging the inclusion of girls and boys with disabilities and their full enjoyment of their rights.