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Kyrgyzstan: Children teach adults about poverty

© UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2004
Participants speak with the First Lady of the Kyrgyz Republic

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, 6 December—For the first time ever, Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia, has put child poverty at the centre of its national poverty debate. The country plans to make the plight of child poverty part of its next National Poverty Reduction Strategy.

A two-day national conference "Child Poverty: Effective Strategies towards its Elimination in Kyrgyzstan" was held last week on 6-7 December by the Government with support of the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the Meerim Foundation, an international charitable organization that has done extensive work in Kyrgyzstan.

Maksat, who is 16 years old, spent three days preparing his speech. 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 – the participants – 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 a letter to the participants. He told his story – how he had dropped out of school and come to Bishkek, how children start working at markets, how the military takes advantage of their situations and takes their hard earned money.

The other children, many of whom had suffered from poverty, lack of education and forced labour, had also written similar types of letters or created drawings to share at the conference.

“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,” he said.

© UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2004
Children work while adults drink alcohol. A drawing by a sixteen-year-old boy.
A first-hand look at child poverty

Following Maksat’s presentation, the First Lady, joined by the Vice Prime Minister, the Mayor of Bishkek and other key ministers 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 are forced to earn money for the family, working at the nearest market, pushing carts, selling seeds or 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. Children from the district participated in the discussions.

The conversation was uneasy at times. The adults were not expecting the children to be so articulate and critical. But the children’s message was clear – ‘our rights are being violated and you have obligations to assist.’

© UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2004
A drawing by a fourteen-year-old boy. The broken flower represents his home country of Kyrgyzstan.
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.”

At the end of the conference, the government agreed in principle to the adoption of a resolution. This resolution is the first step to actively realize the rights of children in Kyrgyzstan, like Maksat and his friends.



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