Real lives











September 2004, Strengthening schools to prevent child exploitation amid rising poverty

© UNICEF/KIRA-02/Rasulova
Students benefitting from the UNICEF-supported Global Education Framework

Mirlan, a 10-year-old boy from Nookat village in the south of Kyrgyzstan, volunteered to tell us his story: "I go to school in late autumn and in early spring. In winter it is cold and I always feel sick. The rest of the year I spend working in the bean and potatoes fields. I give all my earnings to my parents. My father has worked all his life in the fields and says that not everything he learnt at school was useful. I don't like to go school either, it is not interesting. It is difficult for me to catch up with my peers and they laugh at me. Some of my friends have left for the cities, they work in markets, push carts and polish shoes. They earn good money, but they have to deal with militia and employers often cheat on them."

Poverty is the key factor pushing children out of the classroom and into child labour, a new phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan. Since independence and the collapse of Soviet-type welfare systems, growing economic and social hardship has forced many children into the role of family breadwinner. Though Kyrgyz legislation prohibits the employment of children under 16, the law is rarely applied in practice. By pushing carts, kids can earn much more than, for instance, a woman who sews clothes. Children work illegally and become extremely vulnerable to exploitation and other rights violations.

The situation is not helped by a deteriorating education system – plagued by budget cuts - that is failing to give children the type of schooling they need. Dissatisfaction with education encourages children to look for alternatives. And some welcome what they see as outside opportunities to learn more about real life.

Dinara, a 14-year-old girl from the capital Bishkek has been working for three years as a babysitter and pioneer leader in summer camps. "I have a good way with kids and am good at communicating with people. On the one hand, I need to work to help my sick mother and two younger brothers. On the other hand, I also simply need to work to raise my self-esteem. Working is not a threat or an alternative to schooling, it just helps to link our studies to real life.

But Dinara concedes that in a context where child labour is illegal, everything depends on her employer. "He or she feels free to establish any rules and conditions, determines the salary and can dismiss me at anytime." Working also causes other problems. "Those who work are scorned and stigmatized as being poor and 'second class'. Children in Bishkek's schools compete for better clothes and luxuries, and blame their parents if they cannot ensure that they look 'modern'."

"I have a friend who did not want to go to school as she felt ashamed of the poor way she was dressed. Once I invited her to come with me to a children's institution, as a volunteer, and we helped look after the kids. Their eyes were shining and all the rest seemed to be of no importance. It helped her to understand how important and needed she was. Now she does not feel inferior and other children at school started to treat her differently," Dinara says.

© UNICEF/KIRA-02/Rasulova
community unites in the task of improving children's access to education

The stories of Mirlan from the village and Dinara from the capital are very different and raise different issues, but both reveal the need for schools that are stimulating and relevant, giving all children the opportunity to express themselves.

Such schools should provide a safeguard against child exploitation. That is why education policy has become a priority for UNICEF, focusing on improving access to and quality of basic schooling.

In two remote provinces – Naryn and Batken, community leaders have formed Education Village Groups, with UNICEF support, to identify children who may be at risk of dropping out of school or are having difficulties learning in the classroom. They gather information about all children in the community, including which of them attends school and their grades; those who do not attend, where they live, what they do with their time and why they do not go to school. The Village Councils examine what kind of social programmes are needed to ensure that all children can receive a good-quality basic education. The project started in 2002 and is mainly aimed at improving access to school. Over one year and a half, dozens of children have returned to school.

Children take an active part in Education Village Group discussions, bringing simple and straightforward solutions. It turns out children know much better who of their peers do not go to school and why.

Eight-year-old girl Malika would probably never gone to school but for her neighbour, a boy called Alik. He told the local Group about Malika's family where five children shared three pair of shoes. Because of that, the parents decided the youngest daughter should stay at home. The community organized a jumble sale of secondhand clothes and Malika got a pair of shoes and a sweater. She is now a dedicated school pupil.

Community involvement helps to build up the skills of the entire community, including parents and children.

Starting in 2002, along with the school access issue, UNICEF in Kyrgyzstan has also been tackling the quality of education through the Global Education Framework that puts an emphasis on learning that is socially relevant, bringing together the elements needed to create a school environment that is child-friendly, while providing good quality education. As a result, a group of educationalists led by the Ministry of Education is revising the curriculum to make education interactive and its contents more linked to real life. UNICEF provides a wide range of training for teachers from the pilot schools, education administrators, local authorities and civil society. In the 2004-2005 academic year, 20 schools will pilot new curricula and modern methods of teaching.

With the support of UNICEF, education reforms and community mobilization will strive to ensure that children like Mirlan, Dinara and Malika attend schools that reach out to include all children; schools where teaching and learning are based on child rights, are gender sensitive and whose environment is truly child-friendly.



 Email this article

unite for children