No children left behind

Interview with Representative of UNICEF in Tajikistan Mr Luciano Calestini

Asia Plus
Luciano Calestini
21 November 2018

Interview by Representative of UNICEF in Tajikistan Mr Luciano Calestini with Asia Plus Media on World Children's Day 2018. 

Q: Which areas of activities UNICEF Tajikistan operates in?

UNICEF Tajikistan has been present and active in Tajikistan since 1993. As the UN agency with the primary mandate to advocate for the rights of all children everywhere, our work with public institutions, civil society, and communities across Tajikistan seeks to ensure none of the country’s 3.7 million children is left behind, from birth all the way to adulthood. We work very closely with the Government of Tajikistan and agree on what we will invest in together, for the benefit of children, in a series of five-year plans called “Programme Cycles”. The current program cycle is in its final two years, and soon we will begin planning for the next five years.

With the government, we focus on four main areas that relate to children’s health and wellbeing:

Early Years relates to the first six years of a child’s life, and all those things that a child needs to be able to survive and begin primary school, like safe water, good nutrition, and being fully vaccinated.

Learning is the second area, which works to ensure all children are able to not only attend school but achieve the best possible learning outcomes to prepare them for later life.

The second Decade seeks to give each of Tajikistan’s adolescents and youth a chance to transition from school to work and create a safe and prosperous future for themselves and their own families.

Lastly, Protective Environment is the part of the program that focuses on prevention and response for those children especially vulnerable to deprivation, violence, abuse or neglect.

All of this work is underpinned by research and evaluations to ensure that our work with government has real impact and is as effective as possible for children. 

Q: Can you please tell us about 3 main research that has been done by UNICEF in Tajikistan and how it reflects on the situation of the children and rights of the children in the country?

Research is a vital component of UNICEF’s work. Without understanding the root causes for social issues, or without being able to pinpoint where investments are most needed, or in what areas, we risk not using scarce resources to their maximum potential. One recent example is what we call a KAP study, which stands for Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices, and was focused on children and women with disabilities in Tajikistan. We collected a substantial amount of data on how people in Tajikistan view disability and the dynamics between persons with disability and other members of the community. As a result, earlier this year with the government and many partners we launched a nationwide disability inclusion campaign called “All Of Us Are Able”, or Har yaki mo Tavono, as it became clear that a major part of the issues faced by persons with disabilities is the negative way their own communities – and sometimes their own families – view them.

A second example of important research recently completed relates to the vulnerabilities and risks faced by adolescents in Tajikistan. This research sought to better understand the barriers to employment and civic participation faced by Tajik youth, especially the poorest and most excluded. As Tajikistan has over half a million youth and adolescents not in school or work, it is critical to shine a light on this issue.

Lastly, something called a Situation Analysis, or SITAN, is now underway. This is a study that takes place every five years in a UNICEF office and includes all partners. It forms the backbone of the country programme agreed between a government and UNICEF office, and helps to give a clear picture of socio-economic issues facing children and families and identify gaps or needs that need to be addressed in the upcoming programme cycle.

Q: Do you have any global UNICEF indicators on the situations of the children globally and if yes, which position does Tajikistan have?

The most important indicator to gauge the wellbeing of children in any country is one called the Under 5 Child Mortality Rate, or U5MR. This measures how many children out of every 1,000 born reach five years of age. At the moment, Japan is the best-performing country in the world on this indicator, with just 0.9 children out of every 1,000 born dying before reaching the age of five. Tajikistan has made huge progress since independence on this measure of children’s wellbeing and has reduced its U5MR from over 100 out of 1,000 in 1993 to 33 per 1,000 in 2017. That means more than 13 children under five die every day across the country, so there is a lot of work still to be done.


Tajikistan has made huge progress since independence on this measure of children’s wellbeing and has reduced its U5MR from over 100 out of 1,000 in 1993 to 33 per 1,000 in 2017. That means more than 13 children under five die every day across the country, so there is a lot of work still to be done.

One other key indicator used to monitor the wellbeing of children in poverty. Again, Tajikistan has made extraordinary progress in the 25 years since independence, with the poverty rate dropping from 80% to around 30% today. Still, that means around one million Tajik children are living in poverty in the country, a major risk to their development and potential. It is also a serious issue for Tajikistan, as its single most important resource for a stable and prosperous future is its people. Ensuring every child grows up safe, healthy and equipped with the knowledge and skills to transition into adulthood is a prerequisite for every successful, stable country.

In terms of next steps, three years ago the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 70/1. This is a very important resolution, as it committed every country in the world to achieve a set of 17 goals for humanity by 2030. These are known as the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The majority of these SDGs, like safe water, reducing poverty, ensuring access to health care, and quality education, relates directly to children. Tajikistan, as a member state of the UN, has signed up to these global goals and takes them very seriously, including preparing regular reports on their progress.

Q: Which problems and issues should be the primary concern and focus of Tajik society related to children?

As I mentioned earlier, Tajikistan has come a long way since independence and the destructive impacts of the civil war in the 1990s. However, until every child has the chance to survive and thrive, we cannot say the work is done.

Last year, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Children in Geneva outlined a number of key issues for children requiring attention. These included preventing violence against children, promoting inclusive education, ensuring adequate services for children with disabilities, accelerating access to quality maternal and child health services including water and sanitation, and guaranteeing the effective administration of juvenile justice. UNICEF was very pleased to see the commitment from the government to respond to these recommendations, and indeed there is now a comprehensive action plan agreed by the Tajikistan Commission on Child Rights to address them.

Without listing them all, I would like to emphasize the great importance of something called Early Childhood Development, or ECD. This refers to all of those things a mother and child need to grow healthy and strong in the earliest phase of life: from the time in the mother’s womb until age six. This includes paying much greater attention to health and nutrition (including that of the mother), early education and safe water and sanitation….and critically, not just in schools or hospitals, but with parents and in homes, as the role of parents and the decisions they make for their children are the most important of all.

Q: How much we know about suicide among children and adolescents and if there any studies done on this subject?

The emergence of mental health as a major public health issue is now becoming more acceptable to discuss. Perhaps the most extreme consequence of mental illness is suicide, often directly related to clinical conditions such as depression. In 2012, upon the request of the Sugd regional authorities and jointly with Columbia University, UNICEF conducted research on the prevalence and dynamics of suicide among children and young people (12-24 years old) in that region. One of the most important findings of the research was that of a substantially higher rate of suicide attempts among females, especially girls. Data suggested that causes included poor access to education of parents, parental discipline practices, family trauma, interpersonal violence, the migration of family members, and economic hardship….in other words, many complex underlying factors are contributing to this phenomenon. Tragically, Central Asia including Tajikistan is disproportionately affected by suicide, including youth suicide, with rates far above global averages.

With the government, this data is being used to inform how health (and mental health) services are offered to adolescents as a preventative measure against suicide and depression amongst youth. However, as mentioned, there is no easy solution to this issue, which has many drivers and no simple solutions. What us very encouraging is the growing social acceptance to discuss these issues, and also the commitment of the government of Tajikistan to lead by example in tackling the problem.

Q: UNICEF recently launched an an exciting initiative called Navovar – an opportunity for adolescents to come up with an innovative solution for a social project. Could you please tell us about this project and what UNICEF aims to achieve?

As mentioned, ensuring adolescents and youth are equipped to make the transition from school to work is a huge opportunity for Tajikistan. Around 70% of the Tajik population is under 30 years of age, and more than half a million young people are neither in school or work. We are working closely with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Migration, Labor and Employment, and the Youth Committee to provide young people with the opportunity to co-create and work on innovative solutions to problems faced by their communities. One example is a programme called is called UpShift, which we translate as Peshsaf in Tajik, and refers to a methodology to help adolescents work on their own ideas and solutions. Many amazing ideas have come from them already, and some of those were on display at the international water conference back in June.

The current cycle of Peshsaf coincides with the launch of the new global partnership for youth called Generation Unlimited. Tajikistan was chosen as one of 16 countries to run a co-creation contest for youth. Applications have been received from all over the country, and soon we will hold a four-day workshop with applicants to find the best of the best. The winners will have an opportunity to represent Tajikistan on the global stage this spring, and show how much talent this country has to offer the world.

Q: How important do you think it is to raise issues related to children in the media? How helpful do you think our join advocacy project “My child” will be for Tajik audiences?

People can only have the understanding and take action on issues on the basis of having awareness and knowledge. For UNICEF all around the world, the media is a vital partner in making sure information on children’s issues reach everyone. Not only decision makers and professionals but every community and family. The reason is that in almost all instances, social change happens when the people demand it….when people know their rights and insist they are fulfilled.

At the same time, we must always be aware that some styles of reporting can put children at greater risk. For example, reporting on sensitive issues like sexual exploitation or youth radicalization is important, but it must not reveal the identify of a specific child who may be a survivor or a witness. To help media colleagues protect children in their reporting, UNICEF have worked closely with reporters and journalists on ethical reporting guidelines that serve the public interest without compromising the rights of children. The most fundamental of these guidelines is to act always in the best interests of the child, and to respect the dignity and rights of every child in every circumstance.

In regards to the joint Asia Plus and UNICEF initiative, My Child, we are very excited by the number of people we can reach with these important messages. As a result, we have the chance to influence the attitudes and beliefs of communities and families to the benefit of all children across this beautiful country….especially coinciding with Children’s Day on 20 November. We look forward to a series of articles and interviews over the coming months talking more about these issues that are of national importance, to shed more light on Tajikistan’s great efforts to fulfill the rights of all its children.