[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
Children outside the Centre for Social Adaptation of Children in Bishkek
Like many children in the Kyrgyz capital, Aibec’s plight is not unusual. As poverty continues to grip this tiny Central Asian country, the number of street children has now reached alarming proportions - demanding far greater action than presently being offered.
“The number of street children in Bishkek is definitely on the rise due to acute poverty, internal migration and unemployment in rural areas,” the assistant project officer for UNICEF in Bishkek, Gulsana Turusbekova, told IRIN. “We don’t have any real statistics, but I can say there is no real family support system in Kyrgyzstan, nor preventive strategies to curb this problem.”
The reasons for this vary, but the fact is that the phenomenon of street children is a new one in Kyrgyzstan. Prior to 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union, there were no street children, and the family unit was much stronger. With the end of communism and a steady deterioration of the economic situation, there was a steady decline in the stability of the family, which traditionally had been quite strong in Kyrgyz society.
Without the necessary social services to provide assistance, many issues and problems never before seen in the country arose - street children being one of them.
“The problem of street children is a very complex issue, and is difficult to decipher,” Turusbekova said. “Some are abandoned, some have left their homes - there are a variety of reasons.”
The fact is that many of the children on the street today are working to support their families, because their parents’ income no longer suffices to meet the rising daily cost of living.
Many children in the bazaars, like Aibec, work as porters, or sell newspapers, flowers or candy, or wash cars in the streets. There have also been incidences of child prostitution.
Other children on the street, however, are there purely due to parental neglect or, in some cases, abandonment. Indeed, some couples went to Russia, leaving their children in the care of extended family members. The couples were to have sent money back to Kyrgyzstan but never did, leaving the children with little choice but to seek employment.
While most of the children working on the streets of Bishkek are between eight and 10 years old, statistics of their number vary between 1,000 and 5,000, depending on whose figures you accept.
“There are some 1,200 street children in the bazaars of Bishkek alone. The number could be much higher, but the number is definitely increasing,” Mira Itikeeva, director of the Centre for the Protection of Children (CPC), a local NGO, told IRIN.
In addition to a temporary residential facility for some 30 Bishkek street children it operates with its staff of 22, CPC works with social workers in the street.
As part of its outreach programme, it operates food programmes in the two largest bazaars in the city, including Osh, where particularly vulnerable children are invited to have a balanced and nutritious meal each day at lunchtime while they are working. There are some 180 children participating in this programme at the two largest bazaars.
But according to Itikeeva, “there are so many children in need, we now have a strict criteria [for them] to join”.
The CPC invites children to visit its residential centre, where they are checked for tuberculosis - a major problem in Kyrgyzstan - as well as STDs by the full-time medical doctor on the staff.
According to Itikeeva, there have been cases of syphilis and gonorrhoea, indicating that some of the children were victims of sexual abuse. On average, such children spend between six and seven months at the centre before being reunited with their families or placed in government institutions.
“We don’t necessarily like to do this, but we don’t have any other
alternatives,” Itikeeva said. “In our legislature, we do not have foster
care families, so alternative options for these children are indeed
limited,” she explained
Working with families to reunite them with their children remains the main objective, and not one taken lightly at CPC. If a child is picked up in a police raid - of which there are many - he or she is brought first to a government detention centre. If the parents cannot be reached, or the child is not reunited with the family, the child is placed in a government institution.
In most cases of this sort, efforts to effect reunion with the family fails, because there is no prior counselling with the family. CPC, however, works with and counsels a family for two or three months before returning a child to the home. Moreover, if the child is returned, CPC conducts monthly follow-up visits with the family for about six months, generally with positive results. Over the past two years, the group has successfully reunited 43 children with their families.
Part of CPC’s efforts is a deliberate effort to get children back into the classroom, something many of the children have not experienced in a very long time, or perhaps only sporadically.
According to Itikeeva, children at the centre attend a local school three times a week. In the remaining time, they are given vocational training on cooking, sewing and hair cutting. She noted, however, that money for such additional programmes was limited and there was a constant battle each year to raise funds.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, there is the UNDP-supported Centre for Social Adaptation of Children (CSAC), probably the best facility for street children in Bishkek today.
The CSAC resulted from a visit to Kyrgyzstan in 1998 by a Norwegian film crew, which followed two children to the government reception centre - a dismal facility where street children are brought in by the local militia or juvenile police to be processed.
Under Kyrgyz law, the reception centre, which is administered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, can hold a child for up to 45 days. During this period, the child’s needs are evaluated and an assessment made as to whether he or she should be returned to the family, or sent to a residential boarding school or other alternative available under current legislation.
Horrified by the conditions it observed at the centre, the crew later showed their film to the Norwegian government, which granted US $1 million towards establishing a new reception centre. The original concept was that the centre, completed in November 2000, would replace the government reception centre. However, due to regulations governing municipal authorities, this remains to be implemented.
The CSAC, built to house 60 children, already caters for 74, indicating a need in excess of capacity. During their sojourn, the youngsters attend the local school and also receive vocational training. Ath the moment, children can stay up to two years, after which, whenever possible, they are sent home.
Neil Whettam, long-term trainer of the European Children’s Fund, a British NGO working at the CSAC, told IRIN that the children range in age from four to 18. Some are street children, while others are children of parents whose parental rights have been removed by the state as a result of abuse or drug addiction.
Asked to comment on the government’s response to the problem of street children, Whettam replied that in a recent statement, the deputy prime minister said in a statement “that there were going to be street raids conducted every month to clear the streets of street children”.
“There is no doubt about it - the government is concerned about this, as it’s something they have never experienced before and they want to know how to deal with it,” Whettam told IRIN.
An international consultant recently conducted a three-day workshop on street children and what methods could be used to deal with the issue. The official view was that such children should be institutionalised, while the consultant was trying to persuade the government to consider other approaches, Whettam said.
A signatory to the convention on the rights of children, the Kyrgyz government has established a new organisation called New Generation, a national and international group to look into the issue of child welfare countrywide.
“We hope that street children will be one of the forums of the New Generation umbrella which will be looked at and developed over the next few years,” Whettam concluded.