By Shamsiya Ashurmamadova
Date Posted: June 14th, 2012
Shamsiya, an experienced educationalist is from Tajikistan but has been living in London for some years and following the award of her MSc in Comparative and International Education from Oxford University she is now researching the Tajikistan education system for her PhD thesis at the Institute of Education in London.
The reasons for placing children in residential child care in Tajikistan
By Shamsiya Ashurmamadova
The Tajik Civil War lasted 5 years from 1992 until 1997 and it followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It left an estimated 50,000 dead, 700,000 displaced, 25,000 women widowed, and 55,000 children orphaned. Although the political situation in the country has stabilized, widespread poverty has further exacerbated the condition of Tajik women and children. Eighty per cent of the population resides below the poverty level and, with unemployment levels reaching 60% in some parts of the country, over one million Tajik citizens, mostly men, have left to find work abroad, generally in Russia.
Although this migration offers financial benefits to the workers’ families, the social costs have been high for the (mostly) women and children left behind, and often results in the abandonment and institutionalisation of children.
In addition, the abandonment and stigmatization of children with mental illnesses and certain medical conditions has risen for both financial and cultural reasons. Of the estimated 11,000 Tajik children presently institutionalized throughout the country, over 80% are not in the strictest sense orphans, although residential institutions for children are all referred to as orphanages.
In recent years the number of orphans and other abandoned children in Tajikistan has increased considerably, especially those with biological parents still alive. These parents cannot take care of their children for various reasons and have to put them in child care institutions.
An underlying problem for many children in Tajikistan follows from the socio-economic crisis, unemployment, corruption, and lack of industry in the country which has had a negative effect on the economy of Tajikistan and resulted in the increase of labour migration. The number of labour migrants is increasing at a rate of 19% every year. This has an exponential effect on the number of children who are left behind with their extended family members or worse still left without any guardian. Most of the families in Tajikistan have more than one child. When the parents migrate for work, they leave their children behind either with grandparents or other relatives. In most cases those grandparents and relatives cannot afford to meet those children’s basic needs. Therefore they put them up to be in the care of the governmental residential child care institutions which are called “internats”. This problem of an ever increasing number of placements of children in residential institutions is exacerbated by those parents who migrate for work but do not send any money back home. Men are usually the worst culprits in this. The children of such parents are often forced into child labour. Despite a law passed by the President of Tajikistan in 2008 prohibiting of child labour, many children can still be seen working in the service industry, on farms or working and in the markets. If work cannot be found then the children are placed in an “internat”.
So called “Islamic marriages” have also greatly contributed to the increase of the numbers of children placed in residential care in Tajikistan. An “Islamic marriage” takes place when a man takes a wife informally by having only a religious ceremony. A wife and a child from this kind of marriage do not have any legal rights. Girls were forced into early marriage even in Soviet times but during and after the civil war in Tajikistan this started happening even more often. Those concerned with gender issues in Tajikistan argue that the reason for this was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the influence of ancient Islamic traditions became much stronger. Added to that some parents were afraid that their daughters would be raped or kidnapped during the civil war. This had financial implications for a raped daughter does not have great marriage prospects and there was a reluctance in many families to pay up for a female child who had been abducted. and so they forced the girls to get married as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Nobody was or is interested in the girls’ opinion or their consent to marriage. They are not considered as individuals but mainly for their potential as “helps” or servants in their husbands’ famillies.
Early “Islamic” marriages take place because girls are considered “old” at the age of 18, 19 or 20 which means that parents are afraid that the older the girl gets the less chances there is for her to find a suitable match. So parents want their daughters to get married at an early age. In Tajikistan it seems that men prefer to marry much younger girls of 14,15 or 16 years of age. Consequently as soon as the girls complete secondary school (many of the girls are forced to drop out of school to do the housework) they are forced into “Islamic marriages” which leaves them without any legal rights and leaves the men with no obligations to the girls. Tradition and reality has it that in such a marriage men can divorce their wives anytime by saying 3 times the word “taloq” which means “divorce”. In the case of divorce the wife and the child (if there is a child) do not get any financial support from the men. The girl will never be able to get married again and if she is a mother both she and her child will become in a sense ‘orphans’ because they will have become a financial burden for the family. The children of these young women are often placed into residential care. In these cases many the women become servants in their own parents’ homes. Some of them commit suicide. The suicide rate among young women in Tajikistan is very high. If the divorced girls get a chance to get married a second time, they will become a second or third wife but even in this case it is very rare that the men accept the child from the previous marriage. The men give the young women an ultimatum to choose between becoming a wife or keeping their child or remaining single mothers. Most women are forced to give up their children to the child care institutions. Senior government ministers, including the president advise against polygamy and state that it is an obstacle in the way of delivering a fair society. They do not follow up these declarations this by changing what actually happens.
Disabled children are largely neglected by the community and their numbers are increasing rapidly. One of the reasons for the increase in numbers of disabled children is marriage within the same family, relatives or tribes. Some families do not want to mix up with other families and so marry cousins which can sometimes results in the birth of disabled children. In Tajikistan the girls’ families have to a give a dowry and they prefer to give it to a relative. Similarly if a man has got money, a good house, and so on, he prefers to keep it in the family. Many of the disabled children born into this kind of familiy, will be put in the child care institutions.
The child care institutions are the last in the list of priorities of the Tajik government. By the terms of the 1994 Constitution, the government of Tajikistan is obligated to provide care for orphans; however, chronic shortages of food, clothing, and other necessities remain the order of the day in many residential child care institutions. This situation is made worse by the inconsistent access to potable water and by the lack of electricity in some parts of the country. Many orphanages are heavily dependent on private or foreign aid in order to function even in a minimal way.
The orphanage in the Spitamen district is situated in the Sogd region, which is a rural area near the northern city of Khujand., This establishment faces many of the handicaps that are typical of residential institutions throughout Tajikistan. The orphanage, which houses more than 20 children, is currently without toilets, showers, hot water, heating, or internet access of any kind. In addition, electricity is usually available only a few hours each day.
In 2006 a fire broke out at another orphanage for the disabled in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The fire killed 13 children and seriously injured a 10-year-old boy. The orphanage caught fire shortly after 1 a.m. when 92 children were in the building, sleeping in their beds. By the time fire fighters arrived, a portion of the roof had already collapsed, killing some of the children. A number of the children could not walk because of mental or physical disabilities, and had to be carried out of the building. One 10-year-old boy was hospitalized with burns on over 50 per cent of his body. The age of the dead children ranged between 7 and 16 years.
The fire official said a short circuit probably caused the fire. The orphanage relied on electrical heaters, which had been turned up during a cold snap. Temperatures in Dushanbe that night had dropped to -23 degrees centigrade. The official said the building had been cited for poor fire safety but that violations had not been corrected. No one has been held accountable for the loss of the lives of the 13 children who died so tragically in this fire.
Fire safety is dismal throughout the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, and this fire represented a part of a larger problem of flagrant disregard for the safety of vulnerable young people.
There are some influential international organisations who help orphanages in Tajikistan, such as Association for Tajik Aid and Development (ATAD) which is dedicated to providing relief to the poor of Tajikistan and breaking the cycle of poverty for future generations. ATAD’s Aid to Orphans programme works to improve the standard of living and educational opportunities for Tajik orphans and other children who are housed in institutions. Other organisations such as the ORA International, a non-denominational Christian relief and development organization., UNICEF, and the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent all have programmes to improve the living conditions of children in some of the residential institutions. Despite this external help the residential child care institutions of Tajikistan have not improved greatly and remain bleak places for children to live in.. Here is an extract from the memoirs of Pei Hua Sun during her visit in Tajikistan last summer which gives a clear, stark and tragic picture of the situation in residential child care institutions in Tajikistan:
“There are seven deformed children, 60km outside of Dushanbe, in two of the many rooms along the long, dim, carpeted corridor… The rooms are stench-filled. Flies linger on the faces of the deformed. The nurse is shooing them away with a white towel. P kneels beside me, and he asks why their mommies are not here and where they are. I don’t know, I say. Their legs, atrophied from lack of use, are deemed to stay that way. They have never walked, and they never will, the nurse says. One of them, he watches me with his large black eyes. I don’t quite know what to do, so I stroke his arm with the back of my hand. P strokes his other arm. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s so small that he seems like a baby to me. They all seem like babies, because they all have diapers on. We stroke him, he twitches his body a little, and P says with his high-pitched, exhilarated voice, ‘Mama, look, look, he’s smiling.’ ”