Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Lost Tajik Generation

Lack of education and employment opportunities consign Tajikistan's youth to the scrap heap
By Saida Nazarova

Exhausted-looking Zakir Khalilov recently returned home after a three month stint as a construction worker in the Voronezh Region of Russia. All he had to show for his labours was a $10 pay packet.


"They took away our documents, didn't give us a contract and put us in a barn to live," said Khalilov. "We did the hardest job, laying foundations and concrete. The food went from bad to worse. They gave us bread, tea and soup."


Khalilov is a qualified teacher and university graduate and one of thousands of Tajiks who are trying to scrape a living abroad because opportunities at home are practically non-existent. These days education and qualification count for little.


"After we'd built several houses the boss gave us back our papers and enough money for the trip home," he continued. " He said he kept back some money to cover our board and lodging and registration with the police."


You only have to visit Moscow's Cherkizovski market to get a sense of the problem. The place is teeming with Tajik immigrants. Most are under 30 and many are qualified teachers, economists, engineers and agronomists. They are unlikely to have a permanent job and live in caravans and home-made shacks surrounded by produce for their market stalls.


"We are young people," said a qualified engineer. "There are many specialists among us, but we are left to the mercy of fate. The state and the president don't give a damn about us."


Around a million Tajiks now live in Russia, eighty per cent of them in their late teens and twenties. Others have migrated to Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. They say they have no choice.


Not only do they have wives and children to support but also, as is traditionally expected, their extended families. For this, they endure badly paid jobs where they are held in virtual slavery for months on end.


Over 60 per cent of Tajikistan's unemployed are aged between 16 and 29. Despite President Emomali Rakhmonov's 1998 slogan, "The Young are the Future of the Nation!" and regular up-beat reports from the government's youth committee, little is being done to address the problems faced by the country's younger generation.


During the Soviet era all young people were guaranteed a secondary education, free access to university or college and, most important of all, a right to employment. Nowadays, less than 40 per cent of young people in the 16 to 29 age group can boast a secondary education.


The problem is worst in rural areas where parents often see no point in education beyond learning to read, write and count. The number of children completing secondary education has nose- dived. The problem is most acute among girls.


Despite a "presidential quota", now in its third year, which sets aside 25 per cent of vacancies in tertiary education to girls from rural communities, only five to ten per cent of places are taken up, according to education ministry figures.


It is in such communities that Islamic and patriarchal traditions are strongest, where a girl's lot is to marry - a path which does not require an extensive education. The average age of brides these days has dropped to 20, from 23 in 1989. It is not uncommon for girls to marry as young as 14 and to be the mother of one or two children by the time their marriage is officially registered.


Many young unemployed are unwilling to go into tertiary education due to the poor quality of teaching, the fees involved and a belief that no well-paid job will come of it. Good jobs in, for example, banking, law enforcement and international organisations, are the preserve of those with the right connections. They can look forward to earning up to $300 a month - considered an excellent salary.


This contrasts dramatically with the five dollars a month the average teacher, doctor or engineer gets in his pay packet. This gulf between rich and poor is widest among the younger generation. Those without are often dependent on parents, who themselves earn very little.


So they opt for alternative means of earning cash. Besides the hundreds of thousands who work as migrant workers, others opt for a life of crime.


Many young unemployed turn to illegal currency dealing and flogging second-hand cars to make a living. Crime figures from the interior ministry for the first quarter of this year show that over 40 per cent of offences were committed by people aged between 18 and 29 - a 15.5 per cent increase on the same period the previous year. The largest rise was in theft, fraud, armed assaults and drug-related offences, the latter accounting for a fifth of all crimes committed


One 25-year-old woman arrested at Dushanbe airport trying to smuggle 200 grams of heroin to Moscow in her stomach says it was to be her third and last trip. "I was educated as an economist, my husband left for Russia and disappeared, " she said. " We have two children and I earn 16 somoni ($7). I have to survive." The young woman now faces between eight and ten years in jail.


Youngsters don't just smuggle drugs, they take them in ever increasing quantities. The health ministry says there are around 5,000 drug addicts, but the unofficial figure is twice that.


The tendency is more and more towards addicts taking hard drugs like heroin.


Tajikistan's youth are a lost generation. Most are unemployed or poorly paid. Only a tiny percentage - the children of senior politicians and officials - enjoy good prospects. Most of these lucky youngsters study at prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, Switzerland, Turkey, and Russia. Many chose to stay away, but the ones who return usually walk into comfortable, well-paid jobs.


Meanwhile, lack of opportunity is driving droves of Tajik youngsters into crime or to seek out a meager living abroad. Those with an education, qualifications and expertise are unable to find a suitable outlet for their skills. Others aren't even bothering to learn in the first place. None of which bodes well for Tajikistan's future.


Saida Nazarova is a pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan


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