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

Tajikistan's Lost Generation

Economic crisis is hitting the education sector hard, leading to rising illiteracy.
By Gulnora Amirshoeva

Abdullo is 18 years old, but until recently, he was unable to write his own name. Now he sits in a dark, low-ceilinged room with a group of younger people, and listens intently as his teacher explains how language works.

He’s not at an official school. Abdullo is one of increasing numbers of young people in Tajikistan’s impoverished rural areas who are too poor or far away to benefit from mainstream education, and are instead being taught by dedicated but untrained local teachers.

Tajikistan is the poorest of the Central Asian republics and public services suffered badly in the five-year civil war that followed its independence in 1991. As a result, the state has little money with which to maintain an education system which most agree was one of the major benefits brought by Soviet rule.

Small villages like Ibrat, in the Voseyski district near the southern town of Kulyab, never had schools of their own, but in Soviet times pupils living more than three kilometres away from the nearest school were taken there by bus every day. The government has long since stopped funding this service.

Parents in Ibrat don’t allow their children to travel the three and a half kilometres to the nearest school because they worry about the heavy road traffic to and from a nearby salt factory.

Another major obstacle they cite is that they cannot afford to provide shoes or adequate clothing for their children.

Kept at home, the 40 or so children of Ibrat are completely uneducated.

This situation preyed on residents’ minds until Namoz Khudoyorov – a 37-year-old with only a secondary education – decided to give the youngsters as much teaching as he could, using a relative’s vacant house as his schoolroom.

Khudoyorov now teaches 15 children aged between eight and 18 years old – including Abdullo – who are divided into three classes.

The school is already having a great impact in the village. Khudoyorov told IWPR that before he began to teach, the children of Ibrat were not only growing up illiterate, but their lack of education had given them a dangerously limited view of the world. “They would occasionally throw stones at outsiders who visited Ibrat,” he said sadly.

Now, Ibrat residents say they have noticed a marked change in their children’s behaviour, and Abdullo’s mother in particular is thrilled that her son is finally learning to read and write.

Until recently, Khudoyorov was running the school with the knowledge of the authorities but without any assistance from them bar a monthly salary worth 10 US dollars, and his pupils sat on chairs fashioned from stones and logs in a low-ceilinged dark room in the house, which does not have electricity.

The youngsters brought their own pens and notebooks, and studied from a single textbook on mathematics and another on the Tajik language that Khudoyorov bought at a market for a dollar each.

However, after his achievements were highlighted on local television, the Voseyski district education department donated five dilapidated desks to the school – but promptly deducted eight dollars from his already meagre wages.

In spite of this apparent endorsement from the local authorities, the children’s future education is now under threat. “Most likely, the school will stop functioning, because the owner of the house is coming back soon and the children will have no place to study,” Khudoyorov told IWPR.

The local authorities have suggested that a collective petition should be organised, and then a plot of land can be allocated for a new school building. But the residents would have to pay for this – and they simply don’t have any money. They barely make enough to survive by selling cows’ milk and produce grown in small gardens. Before he set up the school, Khudoyorov worked at a collective farm and had a one-dollar monthly salary.

Ibrat’s problems are not unique. Local journalists and residents claim that there are many such self-organised schools in the rural south, but the Tajik education ministry denies this.

Education ministry official Saidamir Aminov said that if such establishments were to exist, they would be entirely illegal, “Such schools should have an appropriate license,” he said.

Officials and analysts alike acknowledge that Tajik education is in crisis. Chronic under-funding has led to a steep drop in state expenditure per school student.

The ministry’s figures show that only around 2,000 children missed out on an education during the 2003-04 academic year. But the International Monetary Fund, IMF, and the World Bank suggest that one in five children in Tajikistan did not attend any classes last year through a combination of poverty and lack of facilities.

The IMF and World Bank suggest that around a fifth of all schools were destroyed during the civil war, and estimate that more than 130 school buildings need renovation and completely new equipment and textbooks, and new facilities are needed to house as many as 20,000 students.

But first deputy minister of education Habibullo Boboev told IWPR that it is impossible to build so many schools in Tajikistan’s current economic climate.

Practically all schools are short of textbooks or are struggling by with worn out or unusable books. The education ministry said 11 million dollars are needed to publish new materials, but admitted that only 134,000 dollars had been allocated.

Lack of money has also led to a crisis in staffing levels, with an extra 13,000 teachers needed to make up the shortfall. In many rural areas, 17-year-olds who have only just left secondary school themselves are recruited to teach their former peers, as more experienced staff become frustrated with their ten-dollar salaries and leave their jobs.

Meanwhile, standards continue to fall and increasing numbers of children grow up illiterate.

On the road to Voseyski district, IWPR stopped at the side of the road to buy water, and discovered that the sellers – Nazira, 16, and Sabohat, one year younger – were both illiterate. Neither had attended school because their parents were too poor, but they were not overly concerned about missing out.

“We know how to count money, and we can recognise some letters taught to us by our mother. But why do we need to know more?” Nazira shrugged. “Soon we will both be given away in marriage.”

Gulnora Amirshoeva is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.

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