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

Uzbek Children Miss Out on Kindergarten

Unemployment and poverty means a pre-school education is beyond the means of many families.
By IWPR staff
Four-year-old Utkir plays in the ruins of a former collective farm kindergarten in his village in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley. Nearby, his sister looks after two sheep as well as Utkir, while their mother Sharifakhon works in the fields, toiling for farmers for 1,500 sums per day, about 1.20 US dollars.

Unlike his sister, Utkir has never been to kindergarten and has little chance of doing so. His family is too poor to pay the fees. Sharifakhon, whose husband went to Russia to work and never returned, says her main priority is not pre-school education but feeding her children.

“Even if he only eats bread, at least he does not go hungry,” she said.

“In the past, I worked as a milkmaid on a collective farm, but I soon found myself out of a job. It is good that I have a chance to work as a labourer. The work is hard, we bend our backs in the sun all day, but at least I am able to feed my children myself. Of course we do not have enough money for clothes and other things, but my relatives help out with hand-me-down stuff from the kids’ cousins.”

Sharifakhon’s position is far from unique. The collapse of the agricultural system and unemployment in the countryside has doomed many rural families to poverty, making education for young children a low priority.

Even if Sharifakhon and others like her could find the money to send their youngsters to pre-school, the number of kindergartens is in decline in Uzbekistan, while conditions are poor in those that do exist.

A local government official in a rural district of Namangan province said that although things were not perfect in Soviet times, there was a reasonably sophisticated system of free pre-school education. But many kindergartens have been forced to close in recent years because parents cannot afford the monthly fees of 5,000 sums.

“Last year, the district education department decided to close three more kindergartens. As a result, there are now 18 kindergartens in a district which used to be 30,” he said. “Mass unemployment and poverty in the countryside… has directly affected our children.”

Urban areas also face problems with pre-school education. An expert on children’s issues described how urban kindergartens are in an impoverished state, most with poor sanitation and many too poorly maintained for children to attend in winter.

Part of the problem is that the state funding allocated for to repair and maintain the kindergartens is rifled by unscrupulous bureaucrats. “Education officials receive large bribes for ordering foodstuffs from businessmen, and then the cooks and chief accountants sell off the food that was supposed to go to the children,” said the expert.

Despite their problems, these kindergartens are difficult to get into.

Ravshanoi from the city of Fergana told IWPR that she had to pay a 40,000-sum bribe to get a place in a kindergarten next door to her house.

“It’s regarded as the best kindergarten in the area,” she said. “It’s got experienced teachers and relatively good food. But all the same, before and after my child goes to kindergarten I feed him well. We only need the kindergarten so that someone looks after the child, because I have to work.”

Besides the bribe and monthly fees, Ravshanoi must also find money for school trips, festival and contribute to birthday presents for teachers and the kindergarten head.

“This has already become the norm, and so few parents show their anger openly, although when we talk amongst ourselves we always complain that we have to pay bribes for a person starting from childhood. But you can understand the teachers: their [monthly] salary is 20,000-30,000 sums, and it’s difficult to live on that.”

A kindergarten teacher confirmed this, saying her dream of working with children was jolted by the harsh reality of how little she got paid. “I didn’t think teachers were valued so little in our society. Just think about how to live on a salary of 25,000 sums. I have to pay 18,000 just for utilities.”

Like the parents, the school itself has to pay bribes in the form of treats and presents to municipal officials. “Otherwise our kindergarten may be closed. So we have to do something, and we ask for help from parents. But we do not force them to help us,” said the teacher.

(Names of interviewees have been changed or withheld for reasons of security.)

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