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

Uzbekistan: Teenage Despair Growing

Rash of teen suicides blamed on poverty and lack of prospects for the young.
By Nigora Sadykova

Salima Muradova, a 15-year-old from southern Uzbekistan, went to a wedding last week where, in keeping with local custom, the bride showed off the many dresses and jewellery in her dowry.


Depressed at the life of poverty that awaited her, Salima went home and tried to hang herself. Only the vigilance of her relatives saved her life.


"I'll never have a wedding like that, and I'll never have clothes like that," Salima cried to her mother as she came round after being taken down from the rope.


In the same week, from February 11 to 18, three other schoolchildren in Uzbekistan's Jizak region succeeded in killing themselves - the latest casualties in an epidemic of youth suicide sweeping the Central Asian state. In each case, relatives blamed the poverty the youngsters were facing.


Like Salima, 15-year-old Ikram Mukimov had had a recent reminder of the impoverished circumstances of his family. His father, Khaidar, had not been paid his salary on time for several years by the collective farm where he worked, and struggled to feed and educate his six children.


According to a schoolmate, Ikram went to the birthday party of a boy from a well-off family three days before his death. After the party, he stopped going to school, and on the night of February 16 he hanged himself in his room.


"This is all because of poverty. Children go to school and see their classmates who are better off than they are, but when they come home they cannot always expect to get a piece of bread. This depresses the children," Bakhodyr, a worker at the Jizak dairy combine, told IWPR at Ikram's wake.


The problem is the same all over Uzbekistan. According to the prosecutor's office in Fergana, 33 minors killed themselves last year, out of around 210 suicides in the region.


But even these shocking figures understate the true scale of the problem, according to a former investigator at the internal affairs department in Fergana, who asked not to be named.


"If there are many cases of suicide in the region, the law-enforcement bodies may be reprimanded and have their careers ruined, so usually not all cases are recorded," he said.


"Schoolchildren resort to suicide when they experience profound stress," said Ilkhomjon Valiev, an investigator from the Rishtan prosecutor's office in the Fergana region, adding that sometimes parents were to blame.


A resident of the southern Kashkadarya region, who prefered not to be named, agreed.


"Parents can be rough with their children, and beat them, ignoring children's sensitive nature, especially girls, and especially during puberty. We have a lot of these cases here, but no one pays any serious attention to them," he said.


Kurbanbai Isakov from Rishtan said he never expected that his 16-year-old son Sarvar would be so upset by a quarrel they had that he would kill himself.


"I loved my son very much," he said with tears in his eyes. "I only wanted one thing - for Sarvar to be an honest and good person. When he stole and sold a car tyre and I found out about it, I got angry and punished him, but I didn't think it would lead to his death."


Rishtan investigator Valiev said there were often problems in the Isakov family, as the father was unemployed and the family was in financial difficulties, and this was probably what led Sarvar to steal.


Khakimakhon Tojibaeva, head of the family protection secretariat in Fergana, said there was often a lack of understanding in families, with parents indifferent to the psychological state of their children.


She also criticised the lack of specialists in schools capable of anticipating problems, remarking that in 34 Fergana schools, there were only three psychologists.


"Psychologists who work at schools do not conduct surveys among pupils to detect changes in the children's psyche," she said. "Their mental state is not investigated."


One official at the Fergana education department said the problem went deeper, and was the result of a general lack of investment. In the region, there were 204 schools in buildings not suitable for teaching, 75 schools without drinking water, 211 without a telephone, and 386 without gas. Generally, there were no facilities for children to play sport, and they were taken away every autumn to pick cotton, and in spring to weed plantations.


The imam of the Umm-al-Kuro mosque in Fergana, Sabir-kori Normatov, argued that it was important for children to study the fundamentals of Islam, which forbids and condemns suicide.


"The Almighty created people for life," he said. "It is forbidden to read the funeral prayer over the body of a suicide, and the doors of paradise are closed to him. Unfortunately, children and teenagers do not know or do not understand this."


But as the fight against religious extremism goes on in Uzbekistan, and members of Islamic organisations are arrested, it is unlikely that the government will decide to introduce the study of religion in schools.


Ulugbek Khaidarov is an IWPR correspondent in Jizak; Nigora Sadykova is the pseudonym of an independent journalist in Fergana.