On a bright winter’s day in Bishkek, a group of children play in the front yard of the Shining Path shelter, a home to orphans and young people from broken backgrounds. “Take the guests to mother,” a nurse instructs Daniyar, 6, who is swinging on the monkey bars. The guide leads the way through colorfully painted corridors to the office of Valentina Kochetkova, the shelter’s director.
“Here we are one big family,” Kochetkova says. “Russian, Dungan, Kyrgyz – the children don’t know the difference, and that’s how it should be.” The state-owned building, she explains, was first designated as an orphanage in the mid-1990s. Since then, the organization has thrived with a rent-free arrangement and substantial grants for maintenance, food, clothing and medication from foreign donors. More than 3,500 children -- many of whom grew from infancy to adolescence under Kochetkova’s watch -- have passed through Shining Path’s doors since 1996.
Yet this playful world was hurled into uncertainty in December when Bishkek city officials announced their intention to disperse the 56 children at the Shining Path facility and install a kindergarten in its place. Critics called the decision a misplaced attempt to address the ballooning kindergarten shortage in the city.
City officials say state-run kindergartens in the capital are operating at 40 percent over capacity. The problem is exacerbated by the steady influx of migrant families from the country’s regions and the privatization of formerly state-owned buildings that could have been converted into kindergartens. Given budget challenges, children’s shelters, which aren’t a source of profit for the state, are easy targets for conversion.
“At the end of November last year, a representative of the mayor’s office invited me to City Hall and told me that the agreement regarding our free use of the building would be terminated on December 31, 2010, and that as of January 1, 2011, it would not be renewed,” Kochetkova explained. “Naturally we were extremely distressed at the thought of children in need of our help being redistributed amongst other children’s homes across the city, already themselves overcrowded.”
At present, roughly 20,000 children attend 78 kindergartens in Bishkek, says Ainagul Malikovna, director of the city Education Department. “At full capacity, these kindergartens should accommodate no more than 12,500 children,” Malikovna said, adding that another 1,500 children were on waiting lists.
For Anna Zakharchenko, a single mother, the mathematics of life creates a painful dilemma. “Ideally I would like my child to attend a private nursery, as the state nurseries are overcrowded,” she says. But unable to afford the fees on her part-time job, she waits for a spot at the local state nursery, which charges $65 per month. She has waited six months so far. It’s a vicious cycle. Until her son, who is two-and-a-half, starts nursery, “I can’t take up full-time work. Some skip the lists with gratuity payments, but on a part-time salary I can’t afford those either.”
The story of the Shining Path facility would probably not have had a happy ending just a few years ago. But things are different now – even amid the prevailing economic uncertainty. In the aftermath of Kyrgyzstan’s political overhaul, featuring the switch to a parliamentary form of government, civil rights organizations have forged relationships with emboldened MPs. This alliance has made it easier to identify causes, conflicts and municipal shortcomings – and to rectify them.
In the case of the Shining Path orphanage, Shirin Aitmatova, an MP in the opposition Ata-Meken faction, proved instrumental in getting city officials to reverse course. Aitmatova first called attention to City Hall’s designs on the Shining Path site, aiming to produce pressure in opposition to the conversion. “Isa Omurkulov, as mayor of Bishkek, encroached on children. He wants to take a shelter away from orphans,” Aitmatova told parliament on February 3.
Others, such as Nazgul Turdubekova, who heads the Child Rights Defenders’ League, a non-governmental organization, argued that the mayor’s office “chose to try and evict these children to create space for children from functioning families,” thus displaying a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the state’s responsibility to children on the margins of society.
Aitmatova and Turdubekova were able to generate media coverage that exposed kindergarten and orphanage shortages and framed a seemingly local issue in the context of a national debate. All the public attention induced Mayor Omurkulov to issue a verbal promise that the shelter would remain operational for the foreseeable future. Shining Path’s Kochetkova described Aitmatova’s contribution to saving the shelter as “indispensable.”
For now, the orphanage looks safe. Rather than evict children from Shining Path and other homes, Malikovna from the city education department told EurasiaNet.org, “Municipal buildings rented to different organizations will be returned [to the government] for the purpose of creating new kindergartens.” Since the controversy began, “we have created space for 280 more children.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.
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