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Central Asia: Class Struggles -- Extreme Poverty Endangers Education (Part 4)

Increasing poverty in Central Asia is forcing many families to cut short primary education for their children and send them into the labor market instead. Regional governments say they are aware of the situation and are making serious efforts to support education. In the conclusion of "Class Struggles," our four-part series on education issues within our broadcast area, RFE/RL speaks with parents and professionals in Central Asia, who say too little is being done to stop the downturn in education priorities.

Prague, 30 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Parents and children in Uzbekistan used to look forward to the start of the school year. Students anticipated talking to classmates about their summer travels or about the books they'd read during the summer holiday. They were happy to get new school clothes and supplies.

Parents were happy to send their noisy, energetic kids away to school in the hope that classes would calm their feisty spirits.

Today, however, 11 years after independence, the start of the new school year is bringing little joy to parents and children in Uzbekistan, or elsewhere in Central Asia. Although primary and secondary education remains free, preparing children for the start of school places a heavy financial burden on the majority of families.

A mother of three school-age children in Karshi, Uzbekistan, explained why. "If you calculate the expenses of one child for a new school year, it is beyond 50,000 to 60,000 soms [$50 to $60]. This amount is only for the beginning of a school year. We cannot afford it with our salaries. Just think, the minimum salary in the country is 4,350 soms [$4]. Many people do not get even this amount of money, in fact."

In the Soviet Union, education was one of the state's top priorities. Schools were well provided with educational equipment, books were distributed for free, and children from low-income families received financial aid from the local authorities.

Today, elite schools with modern computer facilities exist in the capitals of Central Asia. But these schools are only for the children of government officials and wealthy businessmen and swallow a considerable amount of the region's education budgets. Meanwhile, it is left to the parents to provide for many schools in the provinces. Parents often have to contribute to reconstruction costs, as well as pay for all educational materials, including schoolbooks.

An independent survey conducted earlier this year by the Public Opinion Center in Tashkent showed that 80 percent of the Uzbek population has difficulties making ends meet. In such situations, primary and secondary education often becomes a low priority for families, as this Uzbek father from Andijan pointed out. "I am at a loss. If you want to send your children to school, you should put boots on them, at least. Besides, if you buy books, then there is a need for notebooks. Then you have to pay the school for its reconstruction and so on. That's why my son cannot go to school. Last year, because of hunger and cold, he missed half the school year."

Jahongir Musaev is an official at the Education Ministry in Uzbekistan. He said the government is aware of these difficulties and is trying to help struggling families. "Nowadays, the government is trying to support low-income families by providing their children with schoolbooks and clothes. This year, 75 percent of such families get free schoolbooks for their children. There are some efforts to make it 100 percent in the next school year. School administrations together with 'mahalla' [community] committees decide the list of such families based on their economic situation," Musaev said.

So far, many Uzbek parents say, the government's efforts to ease their burdens remain invisible. Without such support, more and more parents say they are facing a new dilemma: whether to send their kids to school or to the bazaars and cotton fields, where they can earn money to help their families.

Consequently, more and more children in Uzbekistan can be seen in the streets and in the bazaars instead of behind school desks, as this frustrated mother from Ferghana explained. "Today, there is a lot of talk about [the privileges] of independence, but a lot of children are wandering in the streets. Today, even small children are in the bazaars. For example, I am a mother of five children. I get a pension of 17,000 soms [$17], which is enough for nothing. That's why I had to send my three kids to the bazaar instead of to school, to be honest. The situation is very difficult. If children do not go to the bazaars, they will starve."

Enrollment in primary schools is falling across Central Asia. Before independence, the level of school attendance was almost 100 percent. Today, it is less then 70 percent in Tajikistan and around 80 percent in the rest of the region, according to data from the United Nations Children's Fund.

Education experts say the decline in education in Central Asia is simply a part of larger sociopolitical and economic troubles facing the region. They believe that without fundamental reforms, improvements will not happen.

Muborak Tashpulatova, a director of the Tashkent Public Education Center, believes responsibility for education in Uzbekistan should be decentralized. She said that without the increased democratization of Uzbek society, the problems in the country's education system may get even worse. "In my opinion, the education process should be democratized. This is first. I think that if teachers, students, and parents are given more freedom, they will seek new ways and come up with new ideas about changes. And then, of course, the economic problems [of the education system should be solved]. If the state doesn't pay enough attention to this problem, the situation will keep worsening," Tashpulatova said.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan celebrate Independence Day on 31 August and 1 September, respectively. The governments in Bishkek and Tashkent each year spend several million dollars on fireworks and other celebrations to mark the occasion.

Many parents say that instead of sending money into the skies for fleeting pleasure, it would be wiser to use such funds to provide permanent benefits to students, such as schoolbooks. Then, they say, independence might be appreciated a little more.