Kazakhstan continues to come to terms with the tragedy that struck on February 4, when five children from a single family died while their parents were away working night shifts.
The five sisters, aged 1 to 13, were asleep when the fire quickly engulfed their small, dilapidated, one-story home, which lacked modern heating or smoke detectors.
The children succumbed to the flames just moments after firefighters arrived on the scene in Astana’s Saryark district, authorities say. But their fate has given new life to nationwide protests being held by Kazakh mothers who accuse the government of failing to do enough to support large families.
The women activists, who in recent weeks have been staging rallies across the county to shed light on the lack of social and financial support provided to "hero mothers" by the state, have been pointing to the circumstances behind the fire as further evidence that more needs to be done.
The working-class family couldn’t afford childcare and had to work odd hours to provide for themselves, neighbors say. This, the protesters point out, forced the girls’ parents to leave the children on their own that night.
The grief-stricken parents haven’t spoken publicly, but neighbors told media that the family had repeatedly asked city authorities for state-funded housing.
Resource-rich Kazakhstan continues its Soviet-era social-benefits system, including public housing for families that raise many children.
Astana authorities, however, insist the family never applied for it.
Deadline To Respond
Kazakh authorities have said that they will respond by February 15 to the appeals being made by hundreds of mothers involved in the protests for social justice.
The mothers’ demands include guaranteed public housing for families with many children, discounted spaces in childcare facilities, and increased child benefits.
In Kazakhstan, many families wait for years to receive apartments, with authorities saying there are simply not enough homes to distribute to the tens of thousands of people eligible for public housing.
The latest protest rallies took place on February 11, when hundreds of women gathered in the cities of Aqtobe and Karaganda to remind the government of what they described as the plight of the impoverished in a "rich country."
Similar gatherings were reported in Astana, Almaty, Shymkent, and other cities over the weekend. Some protesters said they came from small towns and remote villages to meet with authorities in the provincial capitals.
According to one Shymkent protester, Elmira Ashribekova, "There are many other mothers who were not able to attend the meetings because they couldn’t afford to pay the transport fare."
Kunsulu Iskakova, who attended the rally in Astana, said that Kazakhstan -- with revenues from vast natural resources -- can easily afford to help its citizens.
"The country’s riches belong to all of its 18 million people....Why should we live in poverty?" the mother of six said.
"We ask the government to raise the monthly benefits so it covers our essential expenses," said an Aqtobe protester, Gulnar Tokabaeva, who came from the village of Zharotkel, some 200 kilometers from the provincial capital.
"Instead of state medals for mothers with many children, we want adequate benefits," she said.
Accident Waiting To Happen
Although the mothers’ protests gathered momentum after the Astana fire tragedy, the initial gatherings and complaints began in 2018, when some women returned their state medals to authorities in protest.
In Kazakhstan, a woman who raises at least four kids -- including adopted children -- is considered a mother with a large number of children.
Women who raise at least seven children are awarded the gold medal, the Altyn Alka, while those with six get silver, the Kymis Alka.
The so-called Hero Mothers -- the medal holders -- are also entitled to a lifetime benefit of about $40 a month. There are also tax breaks, certain discounts, and monthly child benefits.
Some protesters in Astana said that a tragic incident like the one in Astana can happen again anywhere, as many families live in similar makeshift homes heated with wood-burning stoves.
For them, the Astana tragedy was an accident waiting to happen, and will happen again if authorities don’t take steps to help.
Amid widespread public criticism and calls to resign, Social Affairs Minister Madina Abylkasymova said that her ministry has learned lessons from the tragedy.
Abylkasymova told reporters on February 12 that a working group has been set up to address the public-housing issue for large families and to "collect requests and proposals" from the mothers staging the protests.