School bullying and violence is a hidden yet significant problem in schools in Kyrgyzstan. Older students often extract money or resources through the threat or use of violence, resulting in insecurity and disruption of education for their younger peers. Saferworld and partner Civic Union have conducted national-level research that looks into the issue and have raised awareness of the danger it poses at the local and national levels.
Baigaziev Amanbek, a 15-year-old student from Toguz-Bulak village, was killed in 2012 by older students at his school when he refused to pay them 300 KGS (approximately $5). According to his father, Amanbek had been taken outside of the village and was beaten to death. Five 17-year-old students were charged with his murder. “He always protected his friends,” said his mother, Atyrkul Kuzdobaeva. “But when he needed protection, no one was there for him.” Following his death, the Vice Prime Minister ordered a special commission be formed by the Ministry of Education, in order to look more closely at the case, but the predatory culture at the school did not change, as cases of extortion continued unabated.
Many mothers have lost their children in similar circumstances. Most of these cases remain unreported. This type of crime culture is unfortunately all too common in secondary schools across Kyrgyzstan, and has become part of a tradition adopted by senior students, where they are pressured to use violence to extort money from students as young as 12. There is a variety of underlying causes – low levels of education, lack of discipline from parents, and poor socio-economic conditions of families, amongst others. On the other hand, a lack of proper response mechanisms available for victims has also worsened the problem. The result is high juvenile crime rates, accompanied by suicides and violence that can lead to injury or death.
A Saferworld research team conducted research on this issue in five provinces – Osh, Jalal-Abad, Batken, Chui, Issyk-Kul – and two cities (Osh and Bishkek), speaking with school students, administrators, local governments, parents and other relevant local stakeholders. At the national level, we spoke with representatives from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Social Development and other relevant institutions.
We found that school administrators, police and other relevant actors have tended to hide the issue in order to maintain their reputations. They often claim that everything is under control and that no extortion has taken place. As a result, the older students are able to establish informal circles that assign different roles and responsibilities for extorting money, negotiating with potential victims, and punishing those who do not comply. Sometimes, the money that they collect can go to external groups.
"You come to school to study” said one of the students we interviewed. “During the break someone says there will be a ‘gathering’ which means some sort of extortion will take place. So you are stressed and cannot focus on classes.”
Furthermore, complaint boxes at school remain empty or have only positive feedback. This is a result of bullying and intimidation, in which ‘informants’ are threatened or punished.
The complexity and sensitive nature of the issue, coupled with the weak national and local responses to date, have kept the current system in place. Saferworld and partner Civic Union (CU) set out to raise public awareness of the issue so that solutions might be found.
In September, the Head of the Committee on Law and Order and Crime Prevention of the Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic wrote an official letter following a meeting with Saferworld and CU, addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Razzakov Zhenish Parpievich. It outlined the problem and requested a review by the government that would seek to adopt concrete measures to prevent juvenile crime and school extortion.
Earlier in the year, the research team also presented its findings to an audience of around 60, including local and national actors, and held a discussion on the issue. As a result of the presentation and discussions, national and local media picked up on the issue, helping to raise awareness around the country. “The findings show that children are getting victimised by criminal activities,” said Gulzhan Bekenbaeva, head of the Public Fund ‘Pokolenie Insan’. “We now must ensure that we work together to find solutions with parents and schools.”
The team also met with Ms Sultanbekova Cholpon, a Member of Parliament, in May to present the research. She was shocked to see the findings, and later raised the issue in parliament, bringing it to the attention of the Minister of Education and Science. “Last year, it was reported that the issue of school extortion was solved,” said Ms Sultanbekova at the parliamentary session. “However, I have seen that it is still a major problem that we must address.”
The issue was also discussed during the first national conference on community policing in Kyrgyzstan in June. Representatives of the Government, Ministry of Interior and Parliament, as well as local and international organisations (including Saferworld) participated in the event.
Although these are only the first steps to prevent extortion in schools, the issue is now being discussed on the national stage. In addition, the Kyrgyz parliament is aware of the extent of the problem and has begun to discuss solutions. The government now needs to adopt measures that will ensure that students like Amanbek will be able to pursue a quality education while feeling safe from harm.
Saferworld and Civic Union have been working together since 2012 on issues surrounding the role of civil society in police reform, promoting democratic policing and supporting social partnerships at the local and national levels. This research project is supported by the United States Institute of Peace, and was initially supported by the Government of Canada.