Youth Decide: Stories from Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, young people are often not taken seriously by their elders despite making up a large proportion of society. Although they bring valuable ideas and energy to the table, their ideas are generally sidelined or ignored – and sometimes they can even be blamed for societal failures, including violence and crime.

As part of our two youth support projects in Kyrgyzstan funded by the European Union and the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, we and our partners worked with young people to amplify their voices and bring youth concerns to the government and authorities. We also built their skills and confidence to advocate for the change that they wanted to see in their communities.

In the stories collected below, originally written in Russian and Kyrgyz, we hear from some of the young women and men who participated in the projects about their experiences, ideas, worries and hopes. These stories were part of a media campaign in Kyrgyzstan that amplified young voices and raised public awareness of the issues that affect them.



"They don't argue with you, they don't object to you, they just pretend you're not there."

Aizhan, 21
Batken city, Kyrgyzstan

Last year I went to Germany with a group of young people from the Ambassadors for Tolerance and Democracy project. It was an educational tour to exchange experiences with German youth activists. Even though I've never been to Germany before, it wasn’t the architecture or sights that struck me the most. I have to say, the biggest impression was the cultural shock I experienced in relation to young Germans and the attitude of the older generation to education.

I still remember the meeting I attended with local officials. We discussed young people’s concerns. I was asked for my opinion, and I answered. After listening to me, this group of serious adults broke out into a heated discussion about the thought I had just expressed. Many probably wouldn't have noticed this small thing, but at that moment I experienced so many different emotions – from delight to bitterness and resentment about how different things are in my own country. I have seen our young people meeting with officials who didn’t listen to them. They don't argue with you, they don't object to you, they just pretend you're not there.

Many parents in the southwestern region of Batken are convinced that education is not needed for young people, especially for girls. This is the stereotype. But I see the consequences of this attitude. We often have conflicts on the border with Tajikistan, and sometimes young people get into heated fights, taking rumours they see on WhatsApp as the truth and spreading misinformation. This is all because of a lack of education, knowledge and skills. After a media literacy training I conducted with young people in Batken, I always get excited when participants are able to recognise and send me fake news they’ve seen on their feeds.

Watching how the older generation in my hometown treats education, how many parents do not consider higher education compulsory for their children, I was struck by the divergence in Germany where from the age of seven kids are taught political literacy. From the age of seven! There is no doubt that this approach to education, as well as the support of adults (including authorities) gives a good boost to youth initiatives.

Unfortunately, higher education is not affordable for everyone. I was lucky because I learnt a new profession from scratch, to work and pay for my studies in a profession that I like. As a result, I’m now working as a web editor and studying law at Batken University. I understand how difficult it is for young people to keep up with both work and study, but we still need to catch every opportunity to learn something new, to find useful skills and to develop all the time.

Aizhan participated in the ‘Ambassadors for Tolerance and Democracy’ project and organised the first media literacy training for schoolchildren and students in the Batken region.

"The streets at night are dangerous for women. It's not normal and it's not right."

Yulduz, 21
Osh city, Kyrgyzstan

I was in fifth grade when my father died. He was an architect and painted beautifully. Of course, I dreamed of following in his footsteps: I worked with matches and paper, and tried to build some models. My mother always supported my desire to study. But in our family, decisions about education and future plans were made by the whole family. My grandmother from my father's side used to tell my mother: "If there is a good match, give her away for marriage - the girl does not need a university. Her luck is to marry well." My father's brothers, and my mother’s relatives all advised me to not go to university. But mom objected.

When I heard about these arguments between my mother and our relatives, I began to study even harder. I just couldn't imagine becoming a wife at 16, especially of someone I barely knew. For me, this path would be lined with the fragments of my dreams, my personality. I think the thought of marrying a stranger so early in life is a nightmare for any girl.

But it wasn’t easy to convince my mother of anything. She raised me, my brother and my sister all by herself, so she understands how important education is for a woman. Then I got a scholarship. Not for studying architecture, but English. Mum used to dream about this profession, so I didn't object. "I'll study anything, as long as I’m not given away," I said.

I realised that the problem of women's rights and their security is a systemic one, and to solve it you need a systemic approach.

Unfortunately, not all girls in my country are as lucky as I am. Somebody gets married right after school or earlier. When you start to see one problem specific to girls, you start to see all sorts of other related problems. For example, girls often feel scared when walking down the street alone at night. Personally, when I come back from my studies, I pray that no one will meet me on my way because I’m very scared. Anything can happen to you, but society will always judge and ask you: "Why did you go out alone at night?" The street at night remains a dangerous territory for women. It's not normal and it's not right.

Watching my friends and classmates face the same problems and fears, I realised that the problem of women's rights and their security is a systemic one, and to solve it you need a systemic approach. I decided that after studying in Osh, I will return to my home village in Ala-Buka district. I will teach English and try to open up my students’ minds and free them from stereotypes and old attitudes. I will be "the coolest teacher ever" for them. Even if it doesn't immediately solve all problems, I will do my best to contribute to building a world where everyone is safe to live and to create.

Yulduz is a participant of the ‘Ambassadors for Tolerance and Democracy’ project. She worked on a project aimed at promoting gender equality in her community.

"We have ideas, energy and time. Our elders have experience, means and power. To create change, all we have to do is to unite."

Maksat, 19
Kizil-Kia city, Kyrgyzstan

One morning I was on my way to college when I almost got hit by a car just outside the entrance. There was a screech of brakes, and stares from onlookers who had already pulled out their smartphones to capture the shocking footage. For a moment I felt like I was in a daze. While my mind slowly returned to normal, the driver cursed at me. Apparently he couldn't see me from behind the bus, and he must have had a shock himself. When I recollected myself, I shouted back at him.

After this incident, I went straight to the college president. "We need to put in a pedestrian crossing", I said. The college is near a very busy crossroad, where there is heavy car and pedestrian traffic. A group of fellow students and I had once studied 3D graffiti art, so the idea of drawing a crosswalk that looks like it pops out of the street came into my head immediately.

If adults took our ideas seriously, together we would be able to solve some shared problems more quickly. We would learn from their experience, and they would get fresh ideas from us. I believe that such a moment will come.

I could not get the idea out of my head, but at that moment I also couldn’t imagine how complicated it would be to make it happen. After my classes one day, I went to city hall, then to the road service. They supported my idea, but told me that the area in question belonged to the college. By this time, I had already collected 400 signatures from students. My next stop was a mall across the street from the college, where I went to ask management for their support. When they gave us permission and we were ready to start, it turned out that there was no special paint for road markings available for us to use. The crosswalk would fade after about a year. We still painted the crosswalks, even though initially we wanted to have the lines drawn on a speed bump in the road. But now there's some order at this intersection. 

Thanks to this situation, I realised that we, young people, have ideas, energy and time – but not the experience, means and power to get things done. The older generation often has the opposite. And the problem is that we do not have a mutual exchange of our strengths. If adults took our ideas seriously, together we would be able to solve some shared problems more quickly. We would learn from their experience, and they would get fresh ideas from us. I believe that such a moment will come.

PS: I'm still not fully comfortable with these crossings. I think it would be better if they ‘popped’ with a 3D effect.  

Maksat is a participant of the ‘Zhash Araket’ project. Maksat and his team held four forum theatre in different parts of Kizil-Kia city. In this way, they tried to address the problem of early marriages and improve relations between the authorities and young people. Now Maksat is helping the Kizil-Kia City Hall to work on youth issues.

"Adilet, you are no longer my son, you are the son of the people."

Adilet, 28
Batken city, Kyrgyzstan

Even when I was little, I always wanted to grow up quickly and be an adult. For me, youth was a status I was in a hurry to shed so I could be taken seriously. At school, I confidently said to everyone: "In the future, I will be president."

At school, I confidently said to everyone: "In the future, I will be president."

After school I really wanted to go to Bishkek to study, but my parents did not let me go. I’m their only son, so they were worried for me and also for themselves. In the end I entered Batken University and studied as a teacher. I went to the lectures without any particular enthusiasm, and went through the motions of studying. It was in my second year that I realised that either I keep dreaming about the lure of the capital and waste my full potential, or I become useful where I am right now. So I gathered some active students in the student council, and we began taking action: for example, solving various problems, or defending the rights of students. But in the eyes of society, we were still the same ‘green students’. We had to change this perception, because we all believed that age does not determine ability.

From my studies, I learnt that you can become a candidate for the local administration at the age of 21 years and older. So in my senior year I decided to run for Ravat’s local administration of Ak-Tatyr district. While I was taking state exams and preparing to defend my thesis, my friends helped me with my campaign. 

On election day, my father and I stood before the tribune of the chairman of the election commission, listening attentively and excitedly to the results. "The most votes go to candidate X, to the second candidate Y, and in third place – Adilet. I'm not an emotional person at all, but when I saw my father's tears at that moment, I cried myself. My father looked me in the eyes and said: "Adilet, you are no longer my son, you are the son of the people." 

So at 22 I became the youngest deputy of our district administration. I still remember my first session as a deputy: I put on a suit, took a folder, and a laptop to match my new status. I thought that everything would be like in the government buildings - serious people with sombre expressions and a formal manner of communication. I came in and saw that everything was different: one guy had rubber slippers and another wore a field hat. In general, I felt some dissonance between expectation and reality. But I wasn't disappointed at all. I started working hard and became chairman of the commission on social issues, while continuing to work as a teacher in a border village.

I think it encouraged my parents to believe in me and let me make my own decisions. My classmates still jokingly remind me of my bold statements about becoming president. Well, maybe it’s not so far-fetched. I think one day I could gain enough experience and become a leader who'll take responsibility for the entire nation.

Adilet is a participant of the ‘Ambassadors for Tolerance and Democracy’ project. Adilet believes that it’s important for young people to be able to participate in making important decisions, so he organised meetings for young people and government representatives to share concerns and jointly come up with solutions.


Read about our work to support young people.

Read about our work in Kyrgyzstan.

Illustration: Jyldyz Bekova