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Barriers  |  Interventions  |  Reporter’s Notebook

“Poverty is not having enough money to live with and children not being able to go to school…. During the civil war it was very difficult. People didn’t have food to eat; there was no electricity and no water.”

Aslisho Akimbekov, 17, from Tajikistan

‘25 BY 2005’ COUNTRIES

The story of education in the Central and Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States region (CEE/CIS) is complex. The overall picture looks promising in that gender parity in education is expected to be achieved in all countries by 2005, except for Tajikistan and Turkey. And while universal primary education by 2015 is not automatic, it is achievable with an additional push.

The region’s primary net enrolment/attendance ratio was 88 per cent in 2001, exceeded only by East Asia/Pacific and Latin America/Caribbean in the developing world. It also recorded the lowest average annual rate of increase in the net enrolment/attendance ratio of any developing region – 0.35 per cent, pointing to the difficulty of travelling those last few steps towards education for all. Regionally, there has been an emphasis on overall education for boys and girls, yet a closer look at individual countries highlights major challenges for both universal education and gender parity.

High net enrolment/attendance ratios have put Albania, Tajikistan and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on good footing for universal primary education by 2015 with 97.5 per cent, 97.2 per cent and 96 per cent, respectively in 2001. The ratio was low in Azerbaijan in 2001 at 79.9 per cent. The ratios also were low among countries caught in the war in the Balkans – Serbia and Montenegro at 76.2 per cent, and Bosnia and Herzegovina at 86.2 per cent. Primary school participation dropped precipitously in Serbia and Montenegro during the civil strife and international sanctions of the 1990s.

Noteworthy gains for gender parity have been recorded in this region. Turkey, identified as a country in UNICEF’s ‘25 by 2005’ initiative, is projected to increase its gender parity index to 0.96 in 2005 from 0.93 in 2001. The success recorded here is a beacon for other countries that are struggling to get an equal number of boys and girls into school.

Yet hidden behind this relative optimism are crises that can easily topple educational gains. Snapshots from afar look promising. But by zooming in, obstacles that are generally associated with other regions are quickly uncovered.


In the CEE/CIS region, universal primary education and girls’ education face challenges similar to those in the rest of the developing world – poverty, political instability, gender discrimination, geographical disparities, and the lack of potable water and adequate sanitation. HIV/AIDS is also on the rise.

Families struggle to pay school fees and the rising costs of books, supplies and uniforms. Additionally, national poverty has eviscerated social services in some countries, stripping the education sector of invaluable resources. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, for instance, have decreased public spending on education as a percentage of gross domestic product between 1991 and 2002. Kyrgyzstan has decreased public spending on education from 6 per cent of the gross domestic product in 1991 to 4.5 per cent in 2002.

There is no clearer example of how the problems following the collapse of the Soviet Union come together to sabotage girls’ education than Tajikistan. Poor infrastructure, particularly a lack of potable water and sanitation, runs a close second to poverty in derailing progress. In central Tajikistan and near the Afghanistan and Uzbekistan borders, unexploded ordnance peppers the ground as a reminder of past conflicts.

CEE/CIS is no stranger to armed conflict, which scars children’s lives. Ethnic tension and violence have barred children from school. Even during times of relative peace, parents can be fearful of sending their children to school, never secure of a lasting calm. Who can forget the searing images of horrified children in Beslan in September 2004 when their first day of school turned into a massacre of innocents?

The HIV/AIDS pandemic, often associated with sub-Saharan Africa, is now moving through the region. In 2004, there were an estimated 1.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS, with 80 per cent of new infections among young people.

One of the greatest challenges facing this region is the alarming increase in numbers of children being raised in institutions – more than 1.2 million in 2004. The highest ratio of children in public care is in Bulgaria, and the largest increases are reported in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In pure numbers, the Russian Federation has the most institutionalized children. Frequently referred to as ‘social orphans’, many children reside in orphanages because their parents have been declared unfit due to alcoholism, violence or deprivation. There is evidence that in the Republic of Moldova, children are being placed in residential care so that their parents can migrate for work. This disturbing rise in numbers of children in public care is occurring in countries that are expected to achieve gender parity by 2005, putting their anticipated accomplishments on tenuous ground.

Trafficking is epidemic in CEE/CIS, and further disrupts access to education. Every nation in this region is a country of origin, transit or destination for trafficking. Women are more likely to be trafficked, with an estimated 15 per cent being under age 18. Trafficking is inextricably linked to children in public care. In Moldova, for instance, a child who grows up in a public institution is 10 times more likely to be a victim of trafficking.

Hidden within the statistics on girls’ education are the disparities among ethnic minorities. In a region rife with ethnic tensions, not surprisingly, minority children are frequently ostracized and kept from school. In Kosovo (Serbia and Montenegro), for instance, there are several minority populations – Ashkali, Bosniacs, Croatians, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma, Serbs and Turks. Within Kosovo’s population of about 2 million, 11 per cent are ethnic minorities, of which 43 per cent are under the age of 19. Ethnicity and discrimination are major risks for poverty and deprivation. Girls within minority groups are often more likely to fail to enrol in or attend school. They face triple discrimination, as gender compounds the effects of bigotry and poverty.


Public awareness campaigns have been the most effective first steps in mobilizing people and institutions around the idea of girls’ education in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Media visibility is changing the educational terrain for families. Powerful messages about the importance of sending girls to school adorn billboards, are bruited about in televised public service announcements, and travel door-to-door through neighborhood advocacy campaigns.

Two prominent campaigns are Kosovo’s ‘I’m back in school; what about you?’ and Turkey’s Haydi Kizlar Okula! – ‘Come On Girls, Let’s Go to School!’ The slogans pop up in newspapers, radio, television, theatre and posters, keeping each country’s major educational challenge in the spotlight – retention for Kosovo and enrolment for Turkey.

Kosovo has seen a rise in the number of dropouts in rural areas, especially among girls, due to security concerns, inadequate transportation and the tradition-ingrained practice of sending boys over girls to school. Only 12.3 per cent of girls from the countryside between the ages of 16 and 19 had completed a full course of primary schooling in 2002. Unemployment in Kosovo teeters around 40 per cent, forcing a population shift towards Pristina as people search for work. This further stretches resources within the capital, because schools cannot accommodate the influx of new students, resulting in a high dropout rate.

While advocacy campaigns and catchy slogans raise awareness, they alone cannot rectify the harsh realities facing children and their families. That’s where Parent Teacher Councils (PTC) and municipalbased Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) step up. Community participation and ownership take hold through the PTC and PTA, which identify and rectify the obstacles for children remaining in school. In Lipjan Municipality, for instance, the PTA with donations from the Kosovar diaspora has helped modernize the sewer system, improving school sanitation facilities. The PTA also helped get girls back into the primary school in Lipjan by providing them with books and uniforms.

With the inception of women’s literacy programmes in Kosovo, girls and young women are now receiving vocational and basic skills training. For older students who have aged out of the system, these classes are designed to increase women’s confidence and independence through basic literacy, numeracy and everyday knowledge. The goal is to ensure that women will be able to successfully negotiate such things as going to the doctor or voting. For younger women, these are catch-up classes that can lead to mainstream education.

A legacy of war in Kosovo is insufficient funds to train all teachers or replace outmoded textbooks. Students are still confronted with schoolbook images of passive girls and women in traditional roles and only boys and men depicted as leaders. The Soros Foundation, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have contributed to the development of new books that inspire and better represent women in today’s world.

Advocacy campaigns are a mainstay of girls’ education in Turkey. About 120,000 more girls have been enrolled since Haydi Kizlar Okula was launched in 2003 in Van. As part of the outreach, volunteers, including teachers and community leaders, conduct door-to-door interviews with parents. The prepared talks are scripted to overcome families’ stated objections against sending their daughters to school – poverty, long distances to travel, fear for girls’ safety, early marriage, lack of school relevance, need for her labour in and out of the home, and religious prohibitions. Each protest is met with an answer that supports enrolling girls in school. The interaction not only advocates girls’ education, it also identifies hidden barriers to schooling. Parents reported that they sometimes failed to enrol their children in school because of late or incorrectly filed birth registrations; fines for late birth registrations have since been abolished.

Neighborhood mobilization is reinforced by television spots featuring celebrities urging girls to go to school, public announcements about education in print and electronic media, and the distribution of promotional fliers, posters, brochures, booklets and videos.

Offshoots from the Haydi Kizlar Okula campaign include a newspaper’s independent push for girls’ education, pleading the case with the slogan ‘Daddy, send me to school’. Additionally, the Willows Foundation, a non-governmental organization, has visited 120,000 homes and enrolled 9,000 out-of-school girls. The Foundation has developed a registration system with color-coded cards based on the obstacle that has hampered school attendance. There is a follow-up visit by teachers in a parallel system to the national campaign.

Coffee house projects have also sprouted in parts of Turkey, building on the tradition of hospitality and conversation. Volunteers lead discussions about girls’ education in local coffee houses, usually with men. In a relaxed, supportive environment, men speak about their concerns with advocates, who then reassure them that sending their daughters to school is a good decision.

Advocacy takes a different route in Tajikistan. Girls’ education is linked to concrete actions that address the needs of children and their families. A 2004 UNICEF survey found that parents did not see girls’ education as useful. Based in part on this feedback, schools are attempting to include stronger life-skills components. Vocational training and classes using old Soviet Union sewing machines and other refurbished equipment are teaching marketable trades to students.

Responding to the needs of families, the World Food Programme provides hot meals and takehome rations as part of its school feeding initiative. In 2003, it gave provisions to some 400,000 children out of a population of over 6 million people. A World Food Programme survey in late 2004 showed that 10 per cent of the rural population is chronically food insecure.

Water and sanitation projects are proving to be helpful for getting girls into school and are bringing needed facilities to communities. Today, nearly 300 schools in Tajikistan are part of water and sanitation initiatives. In many areas, children have joined school hygiene clubs, where they are trained to identify safe water, conduct peer and community education about hygiene and test village water supplies. One school near Khatlon failed to graduate a single girl during the past 10 years. Next year, they expect eight girls to graduate, with the administration attributing this in part to the school’s water and sanitation programme.

Tajikistan has a long way to go to reach gender parity in education, but its eligibility for the World Bank’s Fast- Track Initiative should give it a boost. The Initiative encourages new partnerships between donors and the country and calls for an infusion of money.

Reporter’s Notebook

Kosovo – There is little overt sign of the war’s legacy here – evidence of new construction is everywhere, people mix freely in cafes, and the topic isn’t necessarily welcome in casual conversation. But ethnic tensions still simmer, and UN peacekeepers, NATO troops and other soldiers are everywhere. At a school near the capital city of Pristina, children’s outdoor games take place against a backdrop of bombed-out rubble.

Van Province, Turkey – Facilities are scarce here. Some school principals are wary of increased advocacy, believing that the schools cannot handle more students. The success of the national campaign, coupled with the lack of learning spaces, has led to concern about the credibility of international agencies’ push to increase access to education.

During mobilization visits, a general format seems to establish itself: a team of three or four starts talking to a family; then the local imam or other authority figure might wander over. A crowd of neighbors and kids gathers round, and by the end practically everyone in sight is drawn into the discussion, which invariably takes place over umpteen cups of tea. I am struck by the hospitality shown to the volunteers: Even if parents seem annoyed at the request that a daughter be sent to school, chairs are always drawn for the visitors and tea offered.

The campaign is a source of widespread pride and involvement. Journalists who cover the door-to-door campaign sometimes join the teams and contribute to the discussions. Mail carriers are also said to have added their efforts.

Dushanbe, Tajikistan – One of the first questions I ask girls is whether their mothers went to school. In other parts of the world, this question often elicits a torrent of information on what it is like to be one of the first girls in the family or community to get an education. But here, the question is met with puzzlement. “Of course our mothers went to school,” say a number of girls who are themselves dropouts, highlighting the changing circumstances in a region that is confronting declining budgets and decaying infrastructure.

In some areas of the country, the most eligible age for marriage is said to be around 14 because younger girls are malleable and inexperienced, and there is a preference for uneducated women. Many unions are unregistered, leading to a lack of reliable data on the problem of early marriage. After nine years of compulsory education, parents will often arrange marriage for girls at the age of 15 or 16.

Khatlon, Tajikistan – The scarcity of safe water and sanitation is evident everywhere. The muddy liquid from village wells is often dangerous to drink; even a pit latrine can be a luxury in rural areas with few facilities.

At Bokhtar School No. 43, students have taken the problem of unsafe drinking water and nonexistent sanitation as a challenge, transforming it into a way for girls to become involved in schools and community life. Located in a conservative area where girls are often pressured to get married rather than continue their studies, the school nonetheless emphasizes girls’ participation. The majority of the students in the school’s water and sanitation club are female, and it has become commonplace to see a student dressed in a traditional long gown and headscarf speaking confidently to her neighbors about the importance of safe drinking water.

Despite their modest garb, the girls in the club are unabashed when it comes to explaining how to dispose of human waste. They conduct scientific analysis in order to tell neighbors whether local water is safe to drink and work with local farmers to keep the environment clean. The water, sanitation and hygiene programme has made them the local experts on a topic not usually openly discussed – but of importance to everyone.