KURGAN-TYUBE, 20 July (IRIN) - Ten-year-old Parvina can neither read nor write, because she has never attended school. She lives in the southern Tajik city of Kurgan-Tyube, capital of Khatlon province, 100 km south of the national capital, Dushanbe. Sometimes other children play with her showing her how to write her name in the sand. But Parvina can count.
"I can count up to 500," she said proudly, adding that she learnt to do so when she started working, selling plastic bags in the city's main market. She was making around US $ 1 a day and helping her family to survive. Now she has switched to selling flat Central Asian bread and along with her younger brother Akram earns about $ 3 a day. Parvina gives most of the money to her mother but is allowed to keep some which she spends on clothes and food she likes.
Parvina's mother sees nothing wrong with her child working.
"We live on the money they make. My husband left for Russia in search of a job two years ago and we haven't heard from him since," she explained. Poverty in the Central Asian republic means labour migrants contribute a substantial proportion of the nation's wealth in the form of foreign remittances from Kazkhstan, Russia and even further afield.
"Parvina and those who are in a similar situation are lucky. They work in the streets but go home in the evening. They have a place to stay," Caroline Hamilton, a consultant on juvenile justice reform with the UN Children's Agency (UNICEF), told IRIN in Dushanbe. "They have either one of the parents or relatives, who in some way or form take care of them. Such children have fewer problems with the law. But the other category of children on the streets, they are in a more difficult situation. They have to not only work on the streets but are forced to live there as well, because they have neither home nor family," Hamilton added. UNICEF is concerned that such children are vulnerable to exploitation.
"They can easily be dragged into criminal activity, including theft, sex and the drug trade," the UNICEF official noted.
Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet republics. More than half of the country's 6.5 million population live below the national poverty line. The average monthly salary is less than $ 20 and there are high levels of unemployment.
The civil war of 1992-1997 is also a major factor in the current prevalence of children working and living on the streets in the region, according to Davrona Kunguratova, a senior official at the provincial HIV/AIDS centre in Khatlon.
"In Khatlon province and Kurgan-Tyube city there was a lot of fighting and conflict and therefore the consequences of the war, including poverty, unemployment and street children, were the most grave," Kunguratova explained.
The problem of street children is not confined to southern Tajikistan. In Dushanbe and other major cities, groups of bedraggled children selling, begging or just sitting and watching life go by are a common sight.
"The main task of the government, NGOs and international organisations is to bring back these children to society," Hamilton said, adding that UNICEF was currently supporting a street childrens' shelter in Dushanbe in an effort to tackle the problem in the capital.
"There are children of the age of between seven and 14, whom the police bring from the streets. They can stay at the shelter for up to six months, while the police search for their parents. But if at the end of that period the family and parents are not found, they go back to the streets," she said.
Giyos Karayev, head of the local NGO, Nasli Navras, said that they were implementing a pilot project in cooperation with UNICEF, the city education department and the local authority of the capital's Sino district, targeting street children.
"Within the framework of the project, a little over 70 children living on the streets, including boys and girls aged between 10 and 18, will attend classes at an informal school. After six months of schooling they will get certificates, that will enable them to continue their education," Karayev said.
Nasli Navras has gone further and established a rehabilitation centre for street children. More than 200 children go to the centre, where they are offered counselling services by lawyers, doctors and social workers. The children may also take sewing classes to provide them with a marketable skill.
Another local NGO, Refugees, Children and Vulnerable Citizens (RCVC) ran another UNICEF-financed project to assist poor families. It aimed to provide micro-loans with low interest rates to single mothers who had many children.
"With that money they were able to buy materials to set up a bakery business or to start their own small businesses," Majuda Tursunova, head of RCVC, said, adding that around 10 women had benefited from the initiative.
"We only recently launched a new project with assistance from the UK. We opened a night shelter for homeless children. For the time being it has a capacity of 10 children. Social workers send children here who have problems with their families. They get a meal, a clean bed and a shower," Tursunova said.
However, Hamilton said that it was very difficult to get projects targeting street children up and running.
"There needs to be a pretty hefty amount of money to fund them. For a shelter, there need to be qualified personnel who can deal with 'problem' children," she explained.
A journalist from the local Bomdod newspaper in Kurgan-Tyube remarked that such projects are running mainly in the capital, whereas there is hardly any work going on in provincial cities and towns to tackle the issue.
"Sometimes I am horrified when I think about what sort of future these kids can have. What will the children who are left to themselves turn into?" he asked.
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