Activism, Civil society and Rights Based work in Central Asia

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Bishkek Feminist Initiatives Bishkek Feminist Initiatives (BFI) is group of feminist activists whose work is based on the principles of collective emancipation, solidarity, mutual support, equal decision making and non-violence. BFI can be described as a community of activists creating, nurturing and sharing a common space. The collective took shape in 2012 and has been based at what they simply refer to as “the house” since 2014. This house is the heart of BFI. Located on a quiet alley near the center of Bishkek and surrounded by shady fruit trees, this one story building is where BFI is at home. It is a space for organizing, reflecting, learning and exchanging; for empowering, meeting and supporting one another. It includes a library, a collective garden and movie screening facilities. This vibrant center has been the staging point for many successful public actions and interventions. On March 8th 2016, for example, BFI, together with other groups, gathered for a peaceful occupation of the premises out front the Presidential Office to mark International Women’s Day.

What this means is that feminist practices of mutual respect, shared responsibility and collective emancipation mark all activity at the house. One of the challenges faced by local women in general, and feminists in particular is a lack of places to gather freely. Cafés, squares and parks tend to be male-dominated spaces and restaurants are not an affordable option for most. The BFI House is an attempt to offer those lacking the privilege to gather freely elsewhere a safe space.

Members of BFI marching in the Women’s Day demonstration on March 8th 2016, in Bishkek.

The long term goal of this work is to strengthen and expand the feminist community in Bishkek, at the house itself, as well as elsewhere in the city. As a result, the house has already spawned a number initiatives that are semi-autonomous from the core group, and which operate according to their own respective feminist perspective. This includes feminist parents groups, book circles, and art initiatives, as well as Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan.

While the collective regularly organizes similar public protests and campaigns, it is actually the day-to-day processes of building feminist community that they consider most important. In line with the feminist motto of the personal being political, and inspired by grassroots organizing principles, there is a strong focus on the process of their work, as opposed to merely on its outcome.

BFI has been one of CAG’s closest partners in Kyrgyzstan since 2013, having jointly organized a number of projects, including campaigns, trainings and feminist art projects.

“By living feminism through our practices and interactions, rather than just advocating it, we hope to inspire more people to come out and become conscious feminists.” BFI activist.

Click here to watch some uncommented news coverage of a BFI protest action against gender-based violence in central Bishkek.

In the fall of 2016 BFI organized a trans-feminist music camp together with the LGBTIQA organization Labrys.

Follow BFI on facebook (posts in English and Russian): @bishkekfeminists

The walls surrounding the garden of BFI’s social center are decorated with feminist graffiti.

Center for Protection of Children The Center for Protection of Children is an NGO that does advocacy and provides social services for vulnerable children. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent weakness of state structures in the 90s led to issues like child labor, poverty and homelessness intensifying in Kyrgyzstan. The Center for Protection of Children was launched in 1998 in Bishkek, as a response to this crisis, initially helping street children working on the city’s bazaars. In its early period the group was exclusively focused on providing some of the elementary services the children were being denied, for example by serving food from a mobile cafeteria. However, after realizing that many of the children also lacked access to medical care, something the Center did not feel they were able to provide, the focus expanded to include advocacy as well. Much of this advocacy has aimed at achieving legislative changes to some of the regulations governing internal migration in Kyrgyzstan. The majority of the vulnerable children that the Center works with today are the children of the many informal settlements of internal migrants on the outskirts of Bishkek.

Internal Migrant Registration system in Kyrgyzstan Under Soviet law internal migration was strictly regulated, requiring citizens to be registered at their place of residence. As is the case in most of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan inherited these regulations, making it very difficult for internal migrants without the hard to obtain registration, to receive basic government services like medical care or education. As the socio-economic upheaval that followed the Soviet breakup led to an influx in internal migration, especially from the countryside to the big cities, large numbers of citizens came to be excluded from many basic services.

One of the organization’s key advocacy achievements on a national level was a 2008 reform simplifying school enrollment for children lacking proper registration at their place of residence. Aside from thus pressuring and helping the state live up to its responsibilities, the Center for Protection of Children also works to empower vulnerable children and their families to demand and realize their own rights. One of the most recent successes of these efforts has been the construction of a school in the informal settlement of Dordoi in Bishkek in 2015. Thanks in part to the Center’s help with media relations, local parents were able to collect over 2000 signatures in their neighborhood and petition the municipality to commit to constructing the school. While the Center for Protection of Children has been working to combine sustainable relief, advocacy for systemic change and empowerment of the vulnerable since at least 2001, they say it was only in recent years they realized that there was a term for their methodology in international development discourse - the Rights Based Approach (RBA). With its focus on empowering persons in vulnerable positions to claim the rights they are entitled to - as in the case of the petition, mentioned above - the Center’s method is an example of how RBA can be implemented in practice. Follow Center for Protection of Children on facebook (posts in Russian): @CenterForTheProtectionOfChildren

“We apply a holistic approach, providing direct social services as well as advocating for systemic change.” - Mira Itikeeva, Director of Center for Protection of Children.

With support from the Center for Protection of Children, the residents of the informal Bishkek neighborhood of Dordoi organized a petition which affected the construction of a school for their children.

Nazik Kyz Nazik Kyz is an activist group of young women with disabilities that works to empower girls and women like them in their daily struggle with inaccessibility and discrimination.

Bags produced by Nazik Kyz.

“Being a young woman isn’t easy in Kyrgyzstan, but being a young woman with a disability is a constant struggle.” - Ukei Muratalieva, member of Nazik Kyz.

Of the approximately 168.000 people with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan, 60% are women. With neither the labor market nor city spaces being geared toward accessibility, many of them are forced to spend much of their lives at home, dependent on the goodwill of their relatives. State support is minimal, the only option for those requiring an assistant is to find and hire one themselves. Unable to contribute to the family budget economically, and often considered a disgrace to the family’s honor, many young girls with disabilities face a life deprived of the rights to self-fulfillment and self-determination. This is especially true in matters of sexual and reproductive rights. For women with disabilities to pursue a love life or have children is often viewed as inappropriate, frequently even by their own gynecologists. While there are a number of organizations in the country representing the interests of people with disabilities, Nazik Kyz is the only group focused specifically on the sexual and reproductive rights and health of young women and girls. Part of the organization’s work consists of reaching out to other young women with disabilities. This includes conducting regular seminars on matters like self-determination and sexuality, and organizing summer camps on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk Kul Lake. With the trainings including topics like relationships, sexual health and masturbation techniques, they break with the prevalent notion that sees people with disabilities as merely pitiful, non-sexual victims without desires of their own.

Nazik Kyz’s annual summer camps have been held for the past three years, and are usually attended by about 30 girls. The aim of this work is to strengthen the agency of young women with disabilities, to encourage them to develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies, and to empower them to pursue their own desires. As employment is one key factor in attaining self-determination and independence, one of Nazik Kyz’s key projects has been the production of fashion accessories at their own sewing shop. A collection of tote bags adorned with feminist slogans, made by some of their members and sold at cafes around Bishkek, has been successful enough to cover the workshop’s rent. The other main focus of the activists’ work is to change society and its perceptions of disability. One of Nazik Kyz’s main successes in this regard has been the creation of the reality TV show Real Girls, produced in cooperation with the production company Rentgen Media, and with the support of Internews Network and the broadcasting corporation NTS. The first season of the program, which premiered in June 2016, introduces viewers to the lives of several young women with disabilities. By showing how they live, work, and love, what they dream of and what challenges they face in daily life, the show intends to educate the public about the realities of what it’s like to be a young woman living with a disability in Kyrgyzstan.

Click here to watch the first episode of the reality show RealGirls, co-produced by and starring members of Nazik Kyz (in Russian).

Some of the members of Nazik Kyz in their studio.

Bir Duino Bir Duino (“One World”) is one of the most prolific human rights organizations in Kyrgyzstan, focusing on a variety of issues, including women’s rights, the rights of migrants, and reform of the criminal justice system. Bir Duino’s annual International Documentary Film Festival on Human Rights is a chance for civil society and decision makers to mingle.

Bir Duino’s Director Tolekan Ismailova.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union Kyrgyzstan’s civil society developed a rich array of independent non-governmental and non-commercial organizations working for the public good on a wide range of issues. One of the most established and well known of these NGOs today is Bir Duino. The organization grew out of anti-corruption movements in the early 2000s. It sees its mandate as ensuring the full implementation of civil, political, cultural, and economic rights. The main methods Bir Duino employs in its work are monitoring, analysis and advocacy, but also educational events and social projects, actively involving young people and marginalized communities. One of the main recurring events arranged by Bir Duino since 2007 is the Annual International Documentary Film Festival on Human Rights, showing dozens of films from Kyrgyzstan and abroad. Last year over 500 visitors, including activists, policymakers, foreign dignitaries and members of the public, attended the festival’s opening night, taking advantage of the opportunity to mingle in an informal setting. After the main event in Bishkek, smaller versions of the festival are held across the country, in regional centres and even villages. One of the social side effects of the mingling that happens at the festival is the building of bridges between activists and the bureaucrats and politicians that attend the event, something that can be very crucial in other contexts, where the group’s work clashes with the interests of the powerful. Currently one of the issues the organization is strongly focused on is the case of one of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent

political prisoners, Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek community leader who was arrested and sentenced under dubious circumstances for allegedly inciting interethnic hatred during an episode of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. As this episode is a highly contentious one in Kyrgyzstani political consciousness, Bir Duino’s commitment to Askarov has exposed them to harassment by the authorities. In addition, Bir Duino is credited by LGBT activists as being one of the few established human rights groups in the country to not shy away from taking a principled stance on the rights of LGBT persons, publicly opposing, for example, proposals to introduce Russian-style homophobic legislation in Kyrgyzstan. The precariousness of the position outspoken human rights defenders like Bir Duino are in was recently illustrated when the Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambayev, in a Mothers’ Day speech, publicly slandered, among others, the organization’s founder and Chair Tolekan Ismailova, as a foreign agent and troublemaker. Follow Bir Duino on facebook (posts in English and Russian): @bir.duinokyrgyzstan

Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan is a Bishkek-based group of teenage feminist activists working to empower girls.

The organization is one of the initiatives born out of the social center run by Bishkek Feminist Initiatives. It’s most distinctive characteristic is that it is entirely made up of teenage girls under the age of 18. The group was born in 2013, when number of girls got to know another at a summer camp on women’s rights and decided to continue meeting on a regular basis. Later that year they adopted the name Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan and moved into BFI’s space.

“We are the first initiative of its kind - by and for teenagers - and we are proud of that.” - Daria Kasmamytova, founding member of Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan.

The Girl Activists’ first project was collecting every-day stories of girls from across the country and publishing them on a blog. Since then the girls have learned how to apply for project grants and initiate projects, and have even sent delegates to international conferences in the region. Some of their main areas of focus are gender-based violence, discrimination in education, and restrictions on the freedom of movements for girls. Since their inception Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan organized a number of notable projects and campaigns aimed at empowering girls and pushing their voices into the public debate. In the spring of 2015 they, in coordination with CAG, hosted a series of drawing workshops for young girls held by the Swedish feminist

comics collective Dotterbolaget. Other highlights have been the production and spreading of music videos featuring traditional songs, adapted to advance their message of emancipation. One of the group’s members has publicly used her talent for reciting the Kyrgyz national epic of Manas, a uniquely challenging task generally considered exclusive to prestigious male performers. “Hacking” and integrating some of Kyrgyz culture’s most iconic treasures in the name of gender equality, thus works to challenge elements of patriarchy often defended in the name of tradition. When they are not busy working on specific projects, the roughly 15 currently active members meet at the social center that is their home base to do crafts and art, read texts together, scheme for the future or to simply hang out. In early 2016 the group was awarded the Stars Foundation’s “With and For Girls Award” for their efforts. Follow Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan on facebook (posts in English and Russian): @devochkiaktivistki

Click here to watch a music video featuring one of the group’s members using her talent for traditional Kyrgyz song to mobilize for Girls’ Day. Don’t forget to activate the English subtitles!

Arysh Arysh is a Bishkek-based organization of internal migrants and residents of informal settlements working to end structural discrimination against their communities. Arysh has worked with the issue of internal migrants’ informal settlements since taking shape as an initially unoffical group of five individuals in 1999. The organization has four strategic trajectories: 1. To improve the provision of government services like medical care, education, social services to unregistered internal migrants. 2. To raise the standard of living and incomes in informal settlement communities. 3. To reform Kyrgyzstan’s discriminatory population registration system. 4. To preserve biocultural diversity, including traditional knowledges and practices. While the organization does engage in policy advocacy, for example by lobbying for simplification of the population registration system with the State Registration Services (GRS) and the Bishkek mayor’s office, they see themselves primarily as a grassroots organization and are most at home in the field. Most of the organization’s paid staff of eight, half of whom live in informal settlements themselves, spends much of their time in the communities they represent, meeting and consulting with residents. However, according to Arysh’s philosophy, the point is not to solve people’s problems for them. Instead,

their guiding principle is collective self-help and self-reliance. As part of this approach, Arysh has been able to spawn numerous mobile teams in many of Bishkek’s informal settlements. Independently from the organization, these groups of residents offer their neighborhoods help on anything from how to legalize a home built without official permits, to setting up small agricultural projects like backyard greenhouses.

“No one believed internal migrants, with different regional backgrounds and worldviews, could ever self-organize - but we did.” - Mamatkul Aidaraliev, Director of Arysh. Arysh is proud to thus facilitate the self-organization of internal migrant communities. A side effect of this practical everyday work is also a greater mobilization potential during elections. This makes it harder for the voices of the people of these communities to be ignored, and easier for them to have their rights and interests respected. Arysh hopes to eventually expand to the rest of the country, and become independent of external donors. Follow Arysh on facebook (posts in Russian and Kyrgyz):

Novi Ritm Novi Ritm (“New Rhythm”) is a youth organization based in Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city of Osh, promoting the realization of democracy, equality, justice and sustainability in society. The organization was born out of an initiative to create a meeting place for people of different backgrounds. As an indirect response to the so called “June Events” of 2010, in which ethnic clashes left hundreds of dead in the city of Osh, a group of young people started gathering regularly to create a space for youth, regardless of ethnic, language, gender or educational background to meet and get to know one another. This informal setting was formalized into Novi Ritm in 2014, and has since focused on activating youth around issues such as conflict prevention, human rights, and gender equality. The spacious house where Novi Ritm has its office and the green garden surrounding it function as the base for the frequent workshops, trainings, and campaigns the group puts on.

“The problem is in people’s heads - people are very suspicious toward strangers. Our work grew out of a desire create a space for different people to talk to one another.” - Aida Ahmedova, founding member of Novi Ritm. In many respects Novi Ritm applies aspects of the Rights Based Approach (RBA) in their work. When it comes to their trainings, for example, they are guided by a principle called the “trainthe-trainer” approach. The idea is to pass on skills and knowledge such that those who have gained them, can in turn pass them on to others. By empowering youth in this way, Novi Ritm hopes to plant a seed which will over time have structural effects and lastingly change society for the better. Even the organization’s own structure seeks to facilitate such a development.

By avoiding excessive bureaucracy and hierarchies the organization maximizes inclusivity and accessibility. Allowing newcomers to quickly launch initiatives of their own and rotating the position of Chair on an annual basis enables a wider spread of responsibility and exposure to leadership experiences. Using participatory methods and democratic principles in its work, Novi Ritm makes sure that the end goals of the organization are inseparable from the means of reaching them. One particularly successful example of Novi Ritm’s work has been the Girls’ Group, which focuses on how gender stereotypes limit the opportunities for girls and young women in the country to live their lives. By illuminating taken-for-granted norms and gender roles, the group empowers girls and young women to organize and challenge the status quo of gender-based discrimination and violence. One of their projects has been the creation of a video in which men call on other men to speak out against violence against women. Novi Ritm is one of CAG’s closest partners in Central Asia. The groups have cooperated since before Novi Ritm became a formalized NGO, a process which CAG facilitated. Their partnership has included exchanges, joint trainings, and other forms of mutual support.

Labrys Labrys is one of Kyrgyzstan’s chief advocacy groups for LGBTIQA rights.

Faced with widespread aggressive homophobia, one of the techniques Labrys has used to engage in the public debate has been graffiti messages on Bishkek’s sidewalks. This stencil says “We exist.”

“Tenderness is not propaganda”

Click here to watch a short animation telling the history of Labrys, narrated in English.

Labrys was launched by a group of lesbian and bisexual women and transmen in 2004, after some of them were expelled from a Bishkek cafe after one of the women kissed her partner while celebrating her birthday there. A number of the founding members had already for some time been meeting informally at a community center to watch movies, exchange information and educate themselves on how to do advocacy, but that experience of discrimination convinced them to get properly organized. Since foundation, Labrys’ work has covered a wide range of activities. Part of their efforts consists of providing members of the LGBTIQA-community with consultation, psychological counselling and support with medical issues, like finding trustworthy doctors. The group also hosts seminars for LGBTIQA-persons to help them accept themselves and for their parents to help them accept their children. In addition, Labrys conducts leadership and activism trainings, helping to strengthen and empower the LGBTIQA-community in Kyrgyzstan to challenge homo- and transphobia. A tough but rewarding form of support Labrys provides to LGBTIQA-persons is immediate assistance for those who have been arbitrarily detained by homo- or transphobic police. It is not uncommon for the group to have to send a team to a police station in the middle of the night to deliver legal and emotional support for someone experiencing such harassment. Often these interventions affect the release of the person being detained.

At the same time Labrys works with state organs and other professionals, like doctors, to help prevent discrimination, stigmatization and homo- and transphobic violence. One of their key advocacy efforts has been to lobby for a reform that would permit trans-persons to change the sex registered in their identity documents without having to first undergo expensive corrective surgery.

“Our work demonstrates to people that LGBTIQA-persons are not alone, that someone defends them.” -Labrys activist. These attempts to establish relationships with and affect improvements within state structures are not easy. Officials largely ignore or deny the existence of LGBTIQA-people in Kyrgyzstan, while a looming proposal to introduce an even harsher version of Russia’s infamous law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relationships” threatens to enshrine homophobia in Kyrgyzstani legislation. Labrys has been a driving force within the coalition of groups publicly opposing that proposal. Labrys also actively supports the development of analogous groups in other Central Asian as well as some Eastern European countries, and functions as a resource center for them in their establishment. Follow Labrys on facebook (posts in English and Russian):@LabrysKG

Notabene Notabene is one of Tajikistan’s leading non-governmental organizations, working to promote human rights through research, analysis and advocacy.

Compared to its Central Asian neighbors, Tajikistan used to receive little attention from the international community. “Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been facing widespread interna­ tional criticism for serious human rights violations, Kazakhstan has received a lot of attention for its global business ambitions and investment potential, and Kyrgyzstan has been seen as a dynamic and interesting country”, Nigina Bakhrieva explains. But in recent years the human rights situation in Tajikistan took a very challenging turn, and the country’s civil society is in great need of interna­ tional solidarity. “We have managed to attract more international attention to our country – recently the EU passed its first resolution on the human rights situation in Tajikistan and we hope this will translate into a constructive dialogue with the authorities”, Nigina Bakhrieva continues. In 2009, following many years of managing a different human rights organizations in Tajikistan she had helped establish, Nigina Bakhrieva started Notabene. Rather than providing assistance to vic­ tims of human rights violations, their mission is to carry out monitoring and analysis of the situation, to identify the key issues and gaps in legislation, policy and government practice and to advocate on the international level on behalf of Tajikistan’s civil society. With over 18 years’ experience as a rights defender, Nigina Bakhrieva helps civil society actors and colleagues that work with various vulnerable groups and individuals, express their work through the language of human rights. For instance, while much work has been done by various actors in Tajikistan on the issues of people with disabilities, it is only recently that this work has been formu­ lated increasingly in terms of rights, rather than in medical or social welfare terms. A similar transition to a more rights focused approach, according to Nigina Bakhrieva, can be observed in the area of sexual and reproductive health. “This is a very important change”, she says.

Civil society actors working directly with marginal­ ized groups of the population, such as sex workers, drug users, or LGBT persons, often face stigmati­ zation by association. However, through partnering with Notabene they are able to contribute to human rights advocacy work without some of the pressure usually associated with their area of work. Despite these positive developments, Notabene and other civil society actors have been under increasing pressure related to the overall turn in Tajikistan human rights practice. Examples of this type of pressure include negative press NGOs receive in state­owned media, often acc­ using civil society of subverting moral values and stability. They are also subjected to inspections by various state agencies related to finances and taxes, labour laws, and internal procedures. The frequency of these inspections and lack of clear legal procedures for conducting them puts a great burden on the NGOs, preventing them from focusing on their human rights work. In this situation, solidarity and close cooperation among civil society organizations is key. Notabene’s office is located in a building that houses many of the country’s top rights groups, allowing them to drop by, and support one another at any moment. One of the greatest examples of this strength in unity is the Coalition against Torture, of which Notabene is an instrumental member. “We are proud to be a member of the Coalition, which has helped secure compensation for victims of torture and change laws and practice of state agencies in this area” Nigina Bakhrieva says. Visit the webpage of Notabene for more information:

“Say No to Torture” action, 2014

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