Youth Advocacy in Kyrgyzstan

Zamira Isakova (JST 2018) is a political analyst and peacebuilding specialist from Kyrgyzstan’s ‘southern capital’ Osh. This old Silk Road city at the heart of the Ferghana Valley is known for its rich cultural heritage and ethnic diversity. The population is comprised of citizens with ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Uighur, Turkish and Russian backgrounds amongst other smaller groups. Over the last few decades, ethnic identities have at times become the fault lines for violent conflict.

By the time of Zamira’s application and acceptance to the John Smith Trust (JST) Fellowship Programme in 2018, her peace building work had involved working with young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. In Kyrgyzstan’s patriarchal society young people often feel they do not have a say in decisions that affect their lives. Zamira’s analysis told her that giving young people from ethnic minorities the opportunity to participate in decision-making meaningfully could have a significant impact on conflict dynamics in her city of Osh. She felt that she could learn from the UK’s experience in youth engagement and so her Action Plan during her JST Fellowship Programme was to develop an innovative and comprehensive approach to empowering marginalised young people in Kyrgyzstan. She wanted to see them making a positive contribution to their communities rather than be at risk getting involved in violence.

During her month-long Fellowship Programme in the UK, Zamira had meetings set up for her with UK experts and practitioners all over the country who tackle challenges related to youth inclusion in the UK including from Inspiring Scotland, the University of Liverpool, Belfast City Council in Northern Ireland and Relatives for Justice in England. A memorable moment for Zamira came in conversation with Professor Jonathan Tonge at the University of Liverpool, when she says, “He made me realise that we can’t just focus on empowering young people – there is a need to train the decision-makers too. He really got me thinking about how to get young people’s voices heard, not just locally, but at the national level. We need a platform!”

Upon her return home to Osh, Zamira was inspired to adapt and trial some of the different approaches she learned about in the UK to achieve her goals in Kyrgyzstan. She started to put her ideas into action with the support of her colleagues – and, as she had been inspired by Professor Tonge – with a real focus on advocacy.

Amongst a number of different activities, she organised a multi-staged consultation process with young people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups to understand the barriers to their participation. Then Zamira and her team invited representatives of local decision makers from the Mayor’s office, Youth Affairs Agency, State Agency of Local Self-Governance and Inter-ethnic Relations, religious leaders, Youth Parliament and local community based organisations to listen to these young people talk and share their concerns.

As a result of those meetings, the Mayor’s office in Osh invited young people from ethnic minority groups to participate in the development of their annual plan on youth engagement. Zamira says, “I am so proud of that outcome. Young people of Uzbek, Tajik and Turkish ethnicity participated in the development meetings for the annual plan, and the Mayor’s office allocated funds for that.” In a context where issues of minority participation and representation are highly sensitive, this is an enormous achievement.

Zamira continues to draw on her JST experience and build on the approaches she trialed in Osh as she develops more programmes focusing on empowering marginalised young people in both Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Tajikistan as part of her job at the INGO Saferworld. Her next goal is to ensure that, as the State Agency for Youth Affairs in Kyrgyzstan begins the process of developing a new Youth Strategy, young people from all different backgrounds and ethnic groups are given the opportunity to participate in the process.