Activism in the Shadows: Unresolved Issues and Constant Struggles

Over the past 25 years, 57 new residential districts have emerged on the outskirts of Bishkek. Many of them were developed during and after the civil unrest of 2005 as a result of illegal land seizures. Since then, the population in these new developments has exceeded 200,000. However, numerous issues related to clean water, schools, daycare centers, hospitals, and land legalization remain unresolved.

City officials claim they are attempting to address these problems. Meanwhile, activists and civil society organizations in these settlements are pursuing their own initiatives to tackle these issues.

Ak-Djar Residential District: Activists’ Initiatives

Ak-Djar is one of the new residential districts located in the northern part of Bishkek.

(Map of Ak-Djar Residential District)

The residential district is located just 10 kilometers from the capital and began construction in 2005 as a result of widespread land allocation.

Resident of the residential district and activist Gulbubu Dondoeva mentioned that in Ak-Djar, like in other settlements, there are numerous issues, and local residents and activists are implementing various initiatives to solve them.

(Gulbubu Dondoeva and her team, along with the residents of Ak-Djar Residential District, discuss issues of internal migration.)

«I moved to Ak-Djar with my family in 2008 and settled here. During those years, the district faced serious problems with electricity and clean water. We fetched water from a well and lived without electricity. Our relatives, seeing us on television, would say, ‘What on earth, how do you even live there!?’ (laughs). That’s when we organized actions with local residents to ensure the village had electricity and water, even blocking roads. We fought long and hard to make our voices heard by the government. We felt like outsiders, and no one wanted to pay attention to us. But after persistent efforts, we finally convinced the government to provide us with clean water. It was only starting from 2010 that the authorities began supplying water and electricity to our settlement.

During those years, I formed a team of local residents and completed the task of creating a settlement map. There are still many problems in our area. We are trying to bring these issues to the attention of the Jogorku Kenesh deputies and push for the adoption of appropriate laws and decisions,» says Dondoeva.

The number of officially registered residents living in Ak-Djar is 13,000. Additionally, there are many people arriving from remote regions without registration, as apartment rentals in the microdistrict are cheaper than in the city.

Gulbubu Dondoeva notes that besides visible issues such as water, electricity, and roads, there are also problems related to the residents’ livelihoods in Ak-Djar settlement.

«We worked with our team on the national population census in 2020. We found out that almost all residents of our settlement are people who moved from remote regions of Kyrgyzstan. For instance, 80% of the residents moved from the southern regions, while the remaining 20% came from the north. New immigrants often live in rented apartments and face financial difficulties. We collaborate with various international and local organizations, striving to obtain assistance and enroll residents in free professional courses,» says Dondoeva.

«Usually, humanitarian organizations provide residents with food and necessary items, and we distribute them. But our goal is long-term. We believe that we need to strive to bring residents to a level where they can work in good jobs and defend their rights. So, our goals are long-term, and we are working towards achieving them,» claims Dondoeva.

Protection of Workers’ Rights and Increasing Awareness

(Women from Ak-Djar settlement at the training «Protection of Rights of Women Internal Migrants»)

Gulbubu Dondoeva reported that she and her team are currently working on the initiative «Protection of Rights of Women Internal Migrants» to achieve long-term goals. Over the past year, they have been trying to assess how well the labor rights of women in the Ak-Djar settlement are protected.

«In 2023, as part of the FPAR APWLD project (Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development), together with the organization ‘Equal Rights’, we conducted a study. Previously, we have worked on projects with this organization to stop the abduction of girls and violence against women. Currently, we have interviewed over a hundred women to understand how the rights of internal migrants are protected in the settlement. The research results indicated numerous issues in this area,» says Dondoeva.

For example, the study showed that the majority of women living in the Ak-Djar settlement have secondary education and lack specialized professions. They often work in sewing workshops or from home, and their labor rights are virtually unprotected.

(Resident of Ak-Djar residential area, Elzat Orozbekova)

For example, 90% of women who participated in the study reported working without an employment contract. Additionally, 5% stated that their employer refused to sign an employment contract.

This violates several articles of the Labor Code of the Kyrgyz Republic. At that time, it was known that this issue prevented the protection of other rights of working women. For instance, the majority of women surveyed mentioned that they do not take maternity leave and do not have regular working hours.

The absence of basic labor rights for women, including rest, guaranteed wages, leave, and social security payments, significantly exacerbates their situation. According to Gulbubu Dondoeva, this is one of the main problems in settlements because the lack of protection of basic labor rights for residents leads to economic and social difficulties.

«During the research, we encountered gross violations of women’s labor rights in the settlement. Employers are not held responsible if they fall ill or take leave. Moreover, even in case of accidental injury, it is impossible to hold the employer legally accountable and demand compensation. This makes women a vulnerable group. After completing the study, we appealed to the relevant authorities to make necessary amendments to the Labor Code and tighten control over the situation in communities. Currently, we are working with our team to improve the situation in this direction,» says Gulbubu Dondoeva.

It should be noted that over half a million women in Kyrgyzstan live below the poverty line, surviving on just 4408 soms per month. It is said that this leads to deteriorating health among women and other issues.

Why are initiatives by local activists important?

According to international organizations, local activism is a crucial component of civil society development and improving quality of life. According to the World Bank report, citizen participation in local initiatives contributes to more effective problem-solving and sustainable development. For example, countries with active civil societies have managed to reduce poverty by 20% and increase access to basic services by 30%.

As an example, one can highlight the activities of local activists and individuals like Gulbubu Dondoeva, a resident of Ak-Djar settlement. She and her team have been initiating various projects and proposing solutions for almost a quarter of a century.

Author: Guliza Urustambek kyzy

This material was created as a component of a fellowship provided by Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development (APWLD) on the topic of Media and Visual Journalism Fellowship on Militarism, Peace and Women’s Human Rights.  

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