Social Workers in Kyrgyzstan Fight for Respect

In southern Kyrgyzstan, Jypar [not her real name], a social worker, starts her day by paying the bus driver out of her own pocket to reach her first case. By 8:30 a.m., she is in the home of a “street child” whose alcohol-dependent father froze to death this past winter when he passed out in the street, and whose mother, who is also alcohol dependent, has no money to pay for food. Jypar feeds the child before hurrying to her next visit, an emergency call from the neighbors of an adolescent girl who gave birth to two children and abandoned them. Jypar works quickly to place the young children in an orphanage.

All in a day’s work for a social worker in Kyrgyzstan.

In Kyrgyzstan, international NGOs provide an array of social services and drop-in centers. Regardless, says Jypar, “The issues are widespread.” Migration, health problems, drug and alcohol dependence, and the economic crisis have taken their toll on the country. And though Jypar knows the work she does is of immense importance, she is frustrated by Kyrgyzstan’s dismissive attitude towards social workers, whose Herculean efforts are critical to Kyrgyz society. “Nobody takes social workers’ opinions into consideration or views social workers as full-fledged, state-level professional workers,” she says. “We are viewed as second-class citizens. Nobody wants to do this work.”

In Kyrgyzstan, the field of social work is underdeveloped as a profession, with subpar working conditions, funding, education, and public visibility. Yet social workers’ roles have steadily increased as the country’s social dislocation has intensified, particularly in areas with high unemployment and migration. When families break down, social workers are often the only link between vulnerable people and sources of help. Their work is critical, and deserves to be elevated.

In Soviet times, the role of social workers was largely limited to providing financial support for low-income families and medical rehabilitation services for people with disabilities and aging people living alone in their homes. Today, however, Kyrgyzstan is going through a period of deinstitutionalization, putting more pressure on ordinary social workers, like Jypar. But recognition of their work hasn’t yet caught up.  

In 2014, armed with master’s degrees in social work, alumni of the Open Society Scholarship Programs’ Social Work Fellowship Program (SWFP) established the Social Work Alumni Association of the Kyrgyz Republic. Of the association’s 35 members, 24 are SWFP alumni and are working closely with the Ministries of Social Development, Education, and Health to offer technical support for various projects.

We have provided technical assistance to a new Kyrgyz government policy that helps to identify, prevent, and resolve social problems in disadvantaged families. Back in May, we also conducted a lecture series to build the capacity of social workers at the Ministry of Social Development. Our topics ranged from an introduction to social work to information on childhood disability policy in Kyrgyzstan. By sharing our knowledge and expertise, we aim to counter the shortage of resources and develop training for professional social workers.

In January 2015, Bishkek was the venue for a large conference of SWFP alumni from Central Asia, Georgia, Jordan, and Mongolia. It was inspiring to see the impact social workers are having across these countries. Our fellow alumni in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Mongolia, and Tajikistan have established strong and vibrant associations in their home countries, and we look to them as models as we develop our activities over the coming years.

We have a long way to go, but together we intend to make the essential work of people like Jypar easier, recognized, and respected in Kyrgyzstan.   

5 Comments

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A critical discussion is brought to the forefront with this piece. The recognition and elevation of the social work field in Krygyzstan. The report on the status of social workers brings to mind a question as to if the devaluing of the field is related to the gender of the workers and/or the attention to persons who may be from a lower social status. Thoughtful piece and insightful for a US social worker.

Thanks for the comment and question! Indeed, the devaluation of social work in Kyrgyzstan seems to be closely related to both the social status of the clients and the predominance of female social workers. Jypar certainly views the low status of the field as a direct result of the lack of priority accorded to poor, elderly or disabled, and the lack of political will on the part of the government to recognize and respond to vulnerable groups. The strategy of the Kyrgyz Alumni Association is to bring greater visibility and resources to the profession, to work to de-stigmatize the vulnerable and bring greater public awareness to social issues. We also are trying to incentivize and influence the government and donors to improve professional standards and recognize the value of the work of social workers through the avoided costs to the health and justice systems.

Mr. Soros. I am so grateful to you for funding my OSF Baltimore Fellow project for Repeal of the Death Penalty & support for Murder Victim Family Member's for Repeal.
I have Alzheimer's Disease but still connect & direct victim survivors to resources.
God Bless you Sir.
Bonnita Spikes

Thank you for sharing the status of social work in Central Asian countries like the Kyrgyzstan. I work with the Nepal School of Social Work and can see our story reflects the same. We are still fighting for a legitimate recognition for social work as a profession from the state. to make this happen social work education has to be in place and though a robust social work education we can prepare graduated armed with skills and make a huge difference. if our work is good and useful to the society, i am sure people will respect social workers and the state will recognise the profession. We are happy to net work with any school of social work from this region. We recently got in touch with Jibek Ibraeva from the Bishkek Humanities University, department of social work and we are learning from each other strategies and difficulties. I believe in the power of social work and hope we can contribute to a more just world. with regards, Bala Raju Nikku, Nepal School of Social Work ( www.nepalschoolofsocialwork.org ) look forward to hearing from you all.

Thanks for shedding light on this issue. And thank you for your clearly unappreciated work. I think there are many cases like this of individuals doing their best to make a difference in the lives of others and serve them in such unselfish ways. Kudos to you for what you do, and kudos to OSF for developing programs like these.

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