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A New Life for Tajik Teens
For her young age, 17-year-old Zehra has already experienced a lifetime of pain. Her parents left rural Tajikistan to work in Russia when she was just two years of age. Zehra was raised by her aunt, who was verbally and physically abusive. At 15, Zehra ran away after her aunt accused her of theft. Like many other teens, she headed to the capital, Dushanbe, in hopes of finding work. Zehra quickly encountered the harsh realities of living in the capital of Central Asia’s poorest country: She was sold into prostitution.
When Child Legal Centre (CLC), a British non-governmental organization (NGO) launched a programme in Dushanbe in 2009 with the support of the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, Tajikistan was struggling to rebuild child protection and other social services. Girls who had been sexually active were often stigmatized as prostitutes and kicked out of homes. Runaway teens like Zehra were picked up from the streets and taken to temporary isolation centers, where they stayed for up to 30 days with hardly any legal or social protection. If family members refused to pick them up or weren’t found, the teens often ended up back on the streets.
CLC decided to create a unique, dedicated service—the Girls’ Support Service—to provide short-term residences, and a variety of psychological and educational services for girls like Zehra. The most important component of the service is the individual approach, explains Carla Koffel, CLC project leader. “We really believe in providing tailored services to every girl who comes here. Each situation is unique and each girl needs a different approach.”
“When I came to the centre, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who would help me. My fate, my life, everything was up in the air,” Zehra recalls. The centre helped her attend cooking courses, and learn to care for herself physically and psychologically. “I was always treated very politely, with a lot of care,” she adds. Today, she has moved to the semi-independent unit, where she is working to finish high school and take entrance exams for medical school.
CLC has also set up a national hotline, where young women can receive medical and legal advice, and get a referral to the centre. It has joined ten other NGOs throughout the country to set up similar service outside Dushanbe. Fifty girls have already received support through CLC, which aims to assist 300 more girls in Dushanbe and 830 outside the capital.
“In this past year, we have seen a real shift in communities’ attitude towards girls who have been abused. We have seen how parents and other family members can start treating them differently. These women will have a chance to live a life of dignity, because the society will eventually rid itself of crippling stigmas,” Koffel says. “To see this shift is the most exciting, rewarding part of working here.”
“I am thankful to those who have supported me. Without them I wouldn’t be able to learn how to live independently and make decisions so that I can be secure in the future,” says Zehra, smiling through tears.
For more information: the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women.