Page last updated at 13:08 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Helping Tajikistan's detained children

By Angus Crawford
BBC Crossing Continents, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Spiked entrance gate of the 'special school'
The "special school" where girls used to be detained with boys

In Tajikistan in Central Asia, children who are homeless or play truant can be locked up in detention centres.

In the past this used to include girls who had been victims of rape.

But a small British charity is working with the government to get them out and back with their families.

Tamano - not her real name - is 13. She ran away from home.

"I suffered mostly because one of my sisters was sold," she said. She does not know where her sister went or who bought her.

"It was difficult to live with my father because he forced me to go to the market to beg."

We have changed her name to protect her. She chose Tamano, because it means "hope".

Until last year she lived in the "special school" in Dushanbe - in reality a closed detention centre.

'Like a prisoner'

Tajikistan is the smallest of the former Soviet states in Central Asia and sits on Afghanistan's northern border.

It gained its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed, after which a five-year civil war followed.

It is conservative and Muslim with an authoritarian government.

Parvena, again not her real name, is older. After her parents split up and her grandmother died, she ended up homeless.

She was raped by a man who is now in prison. She was picked up by the police and also sent to the "special school".

There were 120 boys and just eight girls. They shared the same building and there were allegations of serious abuse.

Social work consultant Angie Bamgbose
Angie Bamgbose supervises work at the Girls Support Centre

"I was there for one year and I wasn't visited by my mother, in my heart I felt very bad," she said. "I did feel like a prisoner at the special school."

The girls were detained though they had committed no crime and had not been before a court.

But thanks to a British charity and a change of heart by the Tajik government Tamano and Parvena have a new home.

They are now living in the Girls Support Centre on the outskirts of the city.

It is a four-storey pink building, enclosed in a compound by high walls. There are posters on the freshly-painted walls, and pop music in the main sitting room. There are eight girls, aged between 13 and 16.

Children on a Tajik village road
The girls in this Tajik village may have very different futures from the boys

"These girls are just normal teenage girls, they laugh, they cry, they fight, they argue," says Angie Bamgbose, an international social work consultant who is supervising work at the centre.

She works for the Girls Support Service, which was set up with help from British charity the Children's Legal Centre.

"All of the girls have experienced abuse, physical or sexual as well," she says, "from parents, or other relatives, or when children have been living on the street, from strangers."

She explains that they had to undergo a virginity test, sanctioned by the authorities. If they failed they would face dire consequences.

BBC Radio 4, Thursday 25 March at 1100 and Monday 29 March at 2030
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"If a girl says she's been raped, then she may be considered as immoral, as being bad and not be treated as a victim," Ms Bamgbose explains.

"She may well be rejected by the family, or she may be forced to marry the rapist."

Or under the old system, sent to the boys' special school.

But the Girls Support Centre opened last summer, to give the girls help, therapy and training.

The ultimate aim is to get them back with their families or into shared flats where they can live independently.

'Cultural crisis'

It is a small project but raises questions about how a country like Tajikistan tries to modernise in the face of poverty, prejudice and tradition.

Dr Azim Bayzoev
Dr Azim Bayzoev says girls are disadvantaged in Tajik society

Dr Azim Bayzoev is an associate professor at the Tajik National University.

He says there are very few girls who find themselves in the situation of those in the support centre.

But he feels that their example does show up fault lines in Tajik society.

"There is a political, economic, cultural and educational crisis in our society," he says. "Only during Soviet times did our girls find access to go to school equal to boys."

He explains that girls are expected to stay at home and get married. The influence of Islam is on the rise, and the economy is in the doldrums.

"If we don't have a labour market even for our boys, how can we find it for our women?"

But the Tajik authorities say they are committed to getting all children out of the detention centres.

The special school used to have 120 boys in it. Now it has fewer than 40 and there are no girls.

The facilities have improved and the children are allowed to go home for the holidays if they can.

No government official was available to be interviewed. But I spoke to the deputy mayor of the nearby town of Hissar, Davlatava Khobbi. She is also head of the local commission on children's rights.

She insists the country is committed to improving the system despite its economic problems.

"I hope this problem will be solved. For the past 18 years we managed to demonstrate steady progress," she says.

"We have lived through hard times for the past 3,000 years and this experience has made us stronger. So I am very optimistic about our future."

That optimism is shared at the Girls' Support Centre.

Despite all she has been through, Tamano says she is not bitter or angry:

"I have left all my bad feelings behind me and now I need to look to my future."

Crossing Continents is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 GMT on 25 March and again at 2030 on 29 March. You can also hear it on the iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast.

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