Sunday, April 17, 2011

Moving to Wordpress!

Sorry Blogspot, you were good to me, but then KZ blocked you. RIP.


Please update your readers.  Will try to post more regularly now, I swear!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

South Kazakhstan's 1st Model United Nations Team!


On March 10-12, the first ever South Kazakhstan Model United Nation delegation attended the Miras International School Model United Nations 2011 conference in Kazakhstan, held in Almaty.  For those who don’t know, Model UN (MUN, for short) is an educational activity where students represent the various countries of the world in committees that simulate the real United Nations.  Delegates must research their countries, write position papers, give speeches representing their country’s position about the given committee topic, and work together with delegates from other countries to write a resolution.  Model UN is thus unique in that it simultaneously teaches critical thinking skills, public speaking, research and writing, teamwork, and diplomacy along with a range of international relations substantive issues ranging from human rights to nuclear disarmament to science and technology.  As an educational module it exemplifies “participatory/active learning” (see the following learning pyramid – you retain 10% of the information you read, 20% of the information you hear, but 75% of the information you DO by role-playing or other simulation educational activities).


Aaron (the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Shymkent) and I started the South Kazakhstan Oblast (SKO) Model UN team together earlier this winter.  We are, if I do say so myself, a particularly qualified pair to pioneer this program.  Aaron worked at the real United Nations as a tour guide before he came to Kazakhstan, his job for 2 years being to inform people about all the various aspects of the UN and what they do.  He is also astoundingly well-versed in a wide variety of global current events and substantive issues (having CNN at home also helps;).  As for me, Model UN was one of my biggest extracurricular activities in college, where I served in almost every possible position (board member, secretariat member, moderator, director, assistant director, charge d’affaires, etc.) of the largest high school and college conferences in the country (Harvard Model UN and Harvard National Model UN, respectively). One of my primary contributions to our team is thus training our delegates on how to prepare for a student conference, including debate skills and the intricate details of committee procedure.  

[Flashback to HNMUN 2007, opening ceremonies with ~3,000 students - I'm the 4th Secretariat member from the right ;)]

For MISMUN 2011, we brought a delegation of 26 students (20 high school and 6 college-level) and 5 chaperones to the conference. An extraordinary amount of logistical work of course goes into coordinating a project like this, which Aaron and I have been swamped with for the last few months.  This included fundraising (more on our donors later), arranging transportation and accommodation, coordinating with schools, students and chaperones, getting official parental and school permission for participants, getting the correct travel documents for everyone who is under 16, and a million other little things.  Being a team coach (we called them “faculty advisors” at HNMUN) definitely made me appreciate the role in a whole new way, as at any given moment someone is sick, someone has lost something, someone needs to go somewhere and come back, something needs to be arranged with hotel/meals, someone wants substantive help with their working papers or has questions about procedure, etc.  And then on top of all these usual things that any MUN team experiences, you add the special Kazakhstan factor.  On the train ride to Almaty alone I had to deal with document problems for the underage delegates (for which the conductor tried to exhort a bribe), drunk men in the train harrassing our female delegates, and random strange men being let into our compartments by the conductor without a ticket (for a bribe, of course) to sleep on the “третья полка (third bunk) where luggage is normally kept.  When we got to the hotel I then had to haggle for the rooms whose price had suddenly inflated from the one we'd agreed on in advance, bargain for discounted dinners and breakfasts or our delegates, and coordinate free transportation with the conference organizers – all so our donors' money could go as long of a way as possible for our whole delegation. Luckily, as one of our British donors later told me, I am a “tough bird” – or, as Aaron often fondly says, “scary.” :P  Honestly though in those situations a no-nonsense attitude is pretty indispensable, because otherwise the complete lack of accountability and pervasiveness of corruption makes normally going about your business a daily nightmare.  I am proud to say that in the end we managed to conduct our entire trip bribe-free, and for ~$1000 in donations transported our entire delegation of 31 to Almaty, housed them in two hotels, transported them to and from the conference daily, and even covered meals and incidentals for our delegates most in financial need.

[All of us off the train, having (finally) made it safely to the conference!]

Students from our delegation included those from small villages in South Kazakhstan with very limited access to services and distinctly rural living conditions.  Many of them had never been to Almaty before, and for some this trip was their first ever venture out of South Kazakhstan. We also had students from Shymkent’s Micro-Access Program (funded by the U.S. embassy), which gives educational scholarships to youth from underprivileged families in the city.  When we arrived to Almaty and some of the village delegates saw the 5-star hotel rooms that had been so generously donated to our delegation, they at first thought it was some kind of a mistake – one young delegate walked around touching the walls of the place and joyfully told me over a phone call that “Becca, this hotel, it is a luxurious!!!”  And when they entered the expansive MISMUN campus with its smart boards, chic interior design and giant assembly hall, many of them gazed wide-eyed in wonder.  Upon seeing the foreboding podium and microphone with multiple flags in the auditorium, one of our students worriedly asked me: “Do we have to go up THERE to speak?!”  And indeed, every one of them did go up that first day to give their well-prepared opening speeches (WITHOUT reading off their papers!:), and over the course of the three day conference and many additional speeches their intimidation had disappeared and was replaced by comfort and confidence.  We are so proud that there was no palpable difference in the English level and content of our kids compared to their international school counterparts, and that they now have tangibly demonstrated the ability to carry out an act that indeed many adults and native English speakers around the world fear.

[MISMUN opening ceremonies keynote speaker Laura Kennedy, from UNESCO Kazakhstan]

[Our SKO team delegate Kamila from Sairam Village, representing Cambodia]

Over the course of the three days, our General Assembly high school delegates discussed, collaborated on and passed resolutions about three diverse and important topics: microfinance, child soldiers and environmental sustainability.  Aaron and I were even invited in a special speaker simulation as the Special Envoys to Israel and Palestine discussing children in wartime situations, and improv-ed a heated debate that I think was sufficiently entertaining for the entire committee. ;)  Our college students debated HIV and TB in their World Health Organization committee, and dealt with a small pox crisis outbreak that wiped out half the British royal family and Malia Obama (oh dear). Of the 2 committees in which our SKO delegates participated, half the final awards recognized our team’s delegates!  Special congratulations to Ahmadzhan Abdiganiev (Chile, GA Outstanding Delegate, from Karabulak village), Akmaral Sman (France, GA Outstanding Delegate, from Shymkent), Dilrabo Sultanmaratova (New Zealand, GA, Best Resolution, from Sairam village), Evgenia Grebenkina (United Kingdom, WHO, Outstanding Delegate, from Shymkent) and Dina Baildilyaeva (South Africa, WHO, Best Delegate, from Shymkent).

[Recognized outstanding delegates of the General Assembly!]

I myself served as the moderator and chair of UNICEF, where our topics were universal education and teenage pregnancy.  It was great to get to meet other motivated students from international schools around Almaty in my committee, many of whom were also in the troughs of the intensive International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (from which Aaron and I both graduated, way back when!).  Miras put together a great program and everyone learned so much, in addition to making new friends and unforgettable memories.  After conference hours Aaron also organized a wonderful tour for our kids of KIMEP (one of the best universities in Kazakhstan, which is English-based, hires foreign professors and operates on the American credit system), and a speaker session by a journalist fixer friend of his in Almaty who has worked with BBC and the New York Times.  These additional events also helped the kids learn about the diversity of educational and career opportunities available to them and connect them with resources that will help them continue developing their English, learning and future job potential.  We also had lots of fun at our “diskoteka” and karaoke evening activities for the delegates, where they were able to sing, dance and bond with the rest of the team.

[UNICEF committee!]

[SKO team girls with our karaoke hero]

This post would not be complete without a very important thank you to our donors, all of whom were private individuals who extended their own generosity to us.  None of this could have been possible without Mr. Jeff Temple, Mr. Roger Holland, Mr. Arik, and Mr. Stefan Schandera.  Jeff is an Englishman who worked for PetroKazakhstan in Shymkent for 9 years and since retiring has been repeatedly coming back to support social projects in the community with his own time and money.  He founded our Friday English Club which is still running, has been doing an advocacy project on the lead pollution problem in Shymkent, and has given donations and networking support to various grassroots NGOs (including mine!).  When Aaron and I approached Jeff about our project, he was immediate in his support and within days had found us Roger, Arik and Stefan as additional donors to make our entire team’s trip possible. Also in need of huge thanks are Mr. Stephen Taynton (the MISMUN2011 organizer), Mr. Saparbayev (owner of Hotel Sapan in Almaty) and Daulet (manager of the Tau-Otau Hotel in Almaty), who helped house and feed our participants throughout the three days of the conference.  When I met with Roger Holland in Almaty to share the results of the conference once it was over, I was left with an enormous sense of personal gratitude and satisfaction – not only for the generosity of his support in the project, but also the general feeling that such good people in this world do exist and share a like-minded philosophy of investing in the community and seeing the personal development of its individuals.  I realized that though I somehow lack the strong desire to accrue the wealth necessary to be such a private philanthropist, my calling lies with directing the goodwill and resources of such people effectively and transparently to realize worthwhile, results-orientated causes.  I also hope that this success story in Kazakhstan private donorship can inspire other NGO workers and people conducting social projects to seek out individual giving as a form of resource diversification and financial sustainability.

[Team photo at closing ceremonies!]

MISMUN 2011 was an amazing first conference for our delegates, and I hope it will not be the last.  Our next steps are to build up the team’s human resource sustainability (as Aaron and I will not be here next year), electing student officers, identifying future conferences to attend (maybe even abroad in Moscow, Bishkek, Paris – or Harvard!:), and even planning our own conference for Central Asia-wide delegations in Shymkent!  If any other PCVs would like to talk to me about starting a Model UN club in your region, please feel free.  A great resource, replete with ready-made MUN team curricula and handouts for beginning clubs, is located at http://www.unausa.org/modelun.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Temporary Hiatus in Blog Updates

Dear all,
 
Many apologies for the long silence on the blog.  For the last month and a half my poor MacBook pro has been in a state of complete darkness (I think the precise term that popped up on Google was "Macbook black screen of death"), and it is now sitting at an official Apple repair center in lovely Istanbul waiting for parts.  Blogspot is still blocked and inaccessible from KZ without my Mac's special software, so thus I will be out of commission on the blog for yet another foreseeable month (posting this by email).  But when I return from this forced hiatus, expect the following posts in varying states of belatedness:
  • Christmas in China with dad and Jo!
  • New years party parties extravaganza in Shymkent
  • My organization's youth conference, featuring interactive "youth fair" booths
  • Turkey trip with Michelle and Danish!
  • NGO School in Kostanai, where I presented on strategic planning and mission statements to 30 KZ NGOs with Bree!
  • New Shymkent Model UN Team and the MISMUN (Miras International School Model United Nations) Conference Aaron and I are taking our students to in Almaty (March 9-12)
Be back as soon as I can!  Until then, feel free to e-mail.
 
Much love,
Becca

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Second Year Begins

Life is changing with the natural cycle of Peace Corps Volunteers coming and going from site.  Our contract is for two years, and every new generation brings with it its own character and dynamic.  We recently hosted two groups of visiting volunteers, said goodbye to our remaining Kaz-20, and welcomed 4 new Kaz-22s to Shymkent.  We hosted them, got them settled, took them to their workplaces and host families and are getting to know the few other Americans with whom we will be occupying the same space for the next year.  On top of that, 2 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants arrived this fall as well, bringing our total number of Americans in these two programs alone to 9!

[Visiting Kaz-22s at my org with our Dostar volunteers!]

[Cynthia and James, my lovely guests of a week (don't worry, he shaved the 'stache before leaving the house:P)]

This made for a crowded but lovely Thanksgiving, in which us three Kaz-21s played host and between our 3 kitchens cooked 3 chickens, two types of cornbread (spicy and sweet), vegetarian chili, stovetop stuffing, buttered corn, garlic mashed potatoes, two delicious salads (one particularly popular one was lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, white cheese, walnuts and an olive oil/herb dressing), no less than SEVEN pumpkin and apple pies, and fall-inspired cocktails (cognac with brown sugar syrup, pineapple and lemon juice…highly recommended!). Our village volunteers came in from around the oblast to celebrate, and we managed to successfully fit and feed 20 people (Americans and some local friends) in my living room.

[Our 20-person Thanksgiving feast...!]

[With my dear Malika...so happy to have her back :):)]

Right after Thanksgiving ended, I cleaned and packed up all the remaining food for local friends and volunteers, and we Kaz-21s headed out to a Peace Corps-run PEPFAR training on HIV/AIDS, followed directly by our group’s Mid-Service Training (MST). The PEPFAR training consisted of Population Services International (PSI) professional trainers conducting a Training of Trainers (ToT) for us on HIV/AIDS and sexual health, so it was a great refresher on the themes and methodologies that my organization uses in our daily work.  We learned a lot of really fascinating statistics, both global and Kazakhstan-specific, and the training I thought was very comprehensive.  I was happy to hear that all PCVs will be getting it at PST from the next group on, in order to qualify them to write and conduct PEPFAR projects on HIV prevention.  All the exact content and information we got probably merits a separate post!

As for MST, it was fun as always seeing everyone from our group gather from all around the country.  The big news was that our Close Of Service date has been moved up from November to August, so we will all be COS-ing three months earlier than planned.  This is because PC Kazakhstan is expanding and getting an additional group each year, which with current timing means at some point there will be 3 groups together in country. They are letting the next two groups COS early to minimize the stress on staff resources with that many volunteers.  Everyone was buzzing about the news and thinking about what will come next after a short 8 months (the jury is still out for most of us including me, but I am very happy with the skills and contacts I’m gaining from my job here and will keep you all updated:)). Honestly, it is true what they say: though some parts have crawled (i.e. Jan and Feb of last winter), generally the last 14 months have flown so incredibly fast. I was also amazed at how much things had changed for everyone from just six months ago at our IST conference.  First of all, everyone’s Russian and Kazakh had much improved and people were basically expressing themselves fluently!  I myself moved up to two levels in Russian too which was pretty surprising as I’d heard the curve is steeper at the advanced levels…I think we all just don’t notice how much our fluency is really growing when we’re immersed in it every day.  

Also, it was fantastic to hear about the great community projects and work going on around the country from some of our volunteers.  For example, I remember presenting on our Shymkent Women’s Club at IST when pretty much only one other city was running one that had been started by Kaz-19s…now there are at least 6 or 7 founded by PCVs in our group around the country!  Our last MST session invited three winners of the essay contest “How Peace Corps Changed My Life.” These local girls presented on how their interactions with their city or village PCV inspired, motivated and helped them to reach new heights and got them where they are today (a PhD program, working for the Indian embassy, studying abroad, etc.).  They mentioned that a lot of the real results in the individuals whose lives we affect may not manifest themselves until years after we leave, but the results will definitely be there. It’s great to be reminded of that as we move into our second year of service. [Somewhat related side note: according to the RPCV that works for American Councils, I was apparently mentioned three times by our wonderful Shymkent FLEX finalists during their interviews this week…hahaha thanks guys, I’m so proud of you and am sure you’ll all make it to America!]

Other than that, it was a great week in Almaty hanging out with my friends there that I didn’t get to catch in October because everyone was out on fall break.  I temporarily left my camera in the PC office so was not able to photograph any of our adventures as I usually do, but suffice to say many delicious dinners and get-togethers were had over authentic Szechuan Chinese food, Vietnamese pho, sushi, homemade spinach and tofu, strawberry mojitos, pumpkin pancakes, salmon salad, lemon tarts, Bailey’s coffee and plenty of wine.  Cheers to Janet, Brian, Eliza, Jeff, Aaron, Kunai and Aselya for showing me a great time as usual in Almaty, a city that will inevitably always feel like a luxurious vacation destination to a PCV. ;)  My last couple days were spent shopping with what seemed like the city’s entire expat community at the big Central Asia crafts fair at the national museum (which was perfect for buying overpriced but beautiful hand-made gifts to take home to Beijing for Christmas), and visiting my granny in Issyk who filled both my stomach and heart as always. :)  Now back to site and back to work – just 8 more months, and there is so much left to do!  

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Visit to Taraz


11.02.10 (backlogged)

In mid-October, I finally paid a visit to the capital of neighboring Zhambyl Oblast, a pretty southern city that now goes by the name of Taraz.  Examinations for the prestigious FLEX Program were being held, and a few of us Americans were signed up to help proctor.  FLEX stands for Future Leaders Exchange Program, and it sends a select group of Kazakhstanian high schoolers to the U.S. for one year of exchange study, all expenses paid.  I personally think programs like these are the best public diplomacy tool we have in our box, and it is abundantly clear to me the benefits for both our countries to allow talented young people the opportunity to be cultural ambassadors for Kazakhstan in the U.S. (much like we PCVs are for the U.S. here!).

The FLEX program is run by the American Councils in Almaty, and they do quite a rigorous job with the testing.  There are three different stages: a simple, 16-question multiple choice test of English vocabulary, grammar and reading; a series of essay questions followed by a much longer “SLEP” English language test similar to the paper-based TOEFL; and finally an interview, which focuses on content and most of which is actually not conducted in English.  The first stage of the test alone is quite rigorous, testing knowledge of English idioms and conversational rhetoric along with fast reading comprehension – only 30-40% of applicants make it out of the very first cut.  Altogether several thousand apply every year, and only a little over 100 go – making the program just as selective (if not more so) as getting into the most elite colleges in the U.S.

Helping to administer the test was quite an interesting experience.  There was a sea of excited young people and I think we were all touched at how many of them valued the idea of an American education, were interested in English, and wanted to participate in the program.  We struggled to control the masses, get everyone to stand in a line, not push, and fill out their documents correctly. Sipra came up with the ingenious idea to not let anyone have a “card” (a ticket to entry into the exam) unless they were still, waiting patiently and not shoving or reaching over others to grab.  Eventually we even held an American trivia game to keep the students occupied during what ended up being several hours of waiting for many – we asked questions like “What is the biggest state?” “Who was President of the U.S. during World War II and the Great Depression?” and (no one got this one correct though, sadly) “What is the name of our national anthem?”

[crowd of students at the FLEX testing!]

Several Shymkent students that we knew passed the first round and were very excited --all of them of course had worked very hard and were very well-deserving.  Cheating turned out to be not as much of a problem as anticipated, though students were of course not very used to the strictness of our proctoring. ;)  Because it is Kazakhstan, everyone got one red X warning for any signs of cheating (looking at someone else’s paper, starting early, not finishing when time is called), with the second X resulting in disqualification (no need here to mention how this compares to the no-tolerance policy in the U.S….can’t imagine a strike system for cheating there!).  Luckily we didn’t have to throw anyone out during our proctoring sessions. ;)

After a long and tiring day of testing on very little sleep (I had gotten up at around 5 a.m. that morning to catch a ride to Taraz with my counterpart and her son), we got to rest up and explore the city a bit the following day.  Thanks to fellow PCVs Mark, Michael and Courtney for hosting and showing us around!  I saw the old mausoleum, central square and “lover’s lane,” hung around the bazaar, had a stereotypically confusing Kazakh dining experience (in which the restaurant was half-diner half-buffet so it was unclear whether you were supposed to serve yourself or be served; the waiter stood around awkwardly while we were in the middle of talking but didn’t come for ages when we were ready to leave; and of course, the bill came out wrong with higher prices than were originally marked), and window shopped at a local boutique.  Taraz is much smaller than Shymkent but is very clean, green and pretty.  It was a gorgeous fall weekend and I very much enjoyed the trip!

[At the Taraz mausoleum(s)]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ZhasCamp

10.22.10

I recently attended ZhasCamp, the first youth conference held in Kazakhstan on October 8-10 in Almaty. Young people and representatives of youth NGOs gathered from all over the country, and expert guests from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Kyrgyzstan and other nations were also in attendance.  The camp was a great opportunity to network with other active young people, share skills and experiences, and establish collaboration on projects.  One of the other main goals of the camp was also to discuss the new law on youth policy being passed by the Kazakhstani government, and give youth input to government representatives who attended the conference (although understandably I myself did not participate in this process).  I was also lucky enough to have won one of 48 travel grants to attend the conference, for which I must thank the ZhasCamp organizers as well as Soros Foundation KZ, who sponsored the event.

[Our event sponsors and host...like his shirt! :P]

ZhasCamp lasted three days and was in its very first iteration, though the organizers hope to make it an annual event.  One interesting innovation that was implemented was the idea of “open programming,” in which time was put aside in the schedule for participants themselves to sign up and lead their own sessions.  Although this was a bit chaotic, it did result in a very democratic and participatory conference format.  I signed up to lead what would be a packed time slot with my fellow PCV Michael about volunteerism in America, and prepared another presentation on our organization Dostar and our peer-to-peer model of volunteerism development with my fellow volunteer Zauresh.  We discussed the successful models of volunteerism development at both Peace Corps and Dostar, which I think was beneficial for a lot of the participants.

[Some of our Dostar volunteer team at ZhasCamp]

There were also several interesting “master classes” held throughout the camp on topics including fundraising for youth NGOs, cooperation with local government, social media for youth PR campaigns and once again volunteerism (co-held by some of our own Peace Corps staff!).  These discussions continued after hours in various “thematic evenings” over dinner at venues around Almaty that had agreed to partner with the conference and give discounts to participants.

On the last day of the conference, a “Projects Market” was held in which youth NGOs at the conference could present a project to a panel of judges in competition for one of two 300,000 KZT (2,000 USD) small grants to continue their project in the upcoming year.  16 organizations from around Kazakhstan presented a wide variety of projects, and it was truly fascinating to see all the activities that were happening around the country.  Youth camps for disabled children and orphans, volunteer clubs, a youth entrepreneurship center, etc. etc.  While passivity was listed as one of the "youth problems" to be discussed at the camp, this certainly was not applicable to our fellow conference participants!

Our team went up to present our project: our Summer Youth Leadership School 2010.  They had told us in advance that our project would be judged based on four criterion: sustainability, creativity, previous realization of the project, and that the initiators and beneficiaries of the project were both youth.  Keeping these criteria in mind, we constructed a Powerpoint presentation with only one slide addressing all four points at once.  Then we used the rest of our precious 5 minutes to show a short video clip of our project results that Aziz and I had stayed up putting together the night before: interviews of participants expressing their own gained knowledge and changed perspectives after the camp, and an exciting slideshow of all the pictures from our camp (check it out here on Youtube!). We ended up winning the grant, which was such a huge honor and a confirmation of the great work our volunteers are doing!

[Our volunteer Aziz in excitement as we hear our names being called!]

Overall, I met some really wonderful and interesting people at the conference and discovered many additional opportunities for cooperation and skills-sharing among youth organizations not just in Kazakhstan but all around Central Asia.  Cannot wait to see where some of these new partnerships and ideas take us!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Y-PEER Conference in Bulgaria

09.19.10


I just got back from a Y-PEER Advocacy Project Training in Bulgaria. Y-PEER is UNFPA’s youth peer-to-peer sexual and reproductive health network of over 500 NGOs worldwide in 36 countries.  Our Shymkent volunteers have become national representatives of the Y-PEER network in Kazakhstan, called Focal Points (FPs).  This means that they are trained on international Training of Trainers (ToTs), support participation in the network as well as national and local projects, and run projects on SRHR (Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights).  As our youth projects increased and were run solely by our organization’s youth leaders and volunteers, we decided to re-register our youth organization as an independent entity called the Youth Volunteer Leadership Center “Dostar,” which runs its projects autonomously and with youth leadership but receives guidance from experienced NGO mentors at the Association of Business Women. I am now a volunteer for both of the organizations, which is why I do both organizational and youth development work.

Y-PEER this year just started funding advocacy projects for its youth organizations, which is a big and difficult step as one can imagine.  Many of the countries they work in, including those in the post-Soviet space, have complex relationships with local government and decision makers.  Or sometimes, the relationships are in fact very simple, but unidirectional (no access to decision makers, top-down informational and power structure).

Our training was really fascinating because of the wide comparative perspective we got on the situation with regards to domestic politics, the state of SRHR, and the role of youth NGOs in different countries.  There were 8 nations and 9 organizations represented at our conference: Bulgaria, Macedonia, 2 Russian delegations (one from the North Caucasus),  Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  Unfortunately what that meant was not everything in the training was directly applicable in the same way to everyone, as the standards for advocacy in the West (open meetings with or even criticism of your local government representatives) or EU countries just is not possible in many of the post-Soviet countries yet. 

That being said, we also learned some heartening things about Kazakhstan while doing our own research.  For example, did you know that the post-Soviet “Stans” have some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world (check out this comparative chart on Wikipedia)?  Abortion is allowed in virtually all situations based on a woman’s choice up to the first trimester, and for a wide variety of reasons afterwards.  Unfortunately however it is often used as a method of contraception in absence of education about other safer, earlier methods of birth control. Illegal, unregistered abortions in unsafe conditions are also common, not least because youth under the age of 18 cannot obtain medical services without their parents’ consent (one of the big legal barriers we learned about on our visits to our local Youth Health Center in Shymkent, where the gynecologist and therapist on staff can only give "consultations" and referrals, but not prescriptions, tests or treatment).  Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Our project I think reaches a very good compromise between the need for advocacy and the reality of our local situation.  We chose to focus on media advocacy, which uses mass media coverage to reach the attention of both decision makers and the public. Our project seeks to ensure that accurate information is disseminated by the media and that any dialogue containing stigmatizing marginalized groups is replaced by neutral and professional discourse.  Our first media advocacy training will focus on discrimination against PLWH (People Living With HIV).  Among the advantages of media advocacy is that “news items in the media tend to carry more credibility than those presented in paid media advertisements or in public relations material” ["Media Advocacy," Encyclopedia of Public Health], including material we ourselves could produce as an NGO. Also, mass media effectively reaches decision makers who monitor news stories in the community.  We will be running a journalist training in late October and then facilitating the mass media outputs that result from the training on PLWH rights and HIV awareness.  Then in December we will have a final press conference with government officials, journalists, our constituency group (PLWH) and other community members.  We’re very excited for our project – big thanks to the Y-PEER PETRI Sofia team in Bulgaria for their project support and for running such an interesting training!

[Y-PEER!]

[Group picture of all the project teams at our beautiful resort in Pravets, Bulgaria – 60 km out of Sofia]

[Zau and I represented the Kazakhstan project team <3]

[Our project plan!]

[Pictures of the gorgeous Pravets resort's spa and pool, complete with Finnish and Russian banyas, an herbal sauna, crazy showers and even an ice room (!)]


[One of the best side benefits of the trip was getting to meet up with both Filip and Jenny, my lovely Bulgarian friends from Harvard.  Last time I was in Sofia was in 2005 to visit Jenny, and it was so great to see her (and her brother!) again!]

[On our way back, Zau and I detour briefly to Ukraine to wait out our layover in Kiev.  We did not order the "Fat on-Kyivski," sadly]

PS: A final resource that was shared with us at the Y-PEER training that EVERYONE should read for their own edification: RSFU sexual education publications that tell you everything you would want to know about sexual organs, sexuality, reproductive health, virginity, condoms, abortion, prostitution, etc. in simple and concise language.  Especially notable are the resources for working specifically with young men on SRHR and gender work.  Read and distribute to all your friends! 

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