ASTANA – Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing a constructive and important role in helping foster the development of civil society in Kazakhstan, human rights expert Anki Wetterhall told The Astana Times. Wetterhall is also the wife of the Swedish ambassador to Kazakhstan.
How long have you been living in Kazakhstan?
Just over a year. It is always interesting to come to a new place. Kazakhstan is quite new for me. It is interesting to learn more about its culture, religion and politics so I try to follow as much as I can. Borovoye is very nice in winter time. It’s a wonderful place with rivers similar to my own country.
What is your experience in working for NGOs?
I do not usually use the term ‘NGO.’ It is better to say ‘civil society.’ It is very important to have bodies independent from the state such as political parties, trade unions and other organisations of different kinds such as women’s organisations and bodies working for children’s rights and for the environment.
I have worked in this field all of my life. I have worked professionally for Amnesty International in Sweden and for the International Federation for Human Rights in Vienna and the International Red Cross in Moscow. For the last seven years, I have worked for the Swedish Forum for Human Rights. I have also been active in other human rights organisations. It is very important that people should be aware of their human rights. People everywhere should be familiar with the UN Declaration of Human Rights to which Kazakhstan is a signatory. There are many United Nations treaties on the subject such as CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It is very important that people in every country should be educated about this.
What projects on human rights are you engaged in Kazakhstan?
I assist poor people through different organisations; I am involved in the annual winter bazaar organized by the diplomatic and international community. I am always searching to find more reliable and well-functioning NGOs with important project ideas, especially concerning children, the elderly and the disabled. It is important not just to fund these groups but also to support them in their activities as well.
I keep in touch with a student group that works as volunteers to teach English and music to poor children on Sunday mornings. This is also very good for the children. It builds their self-confidence, they learn more about life and society and they come to believe more in themselves.
I am mainly interested in human rights issues and humanitarian law.
What kind of initiatives do you recommend for dealing with child homelessness, violence against children and their exploitation?
There are discussions within the government to find new ways to support young poor mothers so they can keep their babies instead of having to give them up to orphanages and also to find foster families for children without parents. Even if many orphanages are good, in most cases it is probably much better for children to stay with a family.
I think it is very important to make the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child well known to all parents, teachers, medical staff, jurists, social workers as well as among children and teenagers. Training about this convention is of great importance.
There should not be any homeless children at all. There should be a social welfare system which prevents this from happening.
How do you compare NGO work in Kazakhstan with the countries you worked before?
In Sweden, we have a long tradition of working with NGOs and of voluntary work. You could be active in an organisation or just support it as a member. As a member you contribute with your annual fee and you can attend its annual meeting where you can be part of important discussions about policy and strategy etcetera and make your voice heard.
In Kazakhstan, the tradition of independent NGOs is very young. NGOs are important. They should work independently from the government, give assistance to people in different ways, work as an advocacy and monitoring body, put pressure on government, informing people about important issues and try to get them more involved and take an active part in different important issues. NGOs can be important partners for the government. In Sweden, the NGOs play an important role and often have serious discussions with the government. In the best way, the government is listening to the argument of NGOs and considers them. Of course, it is important that the NGOs are reliable and that they have well-functioning organisations.
What is important for a well-functioning NGO?
First, it must have a clear policy: it must have a clearly-defined purpose, aim and know what it wants to achieve. It must have a board that takes the main decisions about its activities and sets its policies. It must have a membership base, both active and passive. The members should pay an annual fee.
The NGO should organize meetings for members where important issues can be discussed. At the annual meetings, the members of the board should be elected and the main policy and strategic questions be discussed.
The training of members is a vital issue. They should be familiar with the group’s organisational issues and about the social problems the NGO is working with. The NGO should also build up a group of volunteers that can assist in publicising the issues the NGO is working with.
What is necessary to get the women of Kazakhstan more actively involved in the political and economic life of the country?
I understand that the women here take most of the responsibility for the children and the household. If you look at women in high positions and compare their salaries, there is no equality between men and women. It is very important for women to be involved in political and economic life. For this, I think they have to organise themselves and work together to improve their status.