Kazakhstan’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights Sheds Light on Recent Reforms in Exclusive Interview

ASTANA – The Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Kazakhstan Dinara Zakiyeva has been at the forefront of recent reforms aimed at safeguarding the well-being and rights of children in the country. In an interview with The Astana Times, she sheds light on these advancements and Kazakhstan’s commitment to protecting its youngest citizens.

The Astana Times senior editor Assel Satubaldina and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Kazakhstan Dinara Zakiyeva.  Photo credit: The Astana Times

The conversation began with Zakiyeva explaining the impetus behind the recent bill on the protection of women’s rights and child safety, which the Mazhilis, a lower house of the Kazakh Parliament, endorsed on Feb. 28 in the second reading. 

The bill was developed following the task set by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his address to the nation in September 2023. He reiterated multiple times the need to tighten the law to protect children and women better. 

According to Zakiyeva, the bill includes a “truly comprehensive and integrated approach” to addressing the issue of domestic violence, violence prevention, tightening penalties for all forms of violence against children, and creating an infrastructure to assist families and children.

Dinara Zakiyeva. Photo credit: The Astana Times

“We began this work in June, following the President’s instructions. In September [2023], the President highlighted the focus areas, issuing directives to tighten penalties for all forms of violence against children. In the course of implementing this directive, we presented this bill at the Prosecutor’s Office in September and later in the Mazhilis, where deputies supported it, supplemented it with their very important amendments, and then forwarded it to the government for final approval,” said Zakiyeva, who has been serving as the commissioner since June 2023. 

Specifically, the bill proposes life imprisonment as a mandatory sentence for the murder of a minor or acts of pedophilia.

“It introduces increased responsibilities and penalties for torture and cruel treatment. Moreover, it excludes conciliation for minor, moderate, and severe harm, as well as for torture. It also establishes responsibility for bullying, ensuring children’s safety, and addresses the issue of ejecting children from public transport. Essentially, it tackles pressing issues that have recently arisen, especially concerning children, their safety, and violence against children, all of which are considered in this bill, including a specific section on domestic violence,” she said. 

The bill also removes the option of restricting freedom for those convicted of torturing a minor or helpless individuals. Imprisonment is now the only punishment for such acts. It also reinstates criminal liability for causing minor harm to health.

It also emphasizes a comprehensive approach to prevention, which includes a 111 helpline for support.

“For example, the bill proposes the creation of family support centers in every district of the country and psychological support centers in every region to provide timely assistance. As you may recall, the President, in his message about tightening penalties for crimes against children, also highlighted the important role in developing assistance programs for child victims of violence and providing psychological support,” she said. 

The bill also establishes competencies at the akimat (city administration) level, determining which administration should coordinate assistance to families.

“Previously, no such function was assigned to any akimat administration, resulting in a lack of responsibility tied to a specific structure,” she added. 

Zakiyeva stressed that the measures ensure that even the remotest parts of the country receive help when needed. To achieve this, the bill legislatively secures the activities of regional ombudspersons for children’s rights.

She emphasized the broad range of experts, representatives of government, the Parliament, and the public involved in the preparation of the bill. 

“Non-governmental organizations, regional representatives [of the commissioner], the National Commission on Women’s Affairs, the Human Rights Ombudsman, and public organizations made proposals based on their practical work with victims – women and children,” she said. “There was not a single NGO that said no or considered [the bill] premature or unnecessary. There was quite a broad discussion. We also presented in various regions which we visited.”

Measures to combat bullying

Kazakhstan has also taken several measures to ensure children are protected from bullying, combining legal, educational, and social strategies.

Zakiyeva said they are working with the Ministry of Education to localize a Finnish anti-bullying program in Kazakh schools as a pilot project. KiVa is an innovative school-based anti-bullying program developed by researchers at the University of Turku, Finland, and is based on decades of research on bullying and its mechanisms.

“KiVa is one of the world’s best scientifically proven programs, which is currently being adapted to our realities and specific characteristics. Each country has its own peculiarities and perceptions, and it is important that the program is understandable to children and teachers. Starting in September, it will be launched in 80 rural schools and after the pilot, at least 1,500 are planned to be covered every year,” said Zakiyeva.

In addition, the ministry has developed a national program called Dos Bol (translated from Kazakh as Be Friend), which they have started piloting. 

“The essence of these programs is to implement standards in all schools for responding to and preventing bullying. In this program, for instance, there are three modules targeted at working with elementary classes, from fifth to seventh grade and above. Each class receives content that is age-appropriate. In elementary classes, for example, children are simply told what bullying is, why it is bad, how to recognize it, how to react if it happens to them, and the importance of cultivating respectful relationships,” said Zakiyeva. 

Zakiyeva also highlighted that bullying involves not only the perpetrator but also those who passively allow it by not reacting, “silently approving of these actions.”

“Primarily, this is related to a lack of ability to establish respectful relations with other children and, more precisely, a lack of communication skills. When a child cannot properly express their feelings or even their negative emotions, they may resort to bullying or other inappropriate actions. Of course, a child’s behavior is affected by their environment, including what happens at home. They may themselves be victims of violence or bullying [at home]. There are many such causes that need to be addressed,” she said. 

That is why the bill envisions a major role assigned to psychological support centers. Zakiyeva emphasized schools need to implement a unified approach to identify bullying and violence. 

“Violence and bullying are indeed hard to detect. Children often do not admit to it, are afraid, do not signal in time, or tell anyone. A careful and correct approach is needed to identify those children who are subjected to or may witness bullying in a timely manner and provide them with assistance,” she said. 

The first state helpline at 111 has been established, operates anonymously, and accepts calls around the clock. 

“It is crucial to conduct informational work so that everyone knows this number exists. If they see something happening, they should definitely report it. I often say that in 60-70% of cases, during investigations, it often emerges that neighbors and acquaintances knew or suspected something but remained silent,” said Zakiyeva. 

Educational infrastructure

Education is a fundamental right of every child, and Kazakhstan, like many other countries, also faces challenges in ensuring this goal. One of them is the demographic boom, which leads to a surge in the number of children enrolling in schools. This increased demand quickly outpaces the available spaces in schools, leading to overcrowded classrooms. 

Zakiyeva highlighted the ongoing Comfortable Schools national project, which is aimed at addressing these issues. At a government meeting on Feb. 20, Minister of Education Gani Beisembayev said that in 2024-2025, 369 schools will be commissioned with 740,000 student places. Of them, 217 schools are to be opened this year. 

Ensuring that every child has access to education also means addressing the needs of children with disabilities and other special learning needs. 

“Currently, there are nearly 180,000 children with special educational needs. Two years ago, a law on inclusive education was adopted, stating that every school must create conditions for children in need of inclusion. In this context, the state is taking a series of measures, including increasing the number of psychological, medical, and pedagogical commissions, which are organizations that work with such children and can provide referrals for education in inclusive classes,” said Zakiyeva.  

According to her, the task of developing an inclusive society is directly linked with the creation of infrastructure, including rehabilitation centers and inclusive classes. 

“Speaking of education, we need to create the entire cycle of infrastructure required by children. Currently, we are working with Qazaqstan Halqyna [charitable fund] and Samruk Kazyna Trust [Social Development Foundation under the Samruk Kazyna Sovereign Wealth Fund] to open rehabilitation centers in all regions,” she added. 

Over the last three years, 35 centers have been opened, including five large autism centers and 30 rehabilitation centers in regions, districts, and villages.

“We have a significant task to develop accessibility to inclusive classes. Currently, only 8% of schools in the country have inclusive classes, so we are working on this task with the Ministry of Education to ensure that at least one school in every district of the country has a fully equipped inclusive cabinet,” she said. 

Steps moving forward

Speaking of what stands ahead, Zakiyeva said the key priority is to focus on the implementation of this bill.

“To achieve this, it is necessary to ensure that there is sufficient personnel and conduct very thorough informational campaigns among the population so that people are primarily aware of how the legislation has changed and how it has been strengthened,” she said. 

The focus is also on resolving issues with guardianship authorities and allocating housing for orphaned children. 

“It also includes creating and improving conditions for children in boarding institutions, as well as in medical-social institutions, such as infrastructural problems. We have 547 boarding schools with 147,000 children. But many of them lack good conditions,” she said, highlighting a three-year plan signed with regional akimats to improve conditions. 

Building sports facilities in rural areas is another important objective, which aligns with President Tokayev’s directive to promote mass sports in urban and rural areas. At the initiative of the President, 100 major additional education facilities and 50 recreation centers are being built.

“In 2,247 villages, there is not a single sports facility for children, and we began working with Samruk Kazyna, which has already launched projects. Within six months, they should open sports facilities in six villages,” she added.

Zakiyeva was engaged with work related to children before her appointment as the commissioner.

“Overall, I have been involved in children’s issues for around 13 years now together with my like-minded people and colleagues. We once organized a charity fund to help children with special needs and opened the first rehabilitation centers where children were received for free,” she said, noting that her motivation was to address the systemic issues. 

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