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November 01, 2012

A Civic Education Project in Kyrgyzstan Forms the Foundation of Lawyer’s Career

November 2012

Nodira Akbaralieva couldn’t comprehend the significance at the time, but 11 years ago the then third-year law student at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University made a simple decision that ultimately merged her profession with her passion. As fate would have it, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) was launching a pilot program for which law students would teach school children about basic legal concepts and impart the knowledge necessary to help them develop into responsible, law-abiding citizens. An ABA ROLI liaison invited Nodira to intern at the organization’s Osh office. 

Human rights lawyer Nodira Akbaralieva. 

She, along with four other law students, volunteered and taught civic education to secondary school students in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions, eventually traveling across Central Asia to learn about community economic development, youth civic education programs and initiatives to strengthen local governance. Through training and experiential learning, the law student volunteers developed skills in interactive teaching techniques, project management, public relations, fundraising and strategic planning.

Today, Nodira says she did not realize “how much was opening before [her]” with that one decision. While each of the law students thought highly of their volunteer opportunity, Nodira viewed the civic education program as a revolutionary experiment. This outlook, and her enthusiasm, proved life-altering. “This one event in the life of an ordinary law student changed everything,” says Nodira. “I cannot imagine how my life might be without ABA ROLI and its street law program.”

“For sure, I did not expect to gain so much,” she says with a smile. The work allowed her to grow professionally and personally, eventually leading to new career opportunities—ones that she is proud to say are based on “the principles of transparency and accountability.” Six years after her internship, Nodira returned to ABA ROLI as a staff attorney, coordinating the activities of five street law training centers throughout Kyrgyzstan. While she admits that a lot of hard work was required, she says that the challenges motivated her to learn additional skills, including effective communication, leadership, interactive curriculum design, and program management, monitoring and evaluation.

From 2001 until 2012, ABA ROLI operated five centers across Kyrgyzstan, providing opportunities for about 700 law students to sharpen their practical skills and educating more than 10,000 school children about the law. With an eye toward sustainability, ABA ROLI transferred ownership of the centers to local partners in 2012. Today, two continue to operate independently, garnering enough local support to educate roughly 40 students each year.

Nodira is convinced that the program—which incorporated an interactive approach and addressed those societal problems most directly related to youth—made a lasting impact on the participating school children and on Kyrgyzstan as well. “These lessons help young people form their own opinions on important issues,” she says, “[helping them] avoid problems with the law and become active [participants in] changing society.”

Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 ethnic violence displaced thousands and served as an unfortunate reminder of the importance of civic education. Despite thinking of herself as a citizen of Kyrgyzstan first, Nodira, an ethnic Uzbek, was among the displaced. “When clashes enveloped southern Kyrgyzstan, my family—along with thousands [of others]—moved to bordering Uzbekistan as refugees,” she shares. “The war divided most people into two antagonistic groups.” For her, the experience underscored the need for civic education to foster the collective pride she personally felt among the country’s youth.

“[Upon] returning from Uzbekistan to Osh, I decided to do my best to prevent such conflicts in the future,” Nodira says. She began working on an ABA ROLI conflict prevention initiative to teach youth peaceful conflict-resolution mechanisms. She helped develop a manual and a course, Towards the Future Without Conflicts, in late 2010. “Young people were the main actors during the [violence],” Nodira says. “We believe that young people can change their attitude toward other ethnic groups and that stereotypes could be [unseated] through education.” The course proved popular among adults and students alike, and in February 2012 the Ministry of Education and Science integrated it into its national curriculum for ninth graders.

The U.S. Embassy supports the conflict resolution initiative, and the country’s street law centers, including the Osh Street Law Training Center where it all began for Nodira, are using the course in their programs. Nodira—who today coordinates the Danish Refugee Council’s project on conflict prevention, helps strengthen the protection of her community’s residential and business interests, and strives to improve socio-economic opportunities for community members—believes that these collective efforts and the passage of time will make an even bigger impact.

“Eventually, I believe that all differences like ethnicity, religious background, sex, age, political views and social status will be highly tolerated and respected by each member of the community,” Nodira asserts. She adds that she is highly committed to continued work on rule of law and human rights programs, and smiles as she acknowledges that it all started with a simple volunteer gig.