Every Thursday is a special day for students at Osh State University in the ethnically diverse south of Kyrgyzstan.
On this day, fourth-year students are given the opportunity to think critically about ethnicity in a social and historical context through a unique course, titled Ethnic Diversity and Inter-ethnic Relations in Modern World.
The subject of the course remains highly sensitive, as it has only been about four years since one of the most intense ethnic clashes in the region in recent years, explains the course’s professor, Bakty Kydyrmysheva.
In June 2010 ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the south of Kyrgyzstan came to a brink when violence took the lives of more than 400 people, injured thousands and left thousands displaced.
Professor Kydyrmysheva, who has been teaching the course at Osh State University since last September, believes education is key to addressing the root cause of the conflict and to preventing it from happening again.
The course, which was proposed by the UN Human Rights Regional Office in Central Asia, educates students in managing ethnic diversity through a series of lectures and seminars, which provide students with both theoretical and practical components. Topics highlighted in the course include international minority rights, the promotion of tolerance, language policy, the need for social and civic integration and the need to reflect ethnic diversity in education and media.
The Chair of the International Relations Department, Kylsara Sultanova, believes the course is very timely and critical for today’s youth and thus, she says it was made an integral part of the formal curriculum at Osh State University.
After a two-day workshop for university professors interested in the subject, the course kicked off last September.
Out of Kydyrmysheva’s 27 students, 26 are ethnic Kyrgyz and one is ethnic Uzbek. “In other classes as well ethnic minorities constitute a small minority in the student group, thus in such situations it is important to make sure that discussions do not become too emotional and everyone feels comfortable to express themselves,” she says.
Kydyrmysheva added that as many of her students have very strong opinions regarding issues addressed in class, she is ready to mitigate possible tensions by using empathy and a multi-perspective approach.
She describes one activity in which students stick colored cardboards on their backs: 20 yellow representing the majority and 7 red representing the minority. Students then discuss their feelings and are able to learn to see each other from a different perspective.
Nurzhamal, an ethnic Kyrgyz student, said, “Of course the course provides me with important theoretical knowledge of ethnicity, minority issues and relevant national law. However, what I appreciate most is that it makes me understand how others feel when discriminated against”.
Umid, an ethnic Uzbek student was at first reluctant to take the course. However, later he liked the idea that through role playing and exercises one could discuss serious themes. “I liked that this course helps people of different ethnicities understand each other better. You just need the willingness to talk to each other and understand the problems,” he said.
“It is very challenging to overcome ethnic stereotypes and promote positive attitudes,” said Professor Kydyrmysheva. “The change does not happen overnight.”
“However, I strongly believe that it is only through knowledge and dialogue that we can sustain peace and stability,” she said.
The launch of the course corresponds to current Government policy in Kyrgyzstan. In particular, last March a Concept for National Unity was adopted in order to strengthen national unity and interethnic relations. It ensures the protection of minority rights, a balanced language policy, as well as the advancement of common civic values.
To build off this program, in the south of the country the Office initiated the course on ethnic diversity by organizing introductory presentations and lectures on the subject, as well as training sessions for professors interested in teaching the course.
"Our Office works with authorities to ensure that national legislation and polices comply with international minority rights standards. However, it is equally important to work with students,” said Pavlo Byalyk, UN Human Rights Officer for the Regional Office in Central Asia, adding that students can contribute significantly to securing lasting peace in the country as a result of their human rights education.
With the course piloting at Osh State University, the UN Human Rights Regional Office in Central Asia hopes the course will soon be launched in other universities in the south of Kyrgyzstan.
The UN Human Rights Regional Office in Central Asia initiative was inspired by a project funded by the European Union, titled "Human Rights Protection for Stability in Central Asia", which included the delivery of lectures on minority rights. In addition, project activities focused on administration of justice as well as housing, land and property issues in Kyrgyzstan.
21 February 2014