In Kyrgyzstan, calculated outrage over sexual-health education is a political pastime: In the late 1990's, a reactionary group organized a public burning of books printed by the government for youth on healthy lifestyles, claiming the section on sexual education was immoral. Now rhetoric is heating up over a series of sex-ed pamphlets printed by the Alliance for Reproductive Health (ARZ), funded by the German development agency, GIZ, and the UN.
In this Q&A, Gulnara Ibraeva, a prominent sociologist and expert on gender and sexuality, formerly of the American University in Central Asia, explains to EurasiaNet.org what Kyrgyzstan’s growing “generation of blank minds” means for the country. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EurasiaNet.org: The Alliance for Reproductive Health brochures have suddenly caused a stir. Why? And are they necessary?
Gulnara Ibraeva: In the school curriculum this kind of practical education is absent. More than one generation of sexually illiterate people, people who don't understand basic aspects of sex, have been raised. There are many examples of how the absence of this sort of education negatively impacts schoolchildren. People know nothing about their bodies. They don't even understand how they function! They have medieval perceptions about the body, even now in schools – a totally medieval understanding of real adult sexual life.
EN: Is this why there are perceptions about sexual education being shameful? Or somehow antagonistic to the idea of a Kyrgyz identity or Kyrgyzchylyk [sometimes loosely defined as “Kyrgyzness”]?
Alcoholism – a scourge across the former Soviet Union – is no joke. But Uzbekistan’s state-run television has turned it into one with a sexist, pseudoscientific report this week.
The message is, basically: It is unbecoming for women to drink.
"It is worth saying a lot of pleasant words about females, the owners of grace and charm. However, you now can face an unpleasant situation that does not suit an Uzbek woman. For instance, we can see women and girls drinking alcohol during weddings and parties in cafes and restaurants. We will focus on this topic today," said the announcer, in a BBC Monitoring translation of a program that appeared March 11 on O’zbekiston Channel Number One.
One narcologist told the program that women become addicted to alcohol twice as quickly as men do, and that women are ten times more difficult to treat for alcoholism than men are. The program warns that women who drink while pregnant are more likely to give birth to children with birth defects.
That last point is widely accepted. But while many studies have found women more vulnerable than men to the effects of alcohol, a Harvard-sponsored report, among others, says women are just as treatable as men for alcoholism.
Overall, the program seems more concerned about Uzbek women's image than their health.
Just south of the Ashgabat city gates, a security checkpoint marks the entrance to a tightly controlled, 10-mile-wide no man’s land before Turkmenistan’s border with Iran. The guards turn back many Turkmen headed to the Islamic Republic, including those traveling for religious pilgrimage, aspiring students, and anyone else the authorities feel like blocking.
According to several Turkmen in Ashgabat, a new group is being stopped lately: medical tourists.
Moscow remains a destination for many Turkmen seeking higher-quality medical care, but the cost and complications of flying to Russia have begun to exceed the trouble of making a short trip south. Turkmen traveling to Iran can arrange fixers – often ethnic Turkmen from Iran – to provide translation, transportation, and accommodation during their stay, usually in Meshed, Iran’s second city, a half day’s drive from Ashgabat.
Patients reportedly appreciate the quality and service culture afforded by Iranian private clinics. Turkmenistan has one private medical facility, the Turkish-run Ashgabat Central Hospital, which is not well regarded by Turkmen or expats in the city.
One woman seeking fertility treatment turned to a private clinic in Iran after Turkmen doctors at the best maternity ward in Ashgabat prescribed her a list of drugs, vitamins, and folk cures three pages long. Many doctors in Turkmenistan, like their counterparts across the region, embrace folk practices and outdated Soviet-era theory over evidence-based medical treatments.
The ban on exits for medical tourists has been in place since summer, say Ashgabat residents. Some continue to make the trip, claiming to be on “business,” though sources in Ashgabat report that authorities limit even these trips to once in three months.
Georgia and Armenia may not be the Caucasus' richest countries, but they do seem to be the healthiest.
Bloomberg L.P. on August 15 released its global health rankings of countries with a population of a million or more. At 71st, Georgia was the highest-ranked country in the Caucasus. Armenia was next, occupying 79th place.
Although it may be loaded with oil & gas, energy wealth has not encouraged healthy living in Azerbaijan. At 87th, the country lagged behind its Caucasus neighbors in the health rankings.
That Georgia did comparatively well is surprising, given that 57 percent of the adult male population smokes, according to World Health Organization data. That’s the highest percentage in the Caucasus. In Armenia, 51 percent of adult males are smokers, and in Azerbaijan the figure is 41 percent.
Bloomberg’s interest in healthy living is not surprising, given that its owner, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, recently tried to launch a municipal program to preventing obesity by placing limitations on the size of sugary drinks sold in the city. Bloomberg is also credited with the 2003 ordinance that banned smoking in city bars and restaurants, spurring a movement toward restricting smoking in many of the world's major cities.
The New York Times has a fascinating story today about Yusuf Sonmez, a Turkish surgeon who is suspected of being part of an organ transplant ring that stretches from Turkey to the Balkans and which may even involve the Prime Minister of Kosovo. From the piece:
For a surgeon wanted by Interpol and suspected of harvesting human organs for an international black-market trafficking ring, Yusef Sonmez, was remarkably relaxed as he sipped Turkish red wine in a bustling kebab restaurant facing the wind-whipped Sea of Marmara.
Dr. Sonmez, refreshed from a ski trip to Austria, spoke last month while on a break from business trips to Israel and operations on cancer patients here.
He boasts about the satisfaction of his kidney transplant surgeries, more than 2,400 by his count. He keeps friends (and, incidentally, investigators) up to date on his life via a blog and his Web site listing contact details. And in his seaside villa on the Asian side of Istanbul, he treasures a framed copy of a signed letter in 2003 from the Ministry of Health in Israel commending him for his life-saving aid to “hundreds of Israeli patients who are suffering from kidney diseases and awaiting transplants.”
Yet Interpol is circulating an international red-alert notice for the Turkish surgeon’s arrest with a mug shot of him in a surgical scrub cap. The Turkish authorities have shut down his private hospital. The local press has labeled him “Dr. Frankenstein.” And an expert who monitors the lurid and lucrative global trade in human organs says Dr. Sonmez has been arrested at least six times in Turkey.
Privately owned Kazakhstan daily Express-K has reported on a tragic and all too common case of teenage suicide in the northern industrial city of Temirtau.
On the landing of a high-rise apartment block, neighbors discovered the hanging body of a 15-year old schoolboy. Police say they found fresh slash marks on the child’s wrists, suggesting he had tried to commit suicide by other means.
As the newspaper notes, this was the second case of adolescent suicide in the city this year, and police have also recorded another six unsuccessful suicide attempts among young people.
Another piece titled “Death is Growing Younger” cites Deputy Education Minister Makhmetgali Sarybekov as saying authorities had registered 340 suicide attempts so far this year among the nation’s youth. Of the 211 children that died, a dozen were below the age of 12, Sarybekov said.
The explanations offered by Sarybekov range from poor family and social settings to school bullying.
A Kazakhstan General Newswire report (unavailable online) from April this year reports that 202 teenagers committed suicide in 2009 and offers a slightly more nuanced and critical explanation. As senior General Prosecutor’s office expert Andrei Kravchenko points out, suicide accounts for 45 percent of the juvenile mortality rate: "If we take into account 170 failed suicide attempts, it becomes clear that the life of a Kazakh teenager is far from blissful, opposite to what we like to imagine."
When the Uzbek government gets involved in maternal health, it’s usually to help control the country’s exploding population, by any means necessary. So one could be forgiven for greeting a new government resolution to provide “pregnant women living in rural areas with special complexes of invigorating multivitamins” with a vigorous dose of skepticism.
President Islam Karimov signed the resolution on 22 July. The measures, which are expected to cost 8 billion sums ($5 million at the official exchange rate) in 2010, fall under some ambitious rubrics: the Healthy Mother – Healthy Child program and the Year of the Harmoniously Developed Generation, designated for 2010.
Despite this new “Healthy Mother” program, the government-sponsored forced sterilization program appears to be expanding, according to recent reporting. Earlier this year, the Tashkent-based Expert Working Group claimed that authorities had ordered each Uzbek doctor to persuade at least two women of reproductive age to agree to a hysterectomy.
In at least one case, a hysterectomy was used as punishment: doctors forcibly removed the uterus of the Ferghana Region-based human rights activist and Nobel Prize nominee Mutabar Tajibayeva while she was serving a prison term in 2008, she said.
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