Pilot project provides a community sentencing alternative for young offenders

Along in a shabby suburb of Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe. There is nothing remarkable about this neighbourhood. The low-rise urban landscape is a legacy of the Soviet era.
As pull up we face the drab, brown facade of a large school. It’s only when entering a side wing of the building that it becomes clear something extraordinary is taking place. Inside, the building comes alive.
The rooms burst with colour, artwork adorns the walls, and everywhere it is orderly and clean. This is the home of the Firdavsi Project, a pilot project that provides a community-sentencing alternative for young offenders.
“No child is born a criminal,” says UNICEF Representative in Tajikistan Yukie Mokuo. “We are demonstrating that children can be rehabilitated and developed, rather than using a punitive approach.”
An environment of trust
For the dozen teenagers here, mainly boys, the atmosphere is informal while informative. For all of them it represents new opportunities to learn. There are sessions in crafts, English, dancing and sports. Once a week, they are taken swimming.
The youths have developed a trust in the staff, with whom they can confidentially talk about problems in their troubled lives. On one of the walls a series of pictures and cartoons depicts their experiences with the police. Almost all the drawings involve a policeman demanding money.
All of the young people sentenced to join the project live at home. Depending on their school hours, they generally attend the project three hours a day, three days a week, for up to four months.
From fighter to star pupil
Anver is a slightly-built 17-year-old who has been sentenced by a local court for fighting. His passion is American rap music. He had faced the possibility of a prison sentence until this project was set up in November 2005 by UNICEF Tajikistan and implemented by the Child Rights Centre, a UK-based non-governmental organization.
Partly driven by his passion for rap, Anver is a star pupil of the English-language classes. He conducts his interview in English.
“I study each evening at home with my Russian-English dictionary,” he says. “I want to travel to America to become a rapper. If I stay here, I want to go to university to become a lawyer.”
Building self-esteem
So far, 54 youngsters aged between 12 and 17 have ‘graduated’ from the Firdavsi Project. “This is changing children’s lives,” says project manager Zarina Alimshoeva. “Each one of them receives a lot of individual attention from us. They become calmer, more self-assured.
“The children’s behaviour improves,” Ms. Alimshoeva continues. “When they return home, their relationships with their parents and families improve too.”
Word about the reforming ways of the Firdavsi Project is spreading. Anna Spencer of the Child Rights Centre is a legal consultant to the project. “Social work and intensive counsellings are very important in building a child’s self-esteem,” she explains.
The project’s annual running costs are $13,000. There are six full-time staff and two volunteers. The re-offending rate is noteworthy: To date, of the 54 youngsters who have been sentenced to attend Firdavsi, none has been back before the courts.

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