In the center of Murghab district in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), children under five years old did not have many learning options. The local kindergarten did not offer age-appropriate lessons or interesting activities, and the early childhood development (ECD) center was run down and in urgent need of repairs.

Tajikistan has the lowest access to early childhood education in the region. Across Tajikistan, there are less than 2,000 ECD centers, serving only 16% of the country’s children. This leaves the majority of children without the educational foundation they need to succeed in school.

According to the World Health Organization, the most critical period of a child’s development takes place between birth and eight years old. The early years of a child’s life are crucial for developing life-long skills and sets the foundation for all subsequent learning.

Meeting the Need in Murghab

The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) is working to meet the critical need for more ECD centers to educate pre-school children in Tajikistan.

In coordination with the Branch Republican Institute for Professional Development in Education (IPD), AKF piloted and scaled an ECD model in several regions of Tajikistan. The model is low-resource and needs-based, reflecting the socio-economic context of each community, and transforms empty rooms into holistic learning environments for pre-school children. Teachers, parents, and other volunteers are selected to deliver developmentally appropriate learning activities and operate the centers. IPD provides trainings on ECD policies, relevant national laws and regulations, and financial sustainability, as well as mentoring support.

In Murghab district, AKF is working with the ECD center at School #14. The center’s poor condition was affecting the community’s ability to provide quality learning opportunities for children.

Under the Thrive Tajikistan: Partnership for Socio-Economic Development program, AKF formed an ECD support group, which serves as a bridge between the center and the community. Funded by AKF and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Thrive Tajikistan helps to improve the quality of life for people in GBAO and Khatlon Oblast. The ECD support group created by Thrive Tajikistan engages caregivers and parents to provide a safe and clean learning environment for children and mobilizes community funds to support its operation. With Thrive Tajiksitan’s support, the ECD centers also now have teaching resources to offer age-appropriate learning opportunities, and many centers often provide access to nutritious food and snacks.

Pursuing Local Solutions for Early Childhood Development

Once the support group was formed, it quickly worked with the community to develop an action plan for mobilizing financial and material resources. The support group connected with Qalam, a local non-governmental organization that offers trainings to the local community on grant writing, business plan development, and monitoring. Through these community connections, the center collected toys, stationery, carpets, and furniture, and made necessary repairs, including fixing walls, laying flooring, and painting the center.

Jonbegim Azizkhonova used to work as a primary school teacher at School #14. In 2013, after she retired, she joined the ECD center as a teacher.

Five children sit on a carpet playing as an adult wearing a mask leans over

“Children, and especially their parents, like the center a lot,” Jonbegim said.

“We teach three groups, but there are many children who still want to join. Unfortunately, we cannot accept all of them, because we just don’t have the space. Parents seem to prefer the center over the local kindergarten.”

The center now serves 70 children. Although most children pay for their spot in the center, the center also teaches children from vulnerable families who are unable to pay. Jonbegim shared an example of a girl who studied at the center for two years, despite the fact that her parents could not afford the fees.

“Now this girl is a very active student at the school and participates in various events, sometimes getting first place,” Jonbegim said. “Her parents always say that her potential and skills developed in the center, and this is what has been beneficial for her school life now.”

In the future, the center hopes to expand to meet the community’s demand for its services. The ECD support group formed by AKF continues to help the center meet emerging needs.