When Erkina Jeenbekova was in her early twenties, she observed that the government of her native Kyrgyz Republic wasn’t responding to the concerns and needs of the country’s youth, who make up a third of the population in what is still a very traditional culture.
“Young people are the main resource for sustainable and stable development of the Kyrgyz Republic and a serious attitude toward youth will shape the future development of society and the state,” she said.
Over the last decade, young civic activists have been working to gradually overcome this and are slowly emerging as a coherent voice for democratic change. Many young people demanded change by going out onto the streets and participating in protests during the country’s two revolutions. Erkina saw there was a need for young people to develop into leaders, equipped with the right skills to become effective participants in civil society, in order to create change.
“The role of young activists and increasing their capacity to protect and promote human rights are priorities for the development of a democratic society,” she said.
In 2007, Erkina started working at the Youth Human Rights Group (YHRG), a NED grantee promoting youth participation in the process of democratic transition by conducting advocacy and awareness campaigns, producing short films, and organizing a national youth forum in Bishkek.
The organization believes in incremental change and doesn’t rely on direct action and protests to guide change in the country. The intentional programming of the YHRG is led by Executive Director Nadira Eshmatova, who was a NED Reagan-Fascell Fellow in 2013.
By 2008, Erkina was coordinating the YHRG youth initiative group in Naryn, a remote region in the Kyrgyz Republic. One of seven throughout the country, the group in Naryn was instrumental in fighting against corruption in the educational system. Under Erkina’s leadership, the group established the first independent student union to be registered at the university in Naryn.
“The role of young activists and increasing their capacity to protect and promote human rights are priorities for the development of a democratic society…”
Deepening her interest in youth engagement and activism, she has published articles on students’ rights at universities and has assisted with research on youth participation in decision-making processes.
Now, at age 26, Erkina’s vision is to promote and protect the interests and rights of youth, she said, and to help shape their values in the spirit of democracy, human rights principles, inter-ethnic tolerance, and cultural diversity.
Since its April 2010 revolution, the Kygyz Republic has undergone important constitutional reforms and held parliamentary, presidential and local elections that, for the most part, were conducted in accordance with international standards. In the Central Asia Region, the Kyrgyz Republic has the greatest potential to emerge as a strong democratic country and it will achieve this goal through the continued dedication and hard work of young leaders like Erkina.