[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
BATKEN, 23 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - A UN-sponsored radio station in Kyrgyzstan's remote southwestern Batken province is working to encourage healthier lifestyles among the regionÂ?s youth.
Atkantan Jolchubekova, a high school student, listens to all her favourite programmes on Radio Salam. "Salam tells me about the history of the world, the history of our region and provides me with answers on difficult questions related to reproductive health," Atkantan told IRIN in the provincial capital, Batken.
"When typhoid and brucellosis broke out in Batken, my friends and I listened to the programmes on these topics. It seems that they have helped a lot of people to avoid trouble," she said.
Radio Salam started broadcasting in Batken with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), its partners Internews-Kyrgyzstan and the local For International Tolerance NGO in 2001, making it the only radio actually based in the region.
"If there was no Radio Salam, then Batken would probably remain a godforsaken remote area isolated from the world by an extensive information gap," 17-year-old Aibek Temurov, who works on youth problems at the radio, told IRIN. "I would probably have quit everything and left for the capital."
Located over 1,000 km away from the capital, Bishkek, Batken is among the poorest areas in the country, with a range of development problems including a lack of services for youth.
Aibek was one of the first volunteers to join the station when he was a secondary school student. "The young generation of Batken seriously believes that the radio has changed their lives," Aibek told IRIN.
Radio Salam is part of UNICEF's Healthy Airwaves for Youth (HAFY) project. It unites five regional radio stations in various parts of the former Soviet republic. Journalists and young volunteers gather together to create interactive radio programmes designed for youth and according to local journalists, 70 percent of broadcasts are devoted to issues of healthy lifestyles.
Maksuda Aitieva, director of the radio, told IRIN that from the very beginning they targeted the local youth believing that specialists seconded to Batken from other cities would not stay there for a long time.
"As for volunteers, first they just made visits to see how radio programmes are created," said Maksuda. "Then we thought - hey, they are good successors."
Today, there are 30 volunteers at the radio station, producing features for children entitled Zigzag, which is broadcasted in the Kyrgyz and Russian languages. Young girls and boys are also involved in making other programmes, for example, educational radio programmes such as "If You Want to Know", "Daily Stories" and "School Bench".
One of the volunteer groups prepares TV programmes commissioned by the recently established provincial broadcasting company and another group is going to publish a children's newspaper.
Dinara Zulpukarova, a fourth-year student from a local university's foreign languages department, produces programmes together with other volunteers on raising youth awareness on the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), as well as on drug addiction and smoking.
Another issue of concern for the station is the increasing number of youth suicides occurring in the region. Over the past three months alone eight suicide attempts were reported in the province, officials at the local law enforcement bodies told IRIN.
"It shows that some young people are depressed, they are not capable of reacting to abrupt changes in life or to their fates. Therefore, it is necessary to rescue them and treat their souls," Aibek's young colleague told IRIN.
Altynbek Syrymbetov, a teacher and former school principal in Batken, said that Radio Salam could be instrumental in filling gaps in the educational area to a certain extent, which emerge due to a lack of resources.
Meanwhile, local authorities have welcomed the radio's efforts. Shadybek Bakybekov, assistant governor of Batken province, told IRIN that the station was a forum of opinions, which not only educated people, but encouraged social interaction.
"Salam has become a public radio, which raises awareness of the population and promotes solutions to various problems of the local communities," Bakybekov said.
As for the future, Salam's young enthusiasts now hope to move forward with further assistance from UNICEF. "With the help of international organisations we have created a successful radio station. But is it possible to say that one radio station and a few small newspapers can meet the local population's need for information?" Aitieva asked IRIN.
Already, new equipment has been purchased to expand the station's coverage to areas along the Tajik and Uzbek border.
"We hope that a wide spectrum of programmes on education and healthy lifestyles will help the radio gain prestige among the population. The most valuable assets of this mass media outlet - young volunteers and employees - will help it get on its feet and one day the station will prosper without our organisation's support," Galina Solodunova, a public relations expert for UNICEF in Kyrgyzstan, told IRIN from Bishkek.
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