Kyrgyzstan is one of the smallest and poorest of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. Salaries are low, and life at times is very tough. However, the Kyrgyz people are very family-conscious, and have a well-defined system of hierarchy within their extended families.
Seven years ago, I was asked a surprising question by a guest from Kyrgyzstan, "Mrs Flynn, what is Natural Family Planning?" Our guest was a young woman called Asel Ibraeva whose family had befriended our daughter while she was travelling in Asia a few years earlier.
I realised that a short explanation could not do justice to the subject, so I telephoned Colleen Norman, who had been a NFP teacher in the UK for many years, and asked her if she would like to run a course in Kyrgyzstan.
To my surprise, not only did she accept, but she immediately sent us a copy of the translation into Russian of her own NFP manual. She followed this up by meeting us all at Heathrow Airport a few days later, when Asel was about to return home.
During the course of the conversation it was agreed that Asel would speak to as many people as possible who might be interested in finding out about NFP, and see if she could gather enough support to make a training course the following year feasible.
When Asel arrived in Karakol, the town in eastern Kyrgyzstan where she was living at the time, armed with the NFP manual in Russian, she boldly approached a doctor who was responsible for the training of local GPs. This doctor was receptive to learning about a method of family planning which did not involve the contraceptive pill, as it is expensive and increases the chances of anaemia in women already at risk.
By the time we ourselves visited Karakol a year later, planning for the course was well under way, many doctors and public health nurses had expressed interest, and accommodation was being organised at a local lakeside resort.
That first course, with 23 participants, all doctors or nurses, was run by Colleen's Russian colleague Galina Maslennikova from Moscow, and was a great success. Other courses followed, and in 2007 two doctors and a nurse attended training in Kraków organised by the European Institute for Family Life Education, and themselves became recognised trainers of teachers of NFP.
In Galina Maslennikova our friends found a teacher and guide who could communicate with them easily. Ever since that first course, she has stayed in touch with them, encouraging and advising them.
For Kyrgyz couples, one of the chief advantages of NFP is that they have been given a tool to help them identify their own fertile time and make use of it to conceive a child. An often poor diet and other difficult living conditions have resulted in many women having difficulty in conceiving. We know of many couples who have experienced the joy of having children after many years of disappointment.
In 2008, Asel and her husband Rasul Kenenbaev undertook some building work in Karakol. The result is a beautiful Centre which contains rooms for training, a large kitchen, and five twin bedrooms, set in a secluded garden in a quiet street. Colleen again visited the NFP teachers in November 2008, and this time she was accompanied by a retired GP, Dr Olive Duddy, herself an experienced teacher of NFP, who like Colleen was also involved in relationship education for young people.
They gave presentations about relationships and personal morality, of the sort they offer to engaged couples and in secondary schools in the UK, which were greeted with delight by the doctors and nurses present. Two of them immediately decided to take the program, suitably adapted, into local schools.
Teenagers in Kyrgyzstan face the same pressures as their Western counterparts, and even the strongest families are rarely strong enough to help their young people to resist being drawn into inappropriate sexual behaviour. This program, which emphasises the respect that is due to oneself and others, and the dangers of inappropriate and premature sexual activity, has already been very successful, both in schools in the country regions near Karakol, and in the capital city Bishkek, 400 kilometres to the west.
The organisation has been given official recognition in Kyrgyzstan, and its name Family Harmony has been registered with the local authority. NFP client-couples and participating schools are ever more numerous as the project becomes more widely known.
On Saturday, 3 July 2010, my husband Christopher and I were privileged to attend the formal opening of the Centre. About sixty people, including doctors, nurses, local government officials and television and newspaper reporters, crowded into the big seminar room to listen to speeches from the director of the Centre, Dr Burul Kabylova, from other doctors who had had experience of teaching NFP, and from us as sponsors of the program.
This project is not associated with any religious group and we have been careful not to let it seem to be a front for evangelisation. However we have insisted, and the organisers of Family Harmony have readily agreed, that only natural family planning is to be taught, and that there is to be absolutely no link with contraception or abortion.
There is no Catholic parish in Karakol but the organisers have made contact with the local Russian Orthodox church, and with the local Mullah. They stress that NFP and relationship education are relevant to everyone, whether religious or not.
We are proud of our links with this exciting project. The welcome that the Kyrgyz medical profession and national and local government have given to the activities of Family Harmony is a beacon of hope for Western nations, where pro-life messages and endeavours are too often attacked or just ignored. Their determination and success should encourage us all to support their project and to persevere with similar work in our own countries.
The Family Harmony project depends on outside financial help. To contribute to this important work, please contact Paula Flynn: paula at flynnonline.net