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Kazakhstan: Families Struggle to Enjoy Basic Rights

Expand Social Protection; Reform ‘Targeted Social Assistance’ Program

A woman carries a child in the village of Zhalanash, Kazakhstan, April 16, 2017. © 2017 REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

(Berlin, October 5, 2022) – Vulnerable populations in Kazakhstan are not able to secure their basic social and economic rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

Almost a million people are receiving help from Kazakhstan’s main social assistance program, Targeted Social Assistance(TSA), but the program is failing to protect many people who need assistance. Rigid eligibility criteria and means tests exclude many people in need of support. The government should make changes in the program to eliminate errors in determining eligibility and arbitrary barriers that leave out qualified people and increase the benefits amount to ensure that people have adequate protection of their basic economic rights.

“A relatively prosperous country such as Kazakhstan should be able to step up and meet its human rights obligations to ensure that everyone has access to social security that offers an adequate standard of living,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “At present, meager payments, bureaucratic hurdles, and stigma mean this is not happening. Kazakhstan can and should do better.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 women who had sought or receive help through the program and consulted with social workers and other professionals, activists, and nongovernmental groups that work with people in need of assistance.

In July, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Population requesting information about how the Targeted Social Assistance program operates, but has not received a response.

About half the women interviewed said that the payments help them to cover only a portion of their families’ basic needs and that they have to seek support from other sources, including charities and help from mosques or relatives. Some have taken on debt to cover basic needs.

Everyone has the right to social security. Social security is central in guaranteeing human dignity for all persons when faced with circumstances that deprive them of their capacity to fully realize their human rights, including in the event of unemployment, parenting and other caregiving responsibilities, accident, illness, disability, old age, or other life circumstances. In Kazakhstan, however, there are several barriers that prevent people from enjoying their right to social security.

People interviewed said that one such barrier is stigma about receiving social assistance and that the narrative prevails that people should be grateful for whatever they receive. People who receive TSA are often blamed for depending on assistance and accused of not wanting to work or worsening their situation to qualify.

In reality, those who apply for the program must repeatedly go through a complicated application process with recipients subject to humiliating comments by social workers at the application centers, Human Rights Watch found.

“We collect documents every three months,” a mother of four children said. “I don’t understand how they calculate [the amount of TSA] … You go once, you take a day off work and then they tell you that a document is missing or that you need to bring a binder … They talk rudely to you … You feel humiliated.”

Another stumbling block is the requirement that applicants and their family members must possess residence registration for a permanent or temporary place of residence for each family member. People interviewed said that registering is particularly difficult for large families. Many landlords do not wish to rent out their property to large families, and even if they do, they often refuse to provide the registration, seeing it as an unnecessary burden.

Other barriers include rigid means tests regarding income thresholds and formal employment requirements. The amount of assistance a family receives depends on the total family income, which may include extended family members’ incomes that aren’t available to the applicant, and other types of social assistance. In calculating appropriate payments, Kazakh authorities should only consider household members who are actually sharing expenses and responsibilities, Human Rights Watch said.

In December 2019, the Law on TSA was amended to require family members considered “capable of employment” to be employed, except when they provide care for a child under age 3 or with a disability, or an older person or a person with a disability in need of care and assistance. If a person considered capable of being employed is not actively seeking employment, the entire family loses the benefits.

These rigid eligibility criteria not only prevent families getting cash assistance to help with everyday necessities, but they also prevent people in vulnerable situations from getting access to other government services, such as support for school children and extracurricular activities. Other important benefits are linked to the person’s TSA status.

Establishing a well-designed social protection system fulfils an important human rights obligation and provides governments with a powerful tool to reduce poverty and economic inequality, Human Rights Watch said. The right to social security is guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, to which Kazakhstan is a party.

To fulfil its international human rights obligations, the government should review the TSA application process to streamline the procedure, remove or amend the residence registration requirement, and review the income calculation system.

The government should also consider removing the employment requirement and consider introducing universal child benefits, or cash benefits paid to all families with children, regardless of their income. Universal child benefits lower child poverty without the exclusion errors common to poverty targeted benefit programs. The government should also revise the poverty threshold to provide for an adequate standard of living, taking into account inflation of 14.5 percent from June 2021 to June 2022.

“Many people interviewed described circumstances such as an illness, a loss of a close relative, or a  loss of income due to factors outside of their control, which are exactly the circumstances in which international law guarantees their right to social security,” Williamson said. “Kazakhstan, which aspires to be a global economic player, needs to reform its social protection system to ensure that vulnerable people’s basic rights are protected.”

For detailed findings and accounts, please see below.


The research focused on interviewing mothers with children. Research by Soros Kazakhstan and the Applied Economics Research Centre in 2021 found that at least a quarter of families with four or more children do not have the financial means to meet the basic elements of an adequate standard of living: adequate food, necessary clothes for children, medicine and dental services, and utilities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 women with children in Almaty and Astana in May and July 2022, including mothers who receive TSA, those who had received TSA in the past, and those who have been denied TSA. Human Rights Watch also interviewed three local activists who work on promoting the rights of mothers with multiple children, nine heads of various centers that provide support for vulnerable people, five representatives of groups working on social and economic rights in Almaty and Shymkent, and an academic, a lawyer, and a sociologist working on poverty and social assistance issues in Kazakhstan.

Human Rights Watch visited three state funded social centers for families with multiple children and low-income familiesin Almaty and attended a round table with eight social workers. In Astana, Human Rights Watch also attended an online round table with Kazakh organizations working on economic and social rights.

Real full names of interviewees were used where possible, and where the interviewee granted explicit, informed consent. Some preferred not to use their full name, in which case surnames have been withheld.

The term “families with multiple children” is used when referring to families with four or more children as defined by Kazakh law.

Poverty and Assistance in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, with a population of 19 million people, is an upper-middle-income economy and the richest country in Central Asia. The government estimated in 2020 that 5.3 percent of the population had incomes below the “minimum subsistence level,” with 89.6 percent of them in families of five or more people, which can include extended family members.

Local economists and political analysts estimate that the actual number of people living in poverty is much higher. A lead analyst at the Applied Economics Research Centre in Kazakhstan found that 9.9 percent of the population lived in relative poverty, defining the poverty line at 60 percent of the median income of 49,671 tenge per month (US$105), in 2020.

A December 2020 World Bank report estimated that as a result of the pandemic, the poverty rate could increase up to 14 percent, or an additional 1.5 million people. The International Monetary Fund found that even as Kazakhstan’s economy has recovered from “the initial effects of the COVID pandemic […], spillovers from the war in Ukraine will affect growth and fuel inflationary pressures in 2022.”

Kazakhstan’s social protection system includes social insurance programs and employment benefits such as unemployment insurance. It also includes social assistance programs, with the Targeted Social Assistance being the main program, targeted exclusively at people below the poverty line.

Kazakhstan has had a series of protests in recent years over the small number of people receiving benefits, the low size of these benefits, and the difficult eligibility criteria, especially since the February 2019 deaths of five children in Astana in a fire while both their parents were working night shifts. A relative told Radio Azattyq , Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakh Service, that the children’s mother had recently started working night shifts as the government support the family received was insufficient to cover the costs of feeding the family.

TSA is provided to citizens with an average per capita income not exceeding the national poverty line, set by the government at 70 percent of the “minimum subsistence level” in Kazakhstan. This level is currently 37,389 tenge (US$79) per month, with the poverty line at about $55 per month, or $1.80 a day. The size of the TSA is calculated as the difference between a household’s income and the poverty line. Average monthly TSA payments in 2021 were 6,500 tenge ($14) per person.

TSA payments are low by World Bank standards. The World Bank international poverty level for upper-middle-income economies is currently defined as $5.50/day, or $165 a month, significantly above the minimum subsistence level and national poverty line in Kazakhstan based on which TSA payments are calculated.

Targeted Social Assistance

Kazakhstan has various social protection programs in place. The main social assistance program is Targeted Social Assistance (TSA) for people with low income, along with benefits for specific groups including for child care for children up to a year old, and additional benefits for families with four or more children, and for parents or guardians caring for children with disabilities. The government has also opened social centers that provide legal and psychological aid for families with multiple children and low-income families. The centers also provide free training programs for parents leading to certificates in massage, hairdressing, nail care, and sewing.

The Targeted Social Assistance program is governed by a 2001 law “On state targeted social assistance.” The law has been amended several times, with the most recent substantive amendments introduced in 2020. The law defines Targeted Social Assistance as “assistance provided by the state to individuals (families) with a monthly average per capita income below the poverty line established in regions, cities of republican significance, the capital.”

TSA consists of two types: unconditional financial assistance to households in which a family member has a disability and is unable to work, or a family member deemed capable of work is unable to work because they are taking care of children under age 3, or relatives who require special care and assistance. The second type, conditional cash assistance, is intended for families with at least one family member considered capable of work and provides assistance subject to the conclusion and execution of what the government calls a “social contract.”

Under the law, the length of the social contract is three months. Considering the bureaucratic, time demanding, and often humiliating nature of the application process, many recipients find it difficult to reapply every three months.

In addition to cash assistance, TSA also provides services including measures to promote employment including referral to training and social work; social adaptation measures, such as social rehabilitation for people with disabilities; legal advice; housing assistance; and a guaranteed social package for children from low-income families that provides a food parcel and household cleaning products, free school meals, school uniforms and school supplies, and discounted travel on public transport.

According to official statistics, the number of TSA recipients and levels of TSA payments have varied in recent years, reflecting changes to the eligibility criteria. Approximately 600,000 people received TSA in 2018. The number increased more than threefold to more than 2 million in 2019, with a subsequent drop to under a million in 2020 and 2021. The average monthly amount of TSA in 2018 was 4,834 tenge ($10); in 2019 it rose to 12,188 tenge ($25); and then dropped to around 6,500 tenge ($14) in 2020 and 2021.

In September 2021, UNICEF issued a report analyzing the effectiveness of multiple amendments and changes to the TSA in recent years and concluded that “the changes to the targeting and eligibility criteria created additional bottlenecks for families to access assistance, reducing the effectiveness of social assistance to reach all children and families in need.”

Many families in need of support are excluded due to the stringent eligibility criteria, including residence registration and employment requirements, and the low-income threshold. A 2017 report by Oxford Policy Management, an international development consulting firm, estimated that TSA exclusion errors were as high as 80 percent, meaning that only only 1 out of 5 eligible people received TSA support.

The eligibility criteria built into the program prevent people with low incomes from getting access to other state services that depend on the person‘s status as a TSA recipient. Maira Suleeva, director of the Center for Social Adaptation and Labor Rehabilitation, who also serves as the Head of the Baqytty Otbasy center for families with multiple children and low-income families of the Bostandyk District of Almaty, told Human Rights Watch that “the only way to prove that you are in a difficult life situation is if you receive TSA or not.”

Aida Bukaeva, an activist and the head of the Qamqor Ana center for people in a difficult life situation said: “The terrible thing is that all social assistance is tied to TSA.... We always say that those who really need it are not included in this list.… Provision of school meals, school uniform, extracurricular activities, summer camps for children, even new year presents at school ... everything is tied to the TSA. Everywhere you go they ask if you receive TSA.”

The directors of various centers that provide support for vulnerable groups and representatives of organizations working on social and economic rights said that several vulnerable groups are having difficulty accessing the TSA, including former prisoners and orphaned children who have reached adulthood. They face the same barriers as for mothers with children, including stigma, required residence registration, the requirement for official employment, and the income eligibility threshold.

Stigma, Eligibility, Lack of Information, and Complicated Application Process

A growing body of international research has shown that targeted social protection programs in many countries are designed too narrowly and exclude people in need; that selection processes are frequently costly, inaccurate, and prone to mismanagement or corruption; and many eligible people find it hard to apply or do not apply due to the stigma associated with poverty.

Stigma manifests in several ways and thus acts as a deterrent to accessing social assistance and social services, Human Rights Watch found. It generates self-exclusion and negatively affects people’s willingness to apply for social assistance.

The stigma is occasionally fueled by official comments. In September 2019, Vladimir Bozhko, deputy chairman of the lower House of Parliament, said: “Social support for the population has increased 17 times in the past three years. For this alone it is necessary to kneel down and thank the state.”

In May 2022, an official of the Labour and Social Protection of the Population Ministry said that increasing benefits could encourage people to stay at home “reducing their potential for activity.”

The media and officials often cite a dependency syndrome, contending that people don’t want to work or intentionally worsen their situation to qualify for TSA.

A 2017 UNICEF survey found that 10-13 percent of people who were eligible but did not apply had been unable to gather the necessary paperwork. Among UNICEF respondents who had applied but were rejected, failure to provide the correct documents was the reason for 12 percent of all rejections. Despite the simplification of the application process in 2019, a 2021 UNICEF study concluded that “beneficiaries described the process of application as increasingly difficult and often humiliating.”

After a family submits an application form and documents, a state commission visits the family to assess living conditions and whether the application accurately reflects the family’s need. But activists said that these visits can allow for corruption and extortion by state officials.

Zhanar, a mother of five children, receives TSA, but still struggles to provide for her children. She described the visit by the Commission: “The commission comes to check and they take photos.

According to them, you shouldn't own anything. People should live without TV, refrigerator, gas stove. If they see something, they comment “You have such a [nice] TV”. But everything was bought on credit.”

Dana, the mother of four school-age children, who has been receiving TSA since 2019, said she only gets paid for her work as a kindergarten cleaner at the end of the month so uses TSA to buy groceries when her salary runs out. At the beginning of 2022, her family was receiving 66,000 tenge ($137) a month.

Dana and her family live in the apartment of a relative of her husband with a disability and he cares for the relative. In April, her monthly TSA support dropped to 30,000 tenge ($62), without prior notification. When Dana inquired, she was told that it was a result of the change in family income, as her relative’s disability benefits had increased. She said she is confused about how the benefit is calculated and has been treated rudely when she inquired.

The application process is even more complex for people living in rural areas, who are less likely to be aware of the benefits and the eligibility criteria, or who must travel far distances to district centers to file their application, which can also be costly. The 2021 UNICEF study concluded that the application process “is more difficult for rural dwellers.” The study notes that “human resources are often lacking to deliver much-needed services in rural areas” and that “in rural areas especially, families often face an insufficient quality of services or sheer absence of them.”

Zauresh Batalova, head of the Development Fund for Parliamentarism, a nongovernmental group that monitors violations of social, economic, and cultural rights in Kazakhstan, said that “There are many people in the regions who do not receive TSA because they don't even know they would be eligible. The first problem is that the state intentionally, especially at the local level, does not inform the population about the possibility to receive TSA: they do this because they do not have sufficient funding. The second problem is that in order not to pay a large amount of TSA, local officials request documents in addition to the list provided by law, and find ways to refuse TSA.”

UNICEF also found that “lack of knowledge and information were identified as one of the bottlenecks to social assistance coverage.”

The government of Kazakhstan should review the TSA application process to streamline the procedure and reconsider the three-month reapplication requirement. The government should conduct public education campaigns to combat stigmatizing attitudes and practices, and ensure that there is clear communication and readily available information on eligibility criteria. It should also consider universal child benefits programs, to avoid the high exclusion errors of targeted programs like the TSA.

The Residence Registration Requirement

A main stumbling block in accessing the TSA is the mandatory residence registration requirement. MargaritaUskembaeva, head of the Institute for Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities in Almaty, a nongovernmental group, said that this is a particularly problematic barrier, especially for victims of domestic violence who may have fled their homes. Women who have lost their housing for other reasons also often face great difficulty.

Sanduash is a mother of three school-age girls, the eldest of whom is 12. After Sanduash lost her husband to cancer four years ago, she struggled to make ends meet, even with the TSA she received, and could no longer afford to pay rent. She said that she and her girls moved to a room at the car wash, where she works. Because she no longer has residence registration, she is no longer eligible to receive TSA.

“I worry, I don't sleep day and night,” she said. “I wash cars during the day and carpets in the evening. The children are hiding, as customers are coming. They are girls. They say, ‘Mum, we don't want to live here.’ My husband died, I couldn't pay the rent, and they kicked me out. You must show temporary residence registration [for TSA]. They [Commission] check where you live…. The girls are growing up and cry, it's not convenient for us to live here.... I didn’t ask God for my husband to leave earlier.... Never in my life did I think I would be in this position.”

Zhanar B. is a mother of six children, the youngest of whom is 2 and a half. She lives in an abandoned house in Almaty, and because she is squatting, she cannot apply for a temporary residence registration. “I live in an abandoned house,” she said. I could not find an apartment anywhere to rent, as I have six children ... I don’t qualify for TSA as I’m registered in one place, but live in a different place. It was so stressful, when I tried to apply for TSA.”

The government of Kazakhstan should review the registration criteria for TSA with the view to removing the requirement for residence registration.

Household Income Calculation

The rigid income eligibility criteria are also a significant barrier to accessing TSA. Low-income households are often left out of the extremely low thresholds used to determine poverty or because the government counts the income of extended family members who provide no support.

According to the 2017 UNICEF household survey on barriers to social assistance, 70 percent of applicants for social assistance had previously had an application rejected, and 95 percent of these rejections were because the applicant’s income exceeded the income eligibility criteria.

All types of income are included in the total family income when TSA is calculated, with the exception of some social payments. The income of every member of the household where the applicant for TSA is registered is included in total family income.

Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases in which TSA to applicants were refused because an income of an extended family member was calculated as part of the means test.

Ulana, a 48-year-old mother of four, lives with her children and her husband at her father-in-law’s residence in Almaty. Her father-in-law's pension was calculated as part of Ulana’s family income, although Ulana says that the father-in-law spends his pension on his own needs. Ulana said that the last time she tried to submit her TSA application, in 2021, workers at the application center told her that the family income exceeded the threshold, and declined to even register her application.

In evaluating whether Dana, the woman who lives with her husband’s relative with a disability, qualifies for TSA, the government included the relative’s disability benefits in the family income, even though the relative’s income is not used to support her family.

Ainur, a social worker at a the Baqytty Otbasy social services center in Almaty, has four children she cares for on her own. She said she no longer qualifies for TSA, as the disability benefits for her adult son – who has cerebral palsy – are included in the family income for the purpose of the TSA application. “He has had a disability since childhood and the same problems remain,” she said. “We were left with nothing [when TSA was taken away]. When I received TSA, I could buy something for the three other children.”

Human Rights Watch documented another case from Almaty in which the household income of a family with six children, all under the age of 18, included the pensions and disability benefits of the grandparents with whom they shared their house. But the husband does not have a permanent job because he takes care of the grandfather, while the mother looks after the children.

The government of Kazakhstan should ensure that TSA benefits are attached to the household members only when it is actually available for use by the applicant and the applicant's dependents. The government should also review the income calculations to exclude other benefits from counting as income. In addition, the government should revise the poverty threshold to provide for an adequate standard of living.

Social Contract: Employment Requirement Excludes Informal Workers

To receive TSA, in the form of the conditional cash assistance, requires adult family members to register with a government employment center and find work in the formal economy or be sent to training courses within six months of TSA application date. This requirement is particularly problematic as many low-skill jobs are in the informal sector. The IMF estimates that almost 39 percent of Kazakhstan’s economy is informal.

A mother of three, who lives with her husband and mother-in-law in a small room in a dorm in Almaty, said that when she tried to apply for TSA, staff told her she needed to provide them a copy of her husband’s certificate of income. When she could not, because her husband was working informally as a driver and did not have an employment contract, staff at the center told her she could not qualify.

The Support Center for the Family Institute (zhanuya) in Astana provides assistance to families who find themselves in a “difficult life situation” including large and incomplete families and families raising children with disabilities.

Aigul, a woman who works at the center, said that “those who come to us for assistance face the problem that their spouse has no official income when applying for TSA, and without official income, social assistance cannot be assigned. The reasons are different, someone does not have the appropriate education, someone says that the salary is too small and they just earn extra money informally. The majority have debts in banks and microloans, and as a result their accounts have been frozen.” While it is possible to apply for an emergency bank account, people who find themselves in a difficult life situation often don’t know about this possibility and will opt for a more efficient option of earning a living in the informal economy.

Even a single mother, when her child turns 3, must find a formal job to receive conditional cash assistance. But activists said the government has not created the conditions to support these women. There is limited access to preschool in some areas, so even if the child is over age 3, the parent cannot apply for work. In February 2021, the independent news outlet found that more than 240,000 children, 21 percent of all children in Kazakhstan, do not have access to preschool.

Shinar is a single mother of seven children, five of whom are of school age and live with her in a rented room in Almaty. Shinar divorced her husband because he was abusive. Shinar receives state benefits as she is a mother of multiple children, but these payments are not sufficient to cover their basic needs.

“Now, in order to get TSA, I need to work,” she said. “But I can't, my kids are sick. The youngest and third daughters often get sick. Who will give me a time off all the time? I do cleaning and washing. My 8-year-old daughter has arthritis. When she is sick, she cannot walk. I have to lift her and go to hospitals.... Benefits are not sufficient. I don’t even have enough to buy medicine for the children.”

Guzelya, a mother of five children, three of them under 18, said that her family does not qualify for TSA although her husband cannot retain gainful employment due to his mental health. She currently sells what she grows in her garden and her oldest son works as a courier. “In Kazakhstan we live for survival,” she said. “People just survive as best as they can.”

The government of Kazakhstan should consider removing the formal employment condition for TSA and provide child care so that caregivers can seek employment, and consider introducing universal child benefits.

International Human Rights Obligations

Establishing a well-designed social protection system fulfils an important human rights obligations and creates a powerful tool to help reduce poverty and economic inequality. The right to social security is enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It is key to securing other economic and social rights, in particular the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the rights to food and to adequate housing.

To fulfil the right to social security, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has said that states are required to meet a minimum level of protection for those who need it and then progressively realize universal coverage and adequate levels of benefits over time. In 2019, CESCR recommended Kazakhstan to “develop a universal social security system with a view to covering all segments of the population”.

The right to social security, including various forms of social protection, is also protected under other international human rights treaties to which Kazakhstan is a party, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 26), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (articles 11 and 14), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (article 28).

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