Joint UN press conference on the eve of International Literacy Day 2009
KABUL - Transcript of a joint press conference by the representatives of UNICEF, UNESCO and UN-Habitat on the eve of International Literacy Day.
UNESCO: On the occasion of International Literacy Day, taking place tomorrow 8 September, and under the umbrella of the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) that is designated by the Afghan government as the national literacy framework, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) take the opportunity to once again urge all relevant stakeholders in Afghanistan to take serious action towards improving access to quality, relevant literacy programming in the country, especially for those areas of the country most underserved, most vulnerable to exclusion and with high numbers of persons living in extreme poverty and other type of exclusions which was revealed in the “Needs Assessment report “prepared by UNESCO in cooperation with Ministry of Education and LIFE partners. Literacy is a fundamental human right contributing to improve health conditions, raise socio-economic standards and improve the overall quality of life. Furthermore, literacy plays a crucial role in building and sustaining a peaceful society.
UNICEF: UNESCO, UNICEF and UN-Habitat are pleased that the focus and theme for this year’s International Literacy Day is the empowering role of literacy and its importance for participation, citizenship and development, with the slogan “The Power of Literacy”. To celebrate it and to demonstrate the critical need for continued focus on literacy in Afghanistan, we are pleased to present a book containing the testimonies of Afghan literacy learners. It allows these learners to tell, in their own words, how the opportunity to participate in literacy classes has changed their lives. These stories also demonstrate their belief that literacy represents an opportunity for a life free of conflict and suffering. Peace, for them, represents more than just the absence of war – it represents the absence of desperate conditions and a life of hardship.
The testimonials were provided by learners enrolled in various literacy programmes throughout Afghanistan, including UNESCO’s Enhancement of Literacy in Afghanistan Programme (ELA), UNICEF’s Women’s Literacy and Empowerment Project and UN Habitat’s Learning for Community Empowerment Programme (LCEP-2), as well as classes organised and implemented directly by the Literacy Department of the Ministry of Education. Together, these and other programmes aim to contribute towards the Education for All Goal of reducing the rate of illiteracy by 50 percent by the year 2015 in line with the literacy targets of Afghanistan National Development Strategy, National Solidarity Programme and National Literacy Action Plan.
UN-HABITAT: UNESCO’s ELA programme, funded by Japanese Government, aims at providing basic literacy and post literacy skills to 600,000 beneficiaries, particularly women (60 percent), in 13 provinces of Afghanistan by 2013. ELA will open 4,000 literacy classes during its operation.
UN-Habitat is implementing the LCEP-2 Programme, funded by USAID, which is an integrated approach combining literacy, community banking and the acquisition of productive skills. This will lead towards access to improved livelihoods for more than 310,000 people in 20 provinces in Afghanistan. 60 percent of the learners are women. The acquisition of literacy skills will also encourage community participation and voices in local area development activities.
UNICEF provides support to the Ministry of Education to implement women’s literacy course which benefit to an average of 80,000 women each year. 386,000 women have benefited from this assistance since 2006.
Besides these particular projects, UNESCO, UNICEF and Habitat, together with five other UN agencies, have developed a UN Literacy Joint Programme that will complement the ongoing activities led by the Ministry of Education and other key players involved in the sector. This UN Joint Programme is focusing on promoting integrated literacy and non-formal education for empowering underserved and excluded populations through their literacy skills, livelihood and health.
UNESCO: UNESCO, UNICEF and UN-Habitat would like to take the opportunity to thank our partners, specifically the Ministry of Education, for our fruitful cooperation. The UN family is keen to strengthen these partnerships in order to enhance literacy efforts in the country. We would also like to thank our various donors whose generosity enables us to contribute to the literacy efforts of the government and people of Afghanistan.
Literacy is also one of the pillars to development. In his message on the occasion of the celebration of the day, the United Nations Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon underlines this:
“Literacy gives people tools with which to improve their livelihoods, participate in community decision-making, gain access to information about health care, and much else besides. Above all, it enables individuals to realise their rights as citizens and human beings.”
Afghanistan remains one of the least literate countries in the world, where only 34 percent (MDG 2005) of the population can read and write the majority of whom live in urban areas. According to the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA- 2005) the literacy rate of the population aged 15 and over is 24 percent (32 percent males, and 13 percent females). The statistics for the rural areas are more alarming. Of the approximately 74 percent of Afghans living in these areas, it is estimated that 90 percent of women and 63 percent of men lack literacy skills (MRRD 2003). In light of these alarming statistics, but also the success stories provided by literacy programme participants, UNESCO, UNICEF and UN Habitat are strongly urging all government ministries, the international community, NGOs, civil society groups and the local communities themselves to celebrate International Literacy Day’s message of empowerment, and to continue their commitment towards the provision of literacy programming in Afghanistan and the creation of the powerful, peaceful and productive society that would be the result.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
RFE/RL: My question goes to Ms Catherine, I want to know that what are the main challenges you face in Afghanistan while conducting your activities in this country?
UNICEF: I always like to start from a positive. When we talk about literacy, of course, we just saw from what we introduced, Afghanistan is still one of the least literate countries in the world. But let’s start with the positive. We have 6.2 million children right now going to schools in this country, which is a big step forward from where we were in 2001 and 2002. When I go throughout the country, I am struck for instance when I go to literacy classes I find three generations of women, you have the grandmother, the mother and the daughter – all three come to school. I had an opportunity to ask the grandmother, why are you coming here? She tells me I am coming here because it is a good opportunity for my granddaughter to come to school, because otherwise she is not allowed to get out of the house.
There are still communities in this country who believe that education of girls is not so important. Though there is a demand for education some people still feel that girls’ education is not so important. So it is a main challenge, how do we mobilise all communities in all parts of the country to recognise that it is very important that both boys and girls be educated in line with the Millennium Development Goals which is access to all children – both boys and girls – gender equity. So this is one challenge. The other challenge is we still do not have enough classrooms, despite all the efforts we still have areas in this country where we of course do not have formal schools and all the stakeholders are working hard to improve this. There is a very clear strategy in the Ministry of Education how we can really provide education facilities in all parts of the country.
SALAM WATANDAR [translated from Dari]: What are your specific recommendations to the Government to follow so that the literacy rate is increased. The second part is about this UN joint programme, when did it start, how many people will be covered and in which parts of the country?
UNESCO: We want to urge all the stakeholders that of course the most important leadership should be taken by the government. Government does not mean only the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Women Affairs, all the Ministries are encouraged to have the joint effort to mobilise the communities where there are learners. The most important thing is how we can provide a sense of ownership and sense of initiatives to community people and also at the provincial and district level. In that sense all the Ministries concerned have already agreed with the establishment of high level literacy commission which was declared by the Ministry of Education on the first day of the Literacy Week. In order to support the Government efforts, we the UN family, the donors, NGOs and civil society are working together to pursue the literacy intervention at national, provincial and district levels. We have already organised the national framework which is called LIFE (Literacy Initiative for Empowerment) where all the UN agencies concerned, Ministries and civil societies are in there and then organising the monthly regular meetings.
On your question about the joint programme, beside these three organisations, we have WFP, WHO, FAO, ILO and UNFPA which are members of the joint programme for literacy. Under this joint programme we are at the final stage of completing a project document which should be shared with the Ministry of Education and other government ministries and also the donors to mobilise resources in terms of finance and in terms of human resources. This joint programme will be quite unique in the sense that we will try out the various types of literacy classes. In some literacy classes health clinics will be used for the course and the health component will be the most important part of the literacy course according to the need of the people. UNICEF can bring the importance of the literacy across the generations and UN-Habitat can bring their strength in community mobilisation and community development in the course of the literacy classes.
UN-HABITAT: If I may add few words to those spoken by my colleague. UN-Habitat has been working in Afghanistan for more than 15 years. The approach that we have adopted is using a community-based approach. We have a bottom-up approach working directly with communities in rural and also in urban areas. A contribution to the UN joint programme is that we see literacy not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. Through our experience of implementing the Learning for Community Empowerment Programme we feel that community banking for communities to have some savings potentially to lend that money to other members of the community and to gain skills which will lead them to have improved livelihoods for their family members is extremely very important. This way people use their literacy skills and therefore sustain the literacy skills that they have acquired.
We also see the acquisition of literacy skills creating opportunities for people to participate in the development of their community and again through this being able to exercise those skills in a sustainable way. And to emphasise the point Catherine has made, it also creates an opportunity for people to understand health messages and therefore to improve the health of their family members and themselves as well as their community.
NOOR TV [translated from Dari]: My question is addressed to Catherine. Can you tell us, over the last eight years, how many women have benefited from your literacy courses?
UNICEF: You have to put all the programmes together. If I just take specifically UNICEF, we started the literacy programme as such in 2006 and, as my colleague said, something like 260 women have benefited. But, don’t take it as an isolated figure. You have to also [consider] other women programmes and also those of the Ministry of Education. But still, the problem is [that only] 13 percent or 18 percent – the figures of literacy rate of women in this country vary – is still very, very low. So, efforts need to continue and, as my colleagues have been saying, it’s not just one UN organisation. There are all the UN organisations working in several Ministries, but also the stakeholders including NGOs, civil society. In many countries, many programmes now try to include a literacy component in community development programmes. And this is the root that, we think, is going to make a difference in this country.
FREELANCE JOURNALIST: I have five questions, but I will ask just one. One of the challenges you haven’t put is the challenge of security. I am wondering, given the increasing insecurity, if you can comment on that and also specifically tell us how many schools of late have been closed down or attacked – an update on the figures. And the last part is: a lot of these schools were used as polling centres in elections. Are you concerned that this may have increased their vulnerability to attacks by anti-government insurgents?
UNICEF: Of course. Yes, it is a challenge. Attacks on schools have been a concern for many years. It continues to be so. A lot of schools have been closed specifically in the southern parts of the country. For us in the UN, our strategy is [to] involve the community. They know what’s happening in their areas. How do you bring them together? [The answer is to] work with the community leaders, working with the Mullahs, working with all stakeholders within the community to help to open the schools. End of the last year, we had something like 600 schools closed in the southern parts of the country. We can give you the latest figure on how many schools have been closed this year. Yes, it is a challenge. We still have seen a lot of attacks on schools. As far as your question on election, we [are] still compiling. We know that there have been incidents. We can’t say specifically because of elections. Attacks on schools are continuing and of course some have happened also during the pre-election and elections period. We are still compiling the figures to [be able to] say [if] these specific attacks are related to election. At this point, we are not able to say so.
UN-HABITAT: Of course, security is a concern to all of us. But, as Catherine said, UN-Habitat’s approach of working directly with communities, gaining their support, and introducing programmes where they are comfortable with – the introduction of literacy classes – means that we are able to work in really quite difficult areas. The low-profile approach that we adopt of learner groups of around 20 to 25 people also seems to be working and is acceptable in a very wide range of communities and different situations. In terms of women’s participation, our target is 60 percent. Currently, we are 59.4 percent. Despite all the difficulties, many women are coming to our classes. They are the most enthusiastic of learners. And, with support of community leaders and elders, we find that we are able to work in really quite difficult areas.
ARIANA: In the areas where the people are traditionally against women’s education. How would you approach in those areas in order to encourage those people to allow the women to be educated?
UNESCO: What we are going to do and what we have done so far is to try to mobilise the community and to try to increase the number of local female teachers. In most cases we approach the community leaders like Mullahs to convince them to understand the importance of literacy and the importance of literacy to the development and to community mobilisation.
So we are not bringing the literacy just as a package, but we go to the community talk to the people and encourage them to understand the importance of literacy meaning that if a woman learns to read and write how the family can get benefited from their literacy scales. In most cases they understand and of course there is a big challenge but still we are now trying to encourage them to understand the importance of literacy in various ways.
UN-HABITAT: Yes this is a very important issue and in addition to what my colleague has described UN-Habitat is also trying to encourage those communities where women are allowed to gain the literacy scales to go and visit communities where there is some resistance so that by peer group pressure from other communities we are also trying to encourage the process of change.
BBC: As you know there are ongoing fighting in some parts of the country in particular in the south and as a result of which many of the schools have been closed down. How are the literacy programmes operating in those areas?
UNICEF: I think we addressed this question earlier as a challenge. But again protection of any kind of programme you can have it in partnership with the community. So again this approach of trying to build partnership with the community is the best strategy that we have so far. Unfortunately yes it is a challenge because there are places where access is difficult.
UNESCO: Just one last message. We mentioned the literacy stakeholders in our joint statement. I want to emphasise that the media is one of the most important stakeholders in promoting literacy. You are a communicator to the people. You are a communicator to all the Afghan people. And in that sense I really encourage you to promote literacy as our main stakeholder and use the sticker which is produced by all our partners in Dari, English and Pashto. The message is – joining hands to bring literacy to millions of Afghans for peace and development. Please join us and let the people know that it is not just a matter of reading, writing and a curriculum but it is something to do with development, peace and human rights.