Press conference with UNAMA, UNESCO and UNICEF

20 Apr 2009

Press conference with UNAMA, UNESCO and UNICEF

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Shigeru Ayoagi, UNESCO Country Director, Gopal Sharma, UNICEF Deputy Representative and Nazifullah Salarzai, UNAMA Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit.

Dari - Pashto

UNAMA: Salam wa Sobh Ba Khair. Welcome to our weekly press conference. I am Nazifullah Salarzai from UNAMA’s Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit. Today’s honorable guest speakers are Shigeru Ayoagi, UNESCO Country Director and Gopal Sharma, UNICEF Deputy Director, who will launch the Education for All, Global Action Week here in Afghanistan. After their opening remarks, they will be happy to take your questions. If you have any questions relating to UNAMA or other UN agencies please contact my colleagues or me after this press conference. So without further delay I give the floor to Mr Ayoagi.

SHIGERU AOYAGI, UNESCO: We are today launching the Education for All, Global Action Week in Afghanistan. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are calling on all stakeholders in Afghanistan to take serious action towards overcoming the challenges to improving literacy in the country.

Particularly attention must be given to those vulnerable to exclusion and marginalisation – including women, people with disabilities, members of minority groups and those living in extreme poverty.

Addressing the challenges posed by the low literacy rate in Afghanistan contributes to the eradication of poverty, access to health, sustainable development and the ability of Afghans to enjoy a peaceful and democratic society.

UNESCO and UNICEF welcome the theme of youth and adult literacy – this is the least focused upon of the education goals. In Afghanistan, this focus is critical, given that at least 11 million Afghans aged 15 and over are in need of literacy and skills development.

Afghanistan is one of the least literate countries in the world. According to the 2005 Millennium Development Goals Report for Afghanistan, approximately 34 percent of the population is literate – 50 percent are men and 18 percent are women.

Statistics for the rural parts of the country, where 74 percent of Afghans live are dire. In those areas it is estimated that 90 percent of women and 63 percent men cannot read or write.

Despite these daunting figures, literacy and non-formal education programmes are priority areas within the National Education Strategic Plan.

Both UNESCO and UNICEF are currently working in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education to implement non-formal literacy programmes. The Enhancement of Literacy in Afghanistan programme of UNESCO will operate in 18 provinces, providing 600,000 learners with literacy, post-literacy and skills training by 2013. 60 percent of the students will be women.

GOPAL SHARMA, UNICEF: UNICEF’s literacy initiative – Women’s Literacy and Empowerment Project operates in all 34 provinces and will contribute in achieving a 20 percent increase in literacy rate for women by 2013.

In order to safeguard the gains that are being made in the field of literacy, UNESCO and UNICEF are strongly urging the government and local communities across Afghanistan to renew their commitments to protect schools, literacy centres, learners and teachers from violent attacks. Together we advocate that the sanctity of learning facilities should be respected, the lives of learners and teachers safeguarded, and that schools and literacy centres should not be used by any parties to conflict for operations or political reasons.

UNESCO and UNICEF are urging all government Ministries, NGOs, civil society groups and local communities to take the opportunity to participate in Education for All Global Action Week and to renew their commitment for improving literacy and education for all in Afghanistan.


RFE/RL: My question is for UNESCO. As you know some Afghans have said that UNESCO has paid no special attention to the education sector in Afghanistan. I wanted you to explain to us what are the measures you have taken to strengthen this sector?

UNESCO: UNESCO has done a lot in the sector of education. The fact is that we have been closely working with the Ministry of Education in developing the National Educational Strategy Plan. That is a five-year strategic plan, which identified eight priority problems. That plan was reflected in Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy. That is one axis of our work in the educational sector. In addition to that, we are working with the Ministry of Education to develop a school curriculum for both primary and secondary education.

Education in Afghanistan has been developing to a large extent over the last few years. Within the framework of Education For All we are trying to further enhance education in coordination with the Ministry of Education, especially in the fields of inclusive education, gender education and also literacy and non-formal education.

In the operational module that we have started, as I said, the enhancement of literacy in Afghanistan, a programme that the Japanese government supports, we are trying to bring literary skills to 600,000 individuals in 18 provinces over the next five years. This is one of example of our collaboration, but we are always trying to enhance our collaboration.

BBC: One of the problems in Afghanistan especially in the field of education is that people do not allow their children, especially daughters to go to school. Have you conducted any assessment showing that this mentality has now changed in Afghanistan?

UNESCO: To be frank it is not so easy to change that kind of mentality especially in rural areas. However, both UNESCO and UNICEF are trying to put big efforts into community involvement in promoting education in villages and districts, especially through the literacy and community-based programmes. We respect the culture on one hand, but on the other hand, we try to encourage the whole family to be aware of the importance of education as an investment. It is an investment for the individual, for the community and for the country as a whole.

SABAH TV [translated from Pashto]: Some of the teachers in the southern parts of the country have problems with their salaries and the students lack the presence of professional teachers in those areas. Will these new initiatives and measures solve these problems?
UNESCO: We understand that the payment of salaries for teachers has been a very critical issue in the field of education. Last year Minister Atmar applauded the increase of salaries for teachers. To my understanding, the Ministry of the Education is still looking at this problem of the salaries very seriously. Of course, a teacher is a very critical element. Both UNESCO and UNICEF are trying to raise this issue and are working with the Ministry of Education on how we can best provide the technical support and to increase the quality of the teachers, as well as improving school facilities and equipment.

FREELANCE JOURNALIST: I am wondering if you can give us the most recent enrolment figures, as well as figures relating to the closure of schools. And how many children are actually completing school each year?

UNICEF: The number of community based schools supported by UNICEF is 3,446. The number of primary teachers is 11,4569. The number of female teachers in formal schools is 41,025, the number of primary and secondary students, and the figure is from the Ministry of Education is 6,139,101, the number of girls in primary and secondary schools is 2,191,046, the number of primary students is 4,784,472, and the number of girls at primary level is 1,786,625.

There were 292 school attacks in 2008 which resulted in 92 deaths and 169 injuries. In 2009, the total number of school attacks is 29 so far, the number of deaths 13 and the number injured is 14.

VOA [translated from Pashto]: Do you think that school attacks are decreasing or increasing?

UNICEF: As I already said, there have been 29 attacks so far in 2009. During 2008, we had 292 attacks against schools.

UNESCO: As far as the Ministry’s figure from March last year shows it was the same – 29 attacks by March last year and 29 attacks against schools so far this year.

AFP: Do you have the figures of schools closed because of insurgency?

UNICEF: We do not have updated figures for that, but around 700 schools were closed. But we are working with the government to reopen these schools as soon as possible.

PAJHWOK [translated from Dari]: Do you have any figure for the number of children who cannot attend schools in insecure provinces?

UNICEF: We do not have an updated figure, but we have from some sources that there are around 200,000 children who cannot attend school.

UNESCO: In addition to his answer, according to the Ministry of Education report, 50 percent of school aged children are out of school at this moment.

TOLO TV [translated from Dari]: You talked about 18 provinces where you focused your activities. What about the rest of the provinces in Afghanistan. How many schools are active in those provinces and why do not pay attention to those provinces, is it because of the insecurity? How can we address the problems of schools in those provinces?

UNESCO: What I told you was on our literacy class operations. Yes, we are targeting 18 provinces. UNESCO is closely working with the Ministry of Education as well as UNICEF and UN-Habitat. We have already organised a working group which is the coalition of all the literacy players in Afghanistan and within this framework we will address all the provinces in Afghanistan.

FOLLOW UP FROM TOLO TV: How many schools are open in the remaining provinces besides the 18 provinces that are covered by your programme?

UNESCO: The division of these 18 provinces is for the literacy programme. The literacy programme is usually carried out at literacy classes where people get together, sometimes common houses that are used for the literacy classes, sometimes community centres could be used for literacy classes. Most often, the schools are not used for literacy classes. We make the maximum use of the available resources in the villages. Some villages have schools, there we use schools, but some villages do not have any schools. As far as the number of schools concerned, I cannot tell you at this moment.

AZADI RADIO [translated from Pashto]: Recently the Ministry of Education announced that they have been able to reopen schools in the volatile parts of the country, what is your assessment on that?

UNICEF: The Ministry of Education has an initiative to reopen schools and UNICEF and UNESCO are working very closely with them. Significant progress has been made in the reopening of the schools, but we do not have an exact figure how many have been reopened, but there is significant progress on that initiative by the Ministry of Education.

BAKHTAR NEWS AGENCY [translated from Dari]: It is said that the educational materials provided by UNICEF and UNESCO is of low quality, why they are purchased?

UNESCO: As far as quality is concerned, if it is the quality of learning materials – we have been continuously working with the Ministry of Education in improving primary learning materials and school curriculums on a continuous basis.

We have to look more at how we involve the community, and look at community aspirations, especially in the form of literacy and non-formal education. This is something which is now looked at very carefully by the Ministry of Education, UNICEF and UNESCO.

You raised a very important question of the quality of education. This will not be done in one day and cannot be done overnight. The important thing is we should be looking very closely at this matter with the people of the community, with the people at the provincial government level and collectively and continuously improve the quality of education, which very much deals with the quality of education, teachers and schools and the actual materials that we all use.