Press conference with UNAMA, UNICEF and UNESCO

21 Apr 2008

Press conference with UNAMA, UNICEF and UNESCO

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Catherine Mbengue, UNICEF Country Representative, Shigeru Aoyagi, UNESCO Country Director and Nilab Mobarez, UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office.

Dari - Pashto

UNAMA: Good morning everybody. My name is Nilab Mobarez from UNAMA Spokesperson’s office and welcome to our weekly press conference this morning.

Our guest speakers today are Catherine Mbengue, Afghanistan Country Representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Shigeru Aoyagi, Afghanistan Country Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). They will brief us on Global Action Week for Education. This is an international campaign to highlight the fundamental right to education for all. The theme for this year is “Quality Education to End Exclusion.”

On the occasion of Global Action Week for Education, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, will visit a school in Kabul this Wednesday, 23 April. We will share the details with you in a media advisory to be issued tomorrow.

Before we begin, if I may take a moment to echo President Karzai’s condemnation of the suicide bomb attack in Zaranj city of Nimroz province last Thursday [17 April 2008] which killed at least 20 people, including the chief of police of Khash Rod district and the Nimroz border police commander. Such wanton disregard for Afghan’s going about their daily life is staggering and cannot be justified under any circumstances.

Our thoughts and sincere sympathy goes to the families who lost loved ones, to others who were wounded, and to all those who were affected by this atrocious act.


Over 56,000 households have benefited from 77 new irrigation facilities built by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the southern region of Afghanistan.

Of the new facilities 66 are in Kandahar, 3 in Helmand, 3 in Nimroz, 4 in Uruzgan and 1 in Zabul. These projects have rehabilitated over 100,000 hectares of essential agricultural land, and will help increase crop production by 25 per cent in the Southern Region.

The construction is part of the Emergency Irrigation Rehabilitation Project (EIRP), funded by the World Bank and the Government of Afghanistan and implemented with the technical support of FAO, under which similar irrigation facilities will be built in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan by 31 January 2009.

The UN refugee agency resumed its Afghan voluntary return operation via Peshawar in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on Sunday, 20 April.

This comes after a five-day suspension (15-19 April) in assisted returns through NWFP to Afghanistan due to a blockade on the Peshawar-Torkham border road. UNHCR’s Hayatabad Voluntary Repatriation Centre (VRC) was closed during that period and Afghans were requested not to come forward for repatriation via Peshawar until further notice.

The road is now clear and open to traffic. As a result, Afghans can now approach Hayatabad VRC for repatriation.

Over 600,000 children were vaccinated against polio in Dai Kundi and Herat provinces last week.

Under the National Immunization Days (NID), launched by the Ministry of Public Health and supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 550.000 children in Herat and over 80.000 children in Dai Kundi were immunized against this contagious viral disease.

National Immunization Days cover children under the age of five and take place four times a year, twice in spring and twice in autumn.

Seventeen female doctors from hospitals in Nangarhar province are currently attending two-week training on gynaecology and obstetric care, facilitated by UNICEF. The course is conducted by trainers from the Ministry of Public Health in Nangarhar Public Hospital, and has the objective of upgrading knowledge and skills for practicing doctors and mid wives on the management of emergency obstetric care.

Three such training sessions are planned for the year 2008.


The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the German Development Service (DED) and UNAMA are pleased to invite you to a theatre performance tomorrow, Tuesday 22 April at 1.30 pm, in the Russian Cultural Center. The play, named after an anonymous Afghan prisoner “AH-5787”, is about conflict, violence, hurt and the healing process of people coming to terms with the past. Please find an invitation letter on the side table.

UNESCO: Thank you very much Nilab. Today is the first day of Global Action Week for Education, in which countries all over the world will reaffirm their commitment to achieving the Education for All Goals by 2015.

“Quality Education for All: End Exclusion now” is the topic of this year’s Global Action Week. Education for All means ensuring that all children have access to basic education of good quality. This implies creating an environment in schools and in basic education programmes in which children are both able and enabled to learn. Such an environment must be inclusive of children, effective with children, friendly and welcoming to children, healthy and protective for children and gender sensitive. The principle of inclusive education was adopted at the World Conference on Special Needs Education (Salamanca Declaration, 1994) and reiterated at the World Education Forum (Dakar, Senegal, 2000).

Eight years ago in 2000 in Dakar, Senegal, governments, the international community committed to achieve the six Education for All Goals by 2015, which focus on Early Childhood and Care Education; Universal Primary Education; learning needs of young people en adults; Literacy; Gender parity and equality; and quality of education. As the lead agency for the Education for All (EFA) movement, UNESCO’s mission, together with other UN agencies and development partners, is to promote education as a fundamental human right, to improve the quality of education and to stimulate experimentation, innovation and policy dialogue, especially in developing countries.

Despite such firm international commitment in the field of education, we have a lot of challenges. According to the ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2008’, published in November last year, 72 million children are still not enrolled in school worldwide. In Afghanistan, despite progress in school enrolment, in the last two years half of the school-age children were estimated to be out of school, among them a majority of girls, children from ethnic groups, nomadic children, children with disabilities and children living in remote areas. Poverty and marginalization are major causes of exclusion.

The right to education for all Afghan children including girls, disabled children and Kuchi children, is integrated in the National Education Strategic Plan developed by the Ministry of Education with the support of UNESCO. UNESCO education activities focus on providing support to the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan to strengthen capacities in view of accelerating the achievements of priorities and goals set in this Education Strategic Plan and of international education goals.

UNESCO is advocating at policy level to mainstream the right to education and gender equality in the whole education system. In close collaboration with UN agencies, particularly UNICEF, UNESCO is bringing together a wide range of education partners to advocate on the need for inclusive education in Afghanistan. UNESCO is supporting the Ministry of Education in developing inclusive education policies and materials for teachers and Ministry of Education staff. UNESCO developed a toolkit for an Inclusive Learning Friendly Environment, a new concept and approach in this country. With support of UNICEF, this toolkit will be printed in Dari and Pashto in the coming month, disseminated among teachers and Ministry staff through trainings and used notably in the inclusive pilot schools in Kabul.

UNESCO also supported the Ministry of Education in developing new curriculum and textbooks for secondary and Islamic Education. Textbooks have a positive impact on student learning and can counteract socio-economic disadvantage. Quality of textbooks and learning materials is a critical issue to have inclusive education system and promote learning-friendly environment.

To contribute to the goal of 50 per cent reduction of illiteracy by the year 2015, UNESCO will also support the Ministry of Education through the “Programme for Enhancement of Literacy in Afghanistan”, which is supported by the Japanese Government and will be implemented by the Ministry of Education. The Programme aims to provide 300,000 illiterate people in nine selected provinces over four years. This is a challenging job for us, and we will need a lot of support from the other UN agencies working for education. This Programme is being developed in the framework of LIFE, the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment, officially adopted in Afghanistan as the national literacy framework which offers a platform for all the literacy stakeholders to plan and implement their respective activities in a harmonized manner and collectively achieve the literacy goals set in the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) and the EFA goals. You understand, literacy is one of the biggest challenges of this country. We still have 11 million illiterate people, especially in remote rural areas. This programme will contribute to addressing the critical needs of these people.

In conclusion, I will say the following: As UN agencies, our role is to improve coordination in the education sector in Afghanistan and advocate for quality education for all. It is also critical to link Afghanistan to the global education agenda. In this regard, the next International Conference on Education organized by UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education in November 2008 will focus on the theme “Inclusive Education: The Way of the Future” and will be an opportunity to share the progress made so far in Afghanistan and to benefit from the experience of other countries in order to “end exclusion now”.

UNICEF: Ladies and gentlemen of the press, dear colleagues: one month ago, we witnessed the beginning of the new school year in Afghanistan.

We all know that half the population in this country is below 18 and we also know Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of school-age (7-12) children in the world: about 1 in 5 Afghans is a primary school-age child.

We are glad to have witnessed over 6.2 million children returning to school a month ago, some of them for the first time, a joy for the families and also for us. With this progress, why do we have to mark the Global Action Week in Afghanistan?

As half the population of this country is under 18, if we only have 6.2 million going to school, obviously we still have a lot of children who do not have access to school.

So this implies that the Government, the education partners of the Government, such as the UN, UNICEF and UNESCO and other education partners still have a lot to do, and also, you, the representatives of the media, still have a lot to do, so that we can provide education for these children and pursue their rights.

A great number of children, despite of progress not going to school, but who are these children, the children who are excluded? Let me summarize and put them in six categories:

The first category are working children, we commonly talk about child labour, exploitative child labour to be precise. Unfortunately, we still have one third of school age children involved in some kind of child labour in this country. This is not surprising because of the level of poverty in the country, and because we come from a tradition where children usually help to be income providers in the family.

The second category I would like to talk about are street children. We all go around Kabul and see children in the street and say they should not be on the street, they should be in school. In Kabul alone, the latest figures that we have are 38,000 children who unfortunately are on the streets rather than in school. The study was conducted by two NGOs, Terre des homes & Aschiana in 2002, so our figures are a bit outdated and we hope we can have better figures soon, because when we go around we are worried that we may have more street children in Kabul now. No matter what the figure, we know that these children exist and our job is to bring them back to school. We have to be creative, because these children are in the street to help their families and they are income earners, and we want to commend the actions and work of NGOs in finding alternative measures to provide education to these children, and we will continue to work with them closely. This is the best strategy for families to end poverty. If they don’t send their children to school, they will transmit poverty to the next generation.

We like to say within the UN and our education partners, that the best vaccine we have against poverty is education. A child without education has limited opportunity as an adult and is more likely to enter adulthood in poverty and leave poverty as a legacy to his or her own offspring.

It is this cycle of inter-generation transmission of poverty that all education partners in this country and UNICEF are striving to break. Giving families the opportunity to send their children to school is giving them the opportunity to equip their children with skills to end their poverty in the future.

The third group of excluded children are children in conflict with the law. Many of them find themselves in rehabilitation centres, and some of them find themselves in prison. Institutionalization of any kind will not bring any solution for the children. Diversion programmes or community work would enable them to stay in the community and be rehabilitated in the community.

Provincial child protection action networks (CPAN) which include the government, and other partners, to train social workers to develop comprehensive measures for prevention of juvenile offending with a stronger involvement of family and community.

Another group of children excluded from education are the children living in prison with their mothers.

Children with disability also suffer from exclusion in education. We now have in Kabul ten schools involved in a pilot project to ensure children with disabilities can access education.

Finally, a group I want to stress are girls. We still have 1.2 million girls of school age who do not have access to schools. I think we, and you, the members of the media, all have a role to play. In some cases the schools are not there, but even where they are there, in some cases not all benefit. We have a lot of work to do to make sure all conditions are met so that schools are friendly to girls.

The consequence is the high illiteracy rate of women in this country, and we know the consequences both in terms of health and economy. There is a big impact of illiteracy in terms of running the family and of education for the next generation.

So what is UNICEF doing to help? My colleague form UNESCO made reference to the National Strategic Plan of the Ministry of Education, which is a very comprehensive plan, and we are working with partners to support this plan. Among the activities of this plan, which are supported by UNICEF, in collaboration with UNESCO and other partners, is construction of schools, which is important, because we still have a lot of places where we don’t have schools near to the families, especially for girls, training of teachers, especially female teachers, providing teaching and learning materials, talking to community leaders, to religious leaders and talking to the families on prioritizing education. But also you know about the phenomenon we are going through recently, which is school attacks. We are supporting the Ministry of Education to work with the communities to find solutions to protect schools. In 2007, we had a budget for education which was 25 million and this year, 2008, our support to the Government for education is 27 million.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all our donors who have made it possible for us to provide support to bridge the gap of exclusion of education in this country.


TAMADUN TV [translated from Dari]: It is true that more than six million children have enrolled in school in the past years, but in terms of quality of education half of these children study at schools where there are no learning materials. What is UNICEF’s strategy to improve the quality of education? Secondly last week an Afghan women’s foundation reported about sexual harassment of children. What is UNICEF going to do about this?

UNICEF: On your first question, I want to make it clear that the strategy for improvement of the quality of education is the strategy of Afghanistan. UNICEF and other partners are here to support this strategy by providing technical assistance, financial assistance and so on. It is the strategy of the Government. There is a five-year strategic plan prepared by the Ministry of Education with support of UNESCO. We all support this plan and contributed to this plan. The plan elaborates very clearly how we are going to address both the issue of access and the issue of quality of education in line with the Millennium Development Goals. Teacher training is one aspect. That teachers are well selected and well trained is very important. Curriculum development is very important, a curriculum that is not just theoretical but provides children with skills, to read, write and learn mathematics and also gives children what we call in education circles ‘life skills’, so that they can be self-sufficient, and if you look at the strategic plan, there are measures to provide these life skills.

UNESCO: Quality of education is a very big concern of ours as well. Of course the Ministry of Education is fully aware that if they cannot provide quality education this could be a cause of exclusion. Sustaining children’s interest is quite important. This aspect is reflected in the new curriculum of secondary education and Islamic education as well. Translation of this curriculum into the text books is again a critical issue. If the text is not written well it prevents from sustaining children’s interest in attending school. So quality education is very important, and UNICEF and UNESCO have been working with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of education especially in curriculum and text books as well as equipment - the learning tools. We will continue this effort in a very serious way because quality and access should go together. If just access advances, real education for all cannot be achieved.

UNICEF: On the second part of your question is related to child protection, I want to refer you to what I said earlier about Child Protection Networks and the work we are doing with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Affairs, the police and all those who are involved in child protection activities in the country. We address the harassment issue within the Child Protection Networks. First of all for the people to know the issues and do the ground work to understand what is behind that. Sexual abuse or harassment of children is not acceptable. I think as a mother, father, sister, all of you agree that this is not acceptable. I am addressing this in a general way because I do not have the details of the report.

IRNA [translated from Dari]: In you remarks you referred to the relationship between poverty and exclusion from education and said that exclusion should not be transmitted from one generation to the other. How has the reduction of poverty alleviated exclusion?

UNICEF: That is a very vast area. We concentrate on how education can contribute to the alleviation of poverty by equipping children and providing the opportunity to their parents to transmit skills which will make children self-sufficient, because if they learn and can explore all their opportunities as future citizens then they can contribute to the economy of this country as adults.

UNESCO: The relationship between education and poverty alleviation is a difficult thing to answer. For long-term investment we have to invest in education for children, and in the short term we have to invest in skills for their parents so that they can be more self reliant and more in favour of their children going to school. Although we don’t have a clear link between education and poverty alleviation, education is definitely the best investment for poverty alleviation in this country, in the long run and in the short run.

SABAH TV [translated from Pashto]: As you know some refugees are returning back to Afghanistan and some refugee children who have returned last year cannot go to school. Also, there is another problem, the age of children is too high to go to school. What are you doing in this regard; do you have any specific programmes for them?

UNICEF: As you know, we have a UN agency specialized in refugee issues and we are working closely with UNHCR to ensure that these children of school age can go to school. The question of age is a problem. To my knowledge, children of all age have opportunities to catch up, including those who are overage. Age should not be another reason for exclusion.

UNESCO: You raised an interesting question regarding the target of schools. For overage learners, the UN agencies are trying to develop a flexible approach to accept learners according to their needs and requirements. Community-based schools and community learning centers can offer more flexible learning for returnees and for learners who are over school age.

BBC: You talked about exclusion and mentioned groups of children who do not have access to education. From your point of view, what is the most important challenge regarding access to education for Afghan children?

UNICEF: There are a lot of reasons and many challenges. Afghanistan and other developing countries are facing similar problems and we have a lot of challenges. We still have deficits as far as the number of schools is concerned. We have deficits as far as teachers are concerned. If we link it to girls, we have deficits in female teachers. We have deficits in teaching materials and we have to work on quality of education. All these combined are challenges. Security in some parts of the country is a challenge as some schools are closed due to insecurity. We are working with the Government to find a solution within the communities. The communities know how to protect schools and we have to provide the necessary support for them. I wish I could say there is only one challenge, but I cannot. There is also the issue of prioritization, encouraging parents to send their children to schools. But the fact that we see 6.2 million children going to school is impressive. In 2002, we celebrated 1.2 million children going back to school, and today we have 6.2 million. Hopefully next year more children will go to schools.

UNESCO: I agree with what Catherine said. The involvement of communities, of parents, of society as a whole in education is a must in this country, given that we have a lot of gaps in terms of finance, in terms of human resources, in terms of access. If we just stick to the promotion of formal education and if we are not aware of the limitation of formal education we cannot promote education for all in this country. So definitely we need to involve community, parents, society as a whole in any education intervention. This is very critical issue which many are not fully aware of in this country yet. UNESCO and UNICEF are trying to promote this idea of inclusion, not only the inclusion of the children, but inclusion of the parents, inclusion of the community and inclusion of society, and this way we can promote education for all in this country.