UNICEF Regional Director highlights challenges for girls in visit to Afghanistan

UNICEF Regional Director Dan Toole has highlighted the challenges facing children and families during a six day visit to Afghanistan.

Together with Afghan President Hamid Karzai he launched the country’s National Immunization Days 2010 on 14 March – a campaign which aims to immunize nearly eight million children against polio in three days.

He emphasized the right of all girls to lives free from violence during a visit to Herat in western Afghanistan where he spoke with girls and women in a safe house, where victims of early marriage or domestic violence find can find refuge.

“It’s shocking to hear the stories of these girls, some of them hardly nine years old, who have been forced from home into an unwanted relationship, often with a man five times their age,” he said, also noting that the perpetrators of such crimes often go unpunished.

UNICEF is working to increase the numbers of girls in school by supporting the training of female teachers and setting up child-friendly classrooms. Mr. Toole visited female students at Herat Girls High School to see such efforts firsthand.

“To see such a big number of girls who are enthusiastic about becoming teachers, doctors or engineers is extremely encouraging. Their protection is among our key concerns in this country where early marriage and the denial of access to education for females is still deeply rooted in the society,” said Mr. Toole.

“Especially in high-risk, difficult to access areas, UNICEF is promoting community-based schools,” said UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan Catherine Mbengue. “We set up community management committees for each school, discussing with them from the onset the importance of girls’ education and their role in making it happen.”

Afghanistan has seen an improvement in the number of children – including girls – who are enrolled in school. Today about three quarters of boys and nearly half of girls of primary school age are enrolled in primary school. While this is a drastic increase from the 42 per cent rate for boys and 15 per cent rate for girls in 2000, the gender gap remains wide.

Lack of security is a significant concern for both Afghan citizens and humanitarian workers. A total of 613 school incidents were recorded from January to November 2009, a frightening increase from 348 incidents in 2008. Insecurity is pervasive — with continued threats and direct attacks against schools, health centres and humanitarian workers.

“We are concerned about the positioning of UNICEF in an increasingly complex environment,” said Mr. Toole. “Our mandate is apolitical, but not when it comes to the basic rights of children. Humanitarian support is needed at the bottom, and development of the country will come from the Afghan citizen.

“The children whom we assist today are the adults of tomorrow,” he added.



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