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Afghanistan Representative visits schools and other UNICEF programmes in conflict zone

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©UNICEF Afghanistan/2007
UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan Catherine Mbengue with children in Farmankheir Primary School, Lagman Province.

By Blue Chevigny

NEW YORK, USA, 16 January 2007 – In the few weeks since Catherine Mbengue became UNICEF’s Representative in Afghanistan, she has been touring the country to see what UNICEF is doing, particularly with regard to education for girls and women.

The UN recently voiced concern about security deteriorating in Afghanistan. “This is definitely a concern,” agrees Ms. Mbengue. “But let’s also look at all of the progress being made in the country.”

In Lagman Province, Ms. Mbengue visited Farmankheir Primary School, where children are studying in tents as UNICEF and its partners work to build a permanent school structure. This will significantly enhance security, as schools are regularly being attacked by warring factions in Afghanistan.

“No one is quite sure why schools are targeted,” notes Ms. Mbengue. “But schools are a symbol of progress and change and stability, and so those forces that want to maintain instability in Afghanistan might be choosing this way to send their message.”

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© UNICEF Afghanistan/2007
Students at Farmankheir Primary School in Afghanistan’s Lagman Province study in tents while classrooms are being built.

Girls’ education is critical

In Herat, western Afghanistan, Ms. Mbengue visited a literacy centre for women.  “There are UNICEF-supported centres like this all over the country,” she says. “These are places where women can gather together and learn something. This may sound like nothing much, but in a country like Afghanistan, it’s life-saving.”

Ms. Mbengue is quick to point out that girls’ education – and by extension, the education of adult women – is a critical component to the future advancement of any society.

“If women are educated they will have more organized households and will raise children who are healthier, safer and more educated themselves,” she says. “And with education, women are more likely to become breadwinners themselves, to start small businesses, to contribute to the economy.”

Staff member injured in attack

Ms. Mbengue’s visit to education programmes is in part a response to the attacks that have occurred over the past year on schools and educators – over 120 incidents in 2006 alone.

In one attack last May, a rocket-propelled grenade struck a vehicle carrying UNICEF Project Officer Qasem Nazari outside Herat City in Badghis Province. Mr. Nazari has worked for UNICEF in since 2001. The attack killed two others in the car, a driver and a medical doctor, and severely injured Mr. Nazari.

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©UNICEF Afghanistan/2007
Students at Farmankheir Primary School standing in front of their temporary tent classrooms.

"I lost my right leg and the left was seriously injured,” says Mr. Nazari. “I rolled under a car and awaited help, which arrived about three hours later to take me to Herat Hospital.”

Mr. Nazari was treated in Herat, Kabul and eventually Dubai, where his left leg was saved and he underwent rehabilitation. He is home again, still recovering but eager to get back to work.

“In Afghanistan we are working under very tough conditions, but at UNICEF we are committed to working with women and children in any situation. I strongly believe in that,” asserts Mr. Nazari. “At this time, children and women in some parts of Afghanistan are among the most deprived in the world.  I am very proud of being a part of an organization that helps them.”

Need for more aid

Education is among UNICEF’s key priorities worldwide, and Afghanistan is no exception. “Particularly in places like this, keeping schools going and not letting the community down is the only way to maintain the progress we’ve made so far,” says Ms. Mbengue.

The UNICEF Representative acknowledges that Afghanistan is facing some uniquely difficult challenges. For this reason, she has been appealing to donors and partners for additional aid to support education and other initiatives.

“We have reached about 50 per cent of the funds we need to keep the projects going that we already have for this year,” she says. “We still need the other 50 per cent."


 

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Audio
12 January 2007:
UNICEF Radio correspondent Blue Chevigny reports on UNICEF Representative Catherine Mbengue’s visit to education programmes in Afghanistan’s conflict zone.