28 January 2005, UNICEF action on education and health
Shahnaz Kianian-Firouzgar, Deputy Regional Director, UNICEF in Central and Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltics.It is always a pleasure to meet those who look beyond their own personal needs to the needs of the world at large. With your vision of unselfish service to others, of bettering communities worldwide, of fostering understanding through community action and international cooperation, it is clear that the Lions see the bigger picture.
What is close to your heart is, of course, close to the heart of UNICEF. Children are at the forefront of so much of what you do: Lions Services for Children providing health and education for children in need; Lions Youth Outreach programmes encouraging young people to excel; lions clubs that sponsor life-skills in schools, giving young people the skills they need to grow into healthy and responsible adults.
We hope that this conference will be the start of a new era of partnership between Lions Clubs and UNICEF in the region that I represent: Central and Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltics.
It is an immense and unique region, facing immense and unique challenges. No other region on earth has ever faced so dramatic a transformation in so short a time. Think of it. Eight countries splintering into 27 within the space of a few years – one third of them experiencing war in the process. The sweeping away of regimes once thought to be indestructible. The creation of new political and economic structures.
Despite recent economic progress, it has not been an easy time for children. Poverty and unemployment have risen. By the end of the 1990s, almost 18 million children were living in poverty in the region, on less than $2.15 per day – that is 17% of those aged under 17. In Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan, most children were poor. And the average rate of unemployment for those aged 15-24 stood at 30 per cent in 18 transition countries – twice as high as overall unemployment.
There has been welcome economic growth in almost every country in recent years – a very positive development. But the well-founded fear is that vast numbers of children, young people and families are still excluded from the benefits of that economic growth.
Millions of families are under pressure: the systems that once guided their lives have vanished and they must find their way in a new and unfamiliar landscape, confronting new dangers such as HIV/AIDS and the trafficking of drugs and human beings.
The good news is that this region has valuable human assets that, if mobilised, could build a protective environment around each and every child – an environment that can ensure all rights for all children, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The region has one of the most literate and well educated populations on earth. It has dynamic and resourceful young people as they shake off the legacy of the past. And very importantly, it has a growing civil society, including Lions Clubs, going from strength to strength across the region.
These positive forces need to come together to confront the very real challenges facing the children of this region.
Let us not underestimate the scale of these challenges. Among them: the state of education for the region’s approximately 82.5 million children of school age. With crumbling schools, deteriorating quality of education and falling enrolment among girls in some areas, education has to be a top priority.
In the very poorest countries, education is being undermined by the lack of resources for such basics as textbooks, heating and school maintenance and by the exodus of demoralised teachers.
Education quality is falling in many countries and outdated methods raise concerns that children are ill-prepared for real life. Traditional approaches predominate, with pupils more likely to learn by repetition than EU pupils and less able to apply their knowledge to everyday reality.
And there are concerns about a “hidden crisis”, in girls’ education. Enrolment rates for girls may seem high, but we are hearing reports of more girls dropping out of school.
Every child has the right to a decent education and governments are obliged to ensure that this right is upheld. Education is critical to the fulfilment of other human rights and is at the heart of all development. Indeed, we believe that education is essential for equality, dignity and lasting peace.
There are four steps that must be taken to fulfil the child’s right to education in our region.
The first is to ensure that all young children are ready for school. For this, they need the very best start in life, including immunisation, proper nourishment and early stimulation in an environment that is caring and protective. A child who is sick and malnourished, who has had little or no mental or emotional stimulation, is unlikely to thrive in a classroom.
That is why we promote and support programmes throughout our region to meet the health, nutrition and development needs of young children.
Second, we must ensure that all children not only get into school, but stay there until they have completed – as a minimum – their basic education. Social mobilisation campaigns and parent education programmes can all help, and UNICEF supports many such initiatives. But schools and communities need to be pro-active, seeking out children who are not in school, examining the obstacles that keep them away and then removing these obstacles in order to bring the children back into the classroom
Third, we must ensure that girls have full and equal access to education. While our region may not face a gender gap in education on the scale found in south Asia and other parts of the world, there are genuine concerns that, in some parts of our region, girls are not getting their fair share of schooling.
In Serbia and Montenegro, for example, girls who are poor – particularly those from the Roma minority – have drop out rates that are 80 per cent higher than for boys in the same situation.
In Turkey, also part of our region, one quarter of girls never enrol. Among those who do, 40 per cent do not complete primary school. That is why Turkey is part of the global ’25 by 2005’ campaign, launched by UNICEF and its partners, which aims to maximise girls enrolment in the 25 countries where their enrolment is lowest.
There is a clear need for greater investment in education – particularly in the poorest countries that have the greatest need for well-educated, productive citizens. Teachers deserve to be properly rewarded for their crucial work, buildings must be maintained, and more resources are needed for basics, such as textbooks.
There has never been a better time for education reform, as the region enjoys economic growth and as the number of school-aged children declines as the populations fall.
The parents of this region value education very highly. In the Russian Federation, for example, 90% of students have classical literature in their homes, compared to 60% in the EU. And parents in this region are more likely to help children with their homework and take part in school activities.
This is a solid foundation for the preservation of much that was good in the education systems of the old regimes – particularly universal coverage – while paving the way for reforms to adapt education to a rapidly changing world.
As well as advocating at the highest level for education reform to meet the needs of children, our programmes are transforming theory into practice on the ground. We support Child-Friendly Schools, for example, in such countries as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania. Working with the governments, we aim to equip children with the skills they will need in their new societies.
And in Central Asia we also work closely with the Global Education Project, bringing together technical and education ministries from all five countries with the Universities of Plymouth in the UK and Toronto in Canada to form core teams in each country that promote the best that education has to offer.
Let me move on to one of the most severe health challenges facing the region: HIV/AIDS. Our region is seeing one of the steepest increases in the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide. In 2004 there were an estimated 1.4 million people living with HIV across the region – a 40% increase since 2002.
The epidemic is fuelled by risky behaviour – mainly drug use and unsafe sex. And in our region, the epidemic has a young face. More than 80% of those in the region with HIV have not yet turned 30.
Young people are particularly vulnerable. They face poverty and unemployment. They face trafficking in drugs and humans. And they face the impact of economic migration and violence. All of these problems feed the trades in people and drugs that, in turn, feed the HIV epidemic.
Young people are the least likely to know about HIV or how to protect themselves from infection and least likely to have access to the services that they need. At the same time, they are the solution to this epidemic. This makes their participation in programmes absolutely crucial.
That is why UNICEF works with young people to help governments and communities tackle the gravest health crisis facing them today.
We aim to ensure that young people have access to the information they need to protect themselves and others. But we know that information alone is not enough to stem the HIV tide. So, like the Lions, we support life-skills based education to help children and young people develop essential skills such as communication, critical thinking and decision-making that can help them protect themselves against infection.
Lions supported materials in skills-building and citzenship, distributed by your close partner Tacade, have been important resources when it comes to promoting young people's health, development and participation
Like you, we believe that young people have the right to be involved in the decisions that affect them. We know from our own experience, that the more young people participate in decisions, the more they develop confidence, skills and aspirations. And the more they are involved in development programmes, the more effective those programmes become.
That is why young people take an active part in UNICEF programmes, particularly in HIV/AIDS. Some of the most successful initiatives to prevent the spread of HIV in our region are being designed and implemented by young people themselves, with UNICEF offering support and guidance.
Children and young people also need a voice. We support programmes across our region that give them that voice. There are Children’s Parliaments in such countries as Albania, Georgia and Turkey, giving youngsters the chance to debate key issues and share their views with adult politicians.
There is the Young People’s Media Network (YPMN) – a network of young people across our region who will be tomorrow's journalists and, we hope, leaders in their communities and nations. YPMN forges partnerships between hundreds of young people's media projects and organisations like your own, as well as with media organizations.
And that word, “partnerships”, sums up how we work in the region. It is only through partnership that we can ensure all rights for all children. Who can make a difference for children? Who is working with and for children? Who should or could do more?
No single organisation working in isolation can hope to guarantee all rights for all children. That is why we work in partnership across the region, with organizations like your own, with governments, with our sister UN agencies, with children and young people, with anyone who can make a difference. We hope that we can build on our links with the Lions to build a region that is fit for children.