Farewell note from departing UNICEF Representative Kari Egge.
When I was leaving for Iran, three years ago, many people thought that I was extremely brave to take up the assignment as the UNICEF Representative here. People had preconceived ideas about living and working in Iran especially as a woman. I decided, however, to come with an open mind and have found the people of Iran to be committed, hospitable, interested and cooperative. Not once have I felt my gender to be an obstacle in my work.
Much has been achieved in the three years I have been here. I have seen strong government commitment on child and maternal health, education and early child care and HIV/AIDS grow. I see that Iran is among countries in the region with the greatest potential to sustain economic and social development indicators. Major progress is also visible in increased access to primary health services. Immunisation rates are impressively high – they are above 95% for the 6 major child-killer diseases. And of course there is Bam. Last week I made my last trip down there and I was struck by how much has been achieved since the earthquake. Buildings are now being constructed, schools rebuilt, work has started on the new citadel and the new hospital is fully operational. Progress is not only evident in physical reconstruction – people’s attitudes are changing too as they see their dreams and plans become reality.
But there are challenges.
There are significant disparities between provinces. In areas where UNICEF is now working, such as Sistan and Baluchistan and Hormozgan, it is clear that girls are missing out or being left behind. Many do not complete primary school and retention and transition to high school is very low. This is mainly because of the low quality of schooling, inexperienced teachers and negative attitudes towards girls’ education.
Education is critical to development. It is education that will provide the next generation with the tools to fight poverty and disease and it is parity in education that will ensure a future in which girls and boys are equally safe, healthy, protected and empowered.
If you look at the latest reports of human development indicators, Iran is doing very well.
But if there are 98% of children in school, we need to focus on the 2% who are not in school; if Iran has 90% immunization coverage, the focus should turn to the 10% of children who may die of disease.
Iran must also acknowledge that half its population is women. More focus needs to be placed on women’s empowerment and participation from the grassroots to the parliament for them to be able to realize their full potential. For women to have the opportunity to participate in the development of Iran, the Convention on the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) must soon be ratified. This will guarantee that women are not only recognized as full human beings but that also their rights to development are monitored by the international community.
I would also like to take this opportunity to raise another important issue – the death penalty for children. This is an issue that attracts a lot of negative publicity for the country, but most importantly, our concern is about the children on the death roll. There has been progress- for e.g. actions taken by the government to suspend certain cases and a moratorium placed on the death penalty for minors by the Judiciary, but still, children are being executed. This contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child which Iran has ratified. Ratification means that the state has taken on the obligation to respect the rights of children and protect them from any form of harmful practices. The death penalty is a severely harmful practice and most countries around the world have abolished it. I seriously urge Iran to follow their example.
Finally, a subject that is very close to my heart – HIV/AIDS. Although prevalence is low, there are signs that the situation may change very rapidly. HIV/AIDS prevalence is no longer limited to drug users and prisoners. The virus is here in the general population and it is spreading fast. The latest statistics reveal that the new cases are among young people between the ages of 15 to 24, and especially among girls and young women. Iran has one of the youngest populations in the world - at least 70% are under the age of 30. The spread of the pandemic among the young needs to be confronted urgently. We need to raise awareness in schools and among the general public and we have to start with children from early school age.
Iran has been selected as a champion country for the upcoming Global Campaign on Children and AIDS. This is a golden opportunity for Iran to show to the world that it takes the threat of AIDS seriously and that we all care about the rights of the young generation to prevention and protection against the disease. The window that people thought was fully open a few years ago is closing and it is closing fast. It is time to act now. When I worked in Africa, I lost many colleagues and friends to the epidemic. I have seen how victims suffer and I seriously hope we can avoid this in Iran. Children suffer the most as they are often orphaned or kicked out of school because of stigma and discrimination. I don’t think Iran would like to see a similar situation develop here. AIDS is a very expensive epidemic and in all countries affected by the disease we have seen strong set backs in terms of economic growth and social development. With the government’s focus on poverty eradication, I am sure that they will take this issue very seriously as we all know that the poor are much more at risk of infection and that poor girls and women are the most vulnerable. So let’s start with the children and women and start now.