* * * EMBARGOED UNTIL 5 AM GMT (Midnight EST), SATURDAY 23 MARCH
Spring brings a new beginning
Afghanistan's schools triumphantly open; UNICEF calls it 'reminder to all of us'
Classrooms Open at 3,000 Schools; At Least 1.5 Million Children Attend First Day
KABUL / GENEVA / NEW YORK, 23 March 2002 - The United Nations Children's Fund today lauded the Afghan Interim Administration for its "relentless commitment to education," as 3,000 schools across Afghanistan threw open their doors to more than 1.5 million girls and boys, many of whom were entering a formal classroom for the first time in six years.
Calling the opening of Afghan schools just three months after the interim government came into existence "an inspiration to us all," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy praised the people and leaders of Afghanistan for their "unwavering dedication to children."
"Just getting to this day took enormous effort," Bellamy said Saturday in Kabul. "That effort and dedication began with the Afghan Interim Administration. It made education a priority from day one of its existence, and has never relented. There is a lesson for the whole world in that kind of commitment to children."
Bellamy made her remarks during a festive celebration of the new school year led by the Chairman of the Afghan Interim Administration, Hamid Karzai. They were joined by Education Minister Rasoul Amin, United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan Lakdar Brahimi, an invited audience of diplomats and donors, and some 3,000 school children and teachers at a Kabul high school. The Afghan school year traditionally begins with the arrival of spring, following a break during the winter months.
Between 1.5 million and 2 million children were expected to turn out for the first day of school across Afghanistan, out of an estimated school-age population of some 4.5 million children. Over the last several weeks UNICEF supported the Afghan Administration's efforts to open schools by delivering more than 7,000 tonnes of learning materials to virtually every school in the country, supplying 93 per cent with the items by opening day. The supplies included textbooks, blackboards, pencils and notebooks, teaching aids, tents for use as makeshift classrooms, and other teaching and learning materials.
It was UNICEF's largest logistical effort ever in support of education, and was just one component of an Afghan back-to-school campaign led by the new administration that mobilized teachers, registered children, readied school facilities, and organized a curriculum and an entire educational structure virtually from scratch.
"Over the last few months, the incredible efforts of the Afghan people to get their children back to school has reminded us all about the importance of education in the life of any nation - and in the peace and stability of our world," Bellamy said. "You have inspired us to look at what might be possible in other countries where millions of girls and boys never get the chance to go to school." Globally, more than 120 million are left out of school every year.
Bellamy said the Afghan example demonstrated what was possible when leaders not only commit themselves to the best interests of children, but follow through with concrete action. She said the United Nations Special Session on Children coming up May 8-10 in New York would be another important moment when leaders could make good on promises for children.
"Nothing could be more important for overall development and peace than education," Bellamy said. "Education is the foundation of a healthy, productive, growing society. It breaks the cycle of poverty by offering young people knowledge and skills. It instills a sense of optimism, brings healing to communities that have suffered too long from conflict, and promotes peace. Hopefully Afghanistan will reap all of these benefits."
UNICEF noted that much remains to be done to ensure the Afghan education system lives up to the promise of its first extraordinary day. "Today between 1.5 million and 2 million Afghan children are returning to school. But there are more who have not yet registered, who are waiting to see how well things go, who are still caught in displacement camps and refugee centers. Making sure they have a place in the classroom is the next priority," Bellamy said.
An additional 1 million children may return to the public school system in April, and another million in May and June, as displaced populations return home, education officials estimate.
While praising the Afghan Interim Administration for its leadership, Bellamy also expressed gratitude to donors from around the world who have continued to support the school campaign. She thanked the governments of Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Sweden for their particular generosity. UNICEF alone has spent $22 million on the school effort thus far, and plans to spend a total of $45 million before the school year ends next fall.
"To the children and young people of Afghanistan I would like to say these final few words," Bellamy said in the packed auditorium. "Your parents, your teachers, your government, and many others around the world have worked hard to offer you a fresh start in school. That is our responsibility as adults. Now it is your turn: Make the most of it. Listen to your teachers, learn everything you can, ask questions, and keep your minds open to ideas. And never let anyone take school away from you. It is your right -- and that goes for both boys and girls."
For further information, please contact:
Alfred Ironside, UNICEF Media, New York (1-212) 326-7261
For Broadcasters: A new B-roll videotape is available that details the back-to-school effort in Afghanistan, including interviews with children and teachers in several parts of the country, and officials of the Interim Administration. The B-roll also includes footage of Afghanistan's hidden famine and the campaign to immunize all Afghanistan's children against measles. To preview scripts and sequences or to order a tape please visit: http://www.unicef.org/broadcast/brolls/. Also available from the website are broadcast-quality downloadable radio interviews and sound material.