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UNICEF UK Ambassador Martin Bell witnesses ‘thirst for education’ in Afghanistan

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2006/Sahil
Students at Sultan Razia High School in northern Afghanistan present flowers to welcome UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies Martin Bell.

By Rachel Bonham Carter

NEW YORK, USA, 13 December 2006 – UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies Martin Bell has returned from a week-long trip to Afghanistan. He witnessed firsthand the optimism and determination of women and children in a country that is still struggling to emerge from almost three decades of civil war.

“What struck me most in Afghanistan was the thirst for education and lasting peace from the many women and children who I met,” said Mr. Bell, a former BBC war correspondent.

“In northern Afghanistan, I went to a girl’s school that was closed for three years during the Taliban years,” he continued. “The girls at the school were enthusiastic about getting an education and wanted to be teachers, doctors and journalists in the future.”

© UNICEF Afghanistan /2006/Sahil
Some 5,000 girls study at Sultan Razia High School. They are taught by 170 teachers with supplies from UNICEF.

Women’s literacy centres

Mr. Bell was talking about Sultan Razia Girls High School in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, where over 5,000 girls are being taught. Just 170 female teachers work at the school in two shifts. They receive training and educational supplies from UNICEF.

“I also met a female teacher who told me that for every school being burned down by people who did not believe that girls should get an education, they would build four more in its place,” said Mr. Bell.

This year alone, UNICEF has recruited some 8,000 female teachers and established 1,300 literacy centres for 33,000 Afghan women. Mr. Bell met with some of these women, who are learning to read and write for the very first time.

Atifa, a teacher at a UNICEF-supported Women’s Literacy Centre, explained that people in Afghanistan are increasingly realizing the importance of girls’ education. “Once our students learn something, they spread the word to their friends and relatives, and that makes a lot of families send their daughters to our centre,” she said.

© UNICEF Afghanistan /2006/Sahil
Workers at the UNICEF-supported Ayenda Durokhshan Salt Iodization Plant in Afghanistan, where iodine deficiency is a major public health problem.

Maternal and child health

Mr. Bell also visited health centres and hospitals where UNICEF provides vital equipment and training to improve maternal and child health.

The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan remains one of the world’s highest; an Afghan woman dies from pregnancy-related complications every 27 minutes. Meanwhile, some 600 children under the age of five die every day from preventable causes such as diarrhoeal dehydration, malaria and undernutrition.

A UNICEF-supported salt iodization plant in Kabul, also on Mr. Bell’s itinerary, supplies an estimated 5,000 people living in and around the Afghan capital. Iodine deficiency, a major public health problem in Afghanistan, can cause mental retardation, poor intellectual capacity, high infant and child mortality, and an increased risk of stillbirths – but is easily prevented through the use of iodized salt.

While visiting these and other UNICEF projects around the country, Mr. Bell met with village elders, street children and former child soldiers to get their perspectives on progress made and challenges ahead in Afghanistan.




13 December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Rachel Bonham Carter reports on UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies Martin Bell’s trip to Afghanistan.
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