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Child Alert Afghanistan: Martin Bell reports on children caught in war

UNICEF Image: Child Alert Afghanistan
© UNICEF/HQ07-1284/Noorani
UNICEF UK Goodwill Ambassador and former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell.

NEW YORK, USA, 25 October 2007 – Caught in the crossfire and out of reach of humanitarian assistance, far too many children in Afghanistan are missing out on schooling and health care, even though significant progress has been made in these areas.

Those are the broad conclusions of a UNICEF Child Alert report being launched in Geneva today.

The multimedia Child Alert is authored and presented by Martin Bell, former BBC war reporter and current UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies, based on a two-week trip to Afghanistan in July and August.

Progress and challenges

The report takes note of considerable improvements in the health, nutrition and education sectors that have been achieved in recent years.

The majority of the population now has access to a basic package of health services, for example. Routine immunization coverage rose from 56 per cent in 2001 to 90 per cent in 2006, and 95 per cent of children now receive vitamin A supplements.

And there have been substantial increases in school enrolment. One-third of the children in school today are girls, up from about 3 per cent when the Taliban were in power.

‘Make-or-break time’

Comprising a written report, six videos and three radio features, the Child Alert also chronicles the dire situation facing millions of children across Afghanistan stemming from violence, a decaying and under-resourced health system and unabated attacks on schools.

“Six years after the fall of the Taliban, this should be a time of brightness for Afghans, but instead they are entering into some kind of darkness,” said Mr. Bell, who made his second trip to the country for this report. 

UNICEF Image: Child Alert Afghanistan
© UNICEF/HQ07-1110/Noorani
A first-grade student at a tent school in Bamyan Province. There are no official schools nearby, but 134 children attend informal classes here.

“Despite a multitude of plans and proposals, projects and partners, and the support of many countries working to bring peace and progress to Afghanistan, I have witnessed a spike in insecurity that is causing more and more schools to close and more and more children to be killed,” he added. “Families, especially in the south, are caught in the middle of this crossfire, out of reach of humanitarian assistance.

“Simply put, it is make-or-break time for Afghanistan’s children.”

Girls’ education and maternal health

With conflict overtaking large swathes of Afghanistan, the Child Alert highlights the urgent need to pull together the security necessary to allow children to go to school. Forty-four school attacks occurred in the first six months of 2007, ripping away at the very fabric of society.

Girls’ schools and at times girls themselves are targeted, stalling or reversing their educational progress and causing attendance to drop significantly in secondary schools. Fear is a strong deterrent, as ‘night letters’ carrying threats to teachers and parents often cause families to keep their children home.

The Child Alert also argues strongly for the government and international donors to address Afghanistan’s woeful maternal mortality rate.

“Being a child in Afghanistan means waking every morning unsure if your walk to school will come under gunfire,” said UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan Catherine Mbengue. “It means perhaps growing up without a mother because she died in the one of the most dangerous countries in the world to give birth.”

UNICEF Image: Child Alert Afghanistan
© UNICEF/HQ07-1074/Noorani
A health worker vaccinates a child against polio outside Mirwais Regional Hospital in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

Successful efforts

Accompanied by UNICEF Afghanistan Communication Officer Roshan Khadivi, producer David Koch and cameraman Sebastian Rich, Mr. Bell visited street children in Kabul and women in makeshift factories in Herat, who earn $2 a day with their babies suspended above them.

In a prison housing 49 women and their 35 children, he met girls who had been forced to marry men old enough to be their grandfathers. When they tried escaping abuse, they were imprisoned for bad behaviour.

But he also witnessed the effects of successful efforts such as the UNICEF-supported polio eradication campaign, which saw new cases drop from 31 in 2006 to 11 so far this year. UNICEF offers vaccinations to children on both sides of the border crossing with Pakistan, and vaccinators – flanked by armed guards – aim to wipe out the disease by 2008.

“This is immunization under the gun,” Mr. Bell says in one of the Child Alert video reports that paint a vivid portrait of the many challenges facing Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children.




UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies Martin Bell recounts the trials of childhood in Afghanistan.
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