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Press release

UNICEF lauds Iraqi "commonsense" push to return to school

In a social vacuum, a school desk is a child's

PARIS/GENEVA/New York, 25 APRIL 2003 -Iraqi children must be allowed to resume their schooling without delay, the Executive Director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, said today.

The UNICEF chief praised what she called "the innate wisdom" of Iraqi parents and educators who are pushing for the prompt resumption of classes throughout Iraq.
They must be "supported, encouraged, lauded, and imitated" for the speed with which children have already begun to return to school throughout the country.

Bellamy said that school is a crucial indicator of a society's ability to function, especially as part of any post-conflict recovery and reconstruction effort.

"I cannot emphasise too strongly the importance of re-establishing and strengthening schooling at the earliest possible date," Bellamy said. "Schools have a vital role in the recovery effort, not only because of their educational function, but as centres around which communities can begin to heal themselves, while serving as entry points for interventions like health education, psychosocial support and nutritional assistance."

Bellamy noted her concern that despite schools re-opening in areas of the north and south of the country, Baghdad had yet to resume.

"Things are unpredictable in Iraq right now," said Bellamy. "Where would parents rather have their children during the day? Sitting at a school desk, or participating in political and ideological demonstrations? There are large urban areas contaminated by dangerous sub-munitions, and daily reports of unattended children being injured and killed. Kick-starting school now is common sense for kids, parents, and teachers. That's why we are seeing schools opening spontaneously."

In recent days UNICEF has been approached by senior Ministry of Education administrators, teachers, and parents, who are anxious to open schools in Baghdad immediately. Bellamy said that the issues related to curriculum reform should not interfere with a child's basic right to an education, and should not be used as a reason for delaying a return to school.

"School is much more than just textbooks right now," said Bellamy. "It's a familiar touchstone of stability for parents, children, and society as a whole. It's also a safe and caring environment for children. And importantly, it provides a focal point for the distribution of aid, so that we can be sure that children, who are most vulnerable in conflicts, are receiving aid that is designated for them. The curriculum hasn't been updated for twenty years so of course it must be revised."

The challenges facing the full resumption of schooling in Iraq are daunting, UNICEF believes. Three wars in the past two decades, twelve years of sanctions, and poor governance have left in tatters an education system that was once the envy of the Arab world. No new
schools have been constructed since 1985, despite a population that has increased by more than half, and the rapid expansion of cities.

"Yes, the challenges are huge," Bellamy said. "But it's 9am in Iraq, and the children are going back to school. Iraq is getting back to business. We need to support this impulse."

UNICEF will support the return of Iraqi children to school with emergency education supplies for children and teachers, emergency repairs to water points and toilets, as well as sports kits. Psycho-social programmes for children will be grounded in a classroom context. In addition, UNICEF and partners will support short and medium-term teacher orientation, even as assessments are made for restoring a full-blown education system.

Notes on Education

  • 5,000 new schools need to be built just to accommodate increased population over the past 20 years.
  • 6,000 - 7,000 schools need rehabilitating. Many schools have no glass in the windows, and no electricity. Toilets are often broken.
  • Teachers have classes of up to 70 children per classroom.
  • Children are schooled in shifts to reduce over-crowding.
  • The educational decay has demoralized teachers (paid an average of $5 per month), and children.
  • Prior to the Gulf War, 92 per cent of all school age children attended school. By the start of 2003, this number had dropped to 76.4 per cent. Almost 1 in 4 kids no longer get an education. Most of these are girls. 31 per cent of girls do not attend primary school, while 17.5 per cent of boys miss out.
  • As a result of the conflict, many schools were the target of looters, who stole furniture, books, and teaching equipment. They also damaged buildings. Still other schools were used by Iraqi forces to store their munitions, while US forces used schools for shelter in the North. Some schools were bombed.

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UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, foundations, businesses, and governments. Contributions to UNICEF's ongoing support for Iraq children can be made at http://www.supportunicef.org/

For further information please contact us:.

Simon Ingram, UNICEF Iraq (in Amman): (962-79) 504-2058
Gordon Weiss, UNICEF Media, New York: (1-212) 326-7426
Damien Personnaz, UNICEF Media, Geneva: (41-22) 909-5517

For interviews in the region, write or call directly to the UNICEF NewsDesk in Amman:

(962-79) 50422058




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