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Haiti faces major education challenge

Thursday, 20 May 1999: Less than half of all Haitians can read and write. Over half of the nation's children fail to reach the fifth grade. And only one in five young people reach secondary school.

These figures reflect an educational crisis found throughout the developing world, a situation which leaves one billion people illiterate, with girls outnumbering boys two to one among of those who receive no education at all. UNICEF is spotlighting this crisis in specific regions in the wake of The State of the World’s Children 1999, the agency’s wide-ranging examination of challenges to the right of all children to basic education.

"Haiti's educational system has utterly failed for as many as half of that nation's children," Sheldon Shaeffer, chief of UNICEF's Education Section, said. "It is a major violation of human rights to consign children, by denying them education, to lives of poverty and disease."

According to UNICEF figures, 58 per cent of Haiti's current educational facilities were not built originally to serve as schools. Many classrooms are so overcrowded that only one in four children has a place to sit. And almost two-thirds of all children abandon primary school before completing the six-year course.

In real terms, Mr. Shaeffer stated, more than one million primary school-age children in Haiti simply have no access to education. As a result, Haiti has an illiteracy rate of over 55 per cent, the highest in the Americas. In addition, the vast majority of schools lack trained teachers and less than half the children have access to textbooks.

"It is not unusual," the education chief added, "to find an unqualified first grade teacher who must deal with students who are six to 16 years old in a class with more than 50 children -- all clamoring for attention."

Mr. Shaeffer said UNICEF is working with the Haitian Ministry of Education to improve existing schools and reach children who have dropped out. But he said school reform in Haiti will require substantial input from donor nations. A major thrust should be to strengthen and empower free, public education through improvement of facilities, provision of adequate materials and radically upgraded teacher training.

A phenomenon in Haiti, common throughout the developing world, is that children are often forced into alternatives to school, such as domestic servitude, child labour or life in the streets. It is estimated that there are 300,000 Haitian children working as domestic servants, approximately 80 per cent of whom are girls under 14 years of age. Many of these children are maltreated.

Some 5,000 additional Haitian youngsters are street children. These include some who have escaped from domestic servitude and others who have come to the cities seeking opportunities which did not materialise.

"Education is central to providing these children with ways to improve their lives," Mr. Shaeffer noted. "Because so few educational opportunities exist for them, UNICEF has developed a highly flexible, informal approach to providing basic education which attempts to respond to the needs of individual children. School schedules are adjusted to children's availability and the curriculum offers them the opportunity to acquire basic knowledge along with personal and professional skills."

Girls should be given an equal place in Haiti's educational future, Shaeffer asserted. That will mean finding ways to deal with the economic realities which force large numbers of girls into domestic servitude. UNICEF is working to improve the information base on girls' education, an effort that will help develop strategies to increase girls' attendance at school and the quality of girls' education. In addition, UNICEF has supported Haiti’s Ministry of Education in the recent establishment of a Commission on Girls’ Education.

Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1999/19

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